It was fifteen or twenty years ago. We took the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria, then turned left and continued along the sea until Mersa Matruh, the famous port used by Queen Cleopatra and General Rommel alike. From there, the road turns right, through the desert to the oasis of Siwa, some 200 miles away. White cliffs, lakes of salty silver water, and forests of palm trees were there to greet us. Alexander the Great had once travelled here, well over two thousand years ago.
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Alexander the Great set out into the desert, a lethal desert, where centuries before the army of the great Persian King Cambyses, comprised of some 50,000 men, had disappeared, both men and possessions, while attempting to reach the oasis of Siwa. Alexander’s purpose was exactly this oasis. For at Siwa, in the midst of palm trees, rose the temple of the oracle Zeus Ammon; a cult that was particularly dear to Olympias, Alexander’s mother. Hadn’t she declared, after all, that Alexander was not the son of Philippe, but rather the progeny of a god, of Zeus Ammon? And so this voyage through the desert assumed a spiritual character, intimate, approaching the supernatural even.
Yet, as is often the case with Alexander, another reason was altogether more practical. In Egypt, enormous temples abounded, administered by powerful priests who, despite multiple invasions, maintained their power, prestige, and fortune. Alexander, the ever-tactful strategist, recognized the difficulty of convincing these priests, obstinate and narrow-minded, proud and arrogant, and above all rich, to play his game. On the other hand, a site of pilgrimage, such as Siwa, famous for its oracles, known and even well known, yet lesser and peripheral at the same time, was presided over by a clergy that lacked the power and riches of the other great temples of Egypt, was all that Alexander needed. He knew, for example, he would have been unable to win over the priests of Karnak, the religious capital of Egypt at the time. But if he showered the priests of Siwa with gold and praise, overcome with flattery, they would proclaim right away what he had come to hear, they would declare that Alexander was the true son of the god Ammon.
Alexander knew full well that the priests of Siwa were scoundrels and charlatans. All it would take was a few meager offerings for them to establish and recognize him as the son of Ammon. Thus, thanks to them, he would become the heir of the pharaohs and emperors. And so he began his march to Siwa with a political goal in mind. But, deep within himself, perhaps Alexander really left in order to meet his true father.
The site of Siwa was not chosen at random to house the temple of the oracle of Ammon. In the times before history, well before the birth of the cult of Ammon, in a truly distant past, the oasis had been recognized as a sacred place, a site possessed of a great energy. After the advent in ancient Egypt of pharaohs and high priests, the site naturally became sacred for the emerging cults, including the cult of Ammon, centuries before the arrival of Alexander.
During this time, crooked priests directed the site. In the same fashion as many other sanctuaries, the more corrupt they were, the more elaborate the rituals became, with sparkling costumes, herb-scented clouds of smoke, and the walls covered with garishly made bas-reliefs. All of which functioned, by design, to impress and intimidate the naïve and innocent. The temple itself was not particularly grand, it was in fact rather small for and ancient Egyptian temple, but it was rich. And so pilgrims from all over the known world came seeking favors.
Alexander arrived in Siwa not a great conqueror, but rather as a most humble pilgrim. He entered the temple alone. Faced with the priests, he was not without a few concerns. Endlessly cognizant of the threats against him, he was suspicious of everyone, even the priests. They could have been bought off and might have taken advantage of this moment to attempt an assassination. Alexander, for his part, was not unprepared, and had taken certain precautions. Although without his army, he had surveyed and scrutinized his surroundings. He kept a certain distance from the priests, prepared to react to the slightest suspect movement. There were probably, he thought, corridors he could take should the need to flee arise. The priests performed their rituals, becoming more and more elaborate as they progressed, all of which failed to move Alexander in the least. He knew it was all a charade; he was anything but credulous.
However, gradually, while the ceremony of enthronement continued, Alexander started to become conscious of the atmosphere of Siwa. He sensed an energy emanating from the ground, invisible to the priests who continued on with their salamalecs. In the temple there was also a question of light—the flames, the candles, and the torches—that played a great role in the rituals. Everything was calculated in this game of shadow and light. Alexander, for his part, continued to absorb this strange energy that radiated from below.
Suddenly, he knew that he was being protected and that no harm would come to him. He confidently advanced towards the priests. None of his fellow Macedonians were with him, he was alone opposite forty-or-so priests who twisted and turned in every direction. He found himself in the center of the priests, certain that he was safe. This was the true initiation. It was this phenomenon, not the rites of the priests who chanted over and over that he was the son of Ammon, but rather the energy that permeated his body, seized him, and spoke to him. His conviction grew stronger and clearer: the energy of the light, this energy purified all that was permeating his body—it was what he had hope for in coming to Siwa—and which, perhaps, would allow him to combat and defeat the shadow within him.
The official initiation, which would be heralded throughout the known world, and would receive quite a few embellishments in later accounts, was of much lesser importance with regard to what Alexander experienced at Siwa.
After this theatrical and political ceremony, and yet profoundly moving for Alexander, he remained in strangely particular state of consciousness, as if between two worlds. He found himself in a small room of stone walls. Was he still in the temple? Was it a chapel outside the temple? The room was without decoration, without a single statue on the walls, not even a bas-relief, with very little light coming from one or two oil lamps. In one direction, a small portal gave onto a dark space. Alexander made everyone leave; he remained alone, wearing a dark cape, almost black, and without sleeves. Scented herbs burned atop charcoal releasing fragrant clouds of smoke. He felt the sensation of contact with forces from another level. Over the course of a few moments, the most intense of his life, he spoke with his destiny. Alexander was not a man who received instructions from above, like one receives orders. He spoke with his Fate about all that he had done, of all he would do, of what he must do, and of what he desired most. Nightfall came to pass, it was dark. At times Alexander would remain still and very straight, at others he would pace back and forth. His “interlocutor” was present, yet imperceptible and immaterial. It was not a simple vision, it was not merely a moment of intuition. Alexander experienced an indescribable transcendence that made clear the nature of his destiny.
Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Les mystères d’Alexandre le Grand, Flammarion, September 2014.
All photographs by Justin Creedy-Smith