In 332 BC, two years from Alexander the Great defeated Darius’s Persian force in the decisive battle of the Granicus River, Alexander entered Egypt and began the rule of the Macedonians in Egypt, which included Ptolemaic dynasty, continued until 30 BC. However, it is interesting to note that unlike other foreign rulers in Egypt, especially the Persians, Alexander was so welcomed by Egyptians and saw even as their “savior” Why was Alexander the Great regarded as the savior by the Egyptians? Not just Egyptians’ aversion to former rulers, but as there are two main reasons have contributed to this kind of welcome shown by the Egyptians: The ruthless rule of the Persians and Alexander’s respect for the Egyptian faith.
The ruthless rule of the Persian Empire in Egypt A common illusion is that when we are studying the history of the classical antiquity, we often pay most of our attention to the Greek-Persian conflict because we are largely dependent on the Greek material to study the western policies and activities of the Persian Empire during this period, which give us a Greek-centered narrative. But from the perspective of the Persians themselves, the western policy of the Persian Empire was more concerned about elsewhere. “Between 525 and 332 they launched a total of ten campaigns against Egypt and prepared but aborted two others. The largest of all Persian military enterprises in the west was not that aimed at Greece in 480 but that aimed at Egypt in the 340s.” From these figures, we can easily see that Egypt played an important role in the rule of the Persian Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. The first Persian conquest of Egypt took place in 520s BC, when it was the Saites that ruled Egypt (Dynasty 26), which, “marked Egypt’s last appearance as a great power under native rule”
This dynasty pay great attention to the Egyptian naval forces as well as its increasing commercial contact with other Mediterranean countries, including Greek states. But its smart diplomatic policy had not saved Egypt from the annexation of the rising Persian Empire, just like the fate of most of its allies. “When the Persian Cambyses invaded the country in 525 BC it fell into his hand without much trouble.” However, there are many arguments by historians about how Cambyses actually acted in the first Persian-Egypt occupation. Herodotus depicts Cambyses as, “mentally unbalanced, quick in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt to order executions of Egyptian officials at Memphis who annoyed him, and responsible himself for the murder of the sacred Apis bull, the embodiment of Ptah, and for the termination of the cult of Apis.” In his contrary, according to the autobiography of Udjahorrsnet, an Egyptian naval officer as well as a priest, he wrote “Cambyses came to Sais. His Majesty came in person to the temple of Neith. He made a great prostration before her majesty, as every king has done.” showing Cambyses’s respect for the Egyptian faith.
Regardless of whatever the truth is, the Egyptians seemed did not adapt to be an imperial province. Because of the misrule by whether the Persian king himself of his agents in Egypt, the Egyptians began a long-term rebellion. Eventually, in 404 BC, a ruler from the Sais brought independence back to Egypt once again. Yet, Egypt as an independent country (Dynasty 28-30) had not been maintained for more than sixty years, and it was eventually ended in 343 BC.by Artaxerxes III in his Second Egyptian Campaign. During the Second Persian-Egypt occupation (Dynasty 31), the Persian king Artaxerxes III showed no mercy to Egyptians. He did everything possible to weaken Egypt to ensure that it would no longer be able to resist his rule. As Diodorus reported, “Dismantling the defenses of the principal cities, pillaging sanctuaries, and the seizure of the sacred annals, demonstrating the severity with which the Great King imposed his rule.”
We have enough reason to believe that it was the memory of this ruthless rule that made the Egyptians greatly welcome Alexander the Great just 20 years later and even regarded his conquest as a kind liberation from the Persian Empire. This partly explains why when Alexander and his fleet arrived in Pelusium, where was used to be the front line of Egypt’s resistance to the Persian invasion since Pharaonic times, the Egyptians were not organized to resist him. Instead of that, “They were welcomed, and the native Egyptians flocked in their thousands to Pelusium where they greeted Alexander as a liberator.” II. Alexander’s respect for the Egyptian faith Like most Greeks at that time, Alexander the Great’s understanding of Egypt came mainly from Herodotus’ description of Egypt in his most famous book History. In his book, Egypt was described as a mysterious and rich land. Among all of these descriptions, Herodotus wrote an oasis called Siwah, far western from the Nile valley, where the great oracle of Zeus-Ammon was located, and the 50,000 troops that Persian King Cambyses once sent to destroy it only lost in the endless desert. Holding such view of Egypt as a land of Pharaoh, Alexander’s behavior in the conquest of Egypt was largely influenced by these ideas deeply in his mind. After Alexander the Great defeated the Persian force in Battle of the Granicus, from the Syrian coast to Egypt, the only organized resistance he encountered on the way was the Gaza Fortress, a fortress that controlled the passage from the Levant to Egypt. It took Alexander two months to capture it and prepare a bloodless entry to Egypt.
In Egypt, waiting for Alexander is the Persian satrap, Mazaces, “a freshly appointed satrap, officially replacing Sauaces, who had taken his army to Issus and died in the battle there.” He knew there is no hope for him to resist the army of Alexander. In order to save his own life, without any fight, he led the entire province to surrender to Alexander the Great. But as the passage said above, when Alexander and his fleet arrived at Pelusium, even if the Persian government surrendered, the Egyptians themselves could have organized to resist this another foreign invasion like they did in history, but they did not. Since Darius III was regrouping his army in Persia, it was impossible for Alexander to maintain more troops in Egypt for the garrison. To obtain the recognition of Egyptian religious leaders was very important to him. It was Alexander’s respect of the Egyptian faith made him manage to do that and ensure Egyptians would not turn against the occupation of the Macedonians after his troops leave. From the Pelusium, Alexander and his troops marched southward along the Nile River, and in a week, he went into Heliopolis, one of Egyptian oldest religious centers.
It was also the place where priests had been educated for thousands of years, located the celebrated temple of the Sun God Ra, as Helios known to Greeks, this was the first time Alexander encountered some of the most important religious leaders in Egypt and it is also considered to be a successful one. “The king surely treated the priests at Heliopolis with great respect—in pointed contrast to the Persian king Cambyses, who had tried to destroy the holy site and tear down the nearby obelisks.” With his successful experience in Heliopolis, Alexander the Great continued to go south to Memphis，where he firstly held a big celebration for his arrival in the capital of Egypt and sacrificed many Egyptian deities. “This was a totally Hellenic celebration, marked by gymnastic and musical contests in which the most distinguished performers in the Greek world competed.” Among these sacrificed deities, the most important one was the Apis Bull, a sacred animal carefully chosen by the Egyptian priests, regarded by the Egyptians as a symbol of Ptah. And in Memphis Ptah was the God who created the whole world. Alexander was very aware that both Persian kings, Cambyses and Artaxerxes III killed the Apis Bull.
Such shame would never be forgotten by the Egyptians. In order to show the difference between himself and the Persian predecessors, he especially sacrificed Apis Bull at the temple of Ptah. Without any doubt, his behavior pleased the priests greatly. “Alexander received the age-old nomenclature of the Pharaohs: king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Son of Ra, beloved of Amun and selected of Ra, and as Horus, he was gone manifest.” After a few weeks spending in Memphis, Alexander the Great’s next move was even more famous. He returned north to the coast, then went west to try to find the Sanctuary of Ammon in the Siwah Oasis, somewhere in the endless Libyan desert. His motivation for spending his precious time even risking his life to do such a thing was really complex, both for his own religious reasons and for political considerations. For Alexander, he was so convinced that he was the son of Zeus, not Philip, and he was the one who is destined to rule the whole world. He needed the words from God to assure him of these things.
Also, according to Callisthenes, who was the first historian of Alexander accompanied him during the Asiatic expedition—the Libyan Ammon was a local manifestation of Zeus.Since there was a chance for Alexander to hear the words from the God, also his father, he even risked his life to start the journey. On the other hand, the myth that the Great King Cambyses once tried to destroy the sanctuary but lost 50,000 his troops in the desert attracted him. This could be a good opportunity to show the Egyptians his great respect for the Egyptian faith if he succeeds in reaching Siwah and got the recognition of the priests of Ammon. It will further distinguish him from the Persian predecessors. We now know that after several weeks of a hard journey, Alexander and his partners finally arrived in Siwah, and the high priest had been waiting for him at the Sanctuary of Ammon for quite days. Unlike the Greek people who used statues to represent their Gods, in Egypt, people use a little golden ship with silver cups to represent them. And some interesting things happened in the conversation of Alexander with the high priest. “The priest greeted Alexander with a paternal O paidon, meaning ‘O my child’—but with his sibilant pronunciation he changed the last letter so that it came out O paidos.
Alexander smiled at this mistake but saw in it a sign from the god. To the king, it sounded like O pai dios, which in Greek meant ‘O child of Zeus’.” After returning from Siwah to Memphis, he held another grand celebration, this time to honor Zeus Ammon, who was regarded as his father by now. However, since Darius III was still there and preparing a revenge, Alexander didn’t have too much time to waste in Egypt. Just before Alexander led his army leaving for Mesopotamia, the last thing left was to appoint the military and administration rulers of this immensely rich and populated province. In order to maintain the stability of Egypt and to ensure that his decree would be implemented without any doubt, he arranged two puppets to rule Egypt separately, Doloaspis and Petisis, both were trusted Macedonian officer. His local policies in Egypt did not oppress the Egyptians more. “The peasant farmers of Egypt would continue to farm the same land and pay the same taxes as they had since the time of the first pharaohs, only now the revenue would go to the Macedonian treasury.”
When Alexander eventually left two trusted man behind and ended his journey in Egypt, it seemed like everything he did was worthwhile. In the views of the Egyptians, he was not only the liberator of them from the Persians but also their “savior”. Let alone he established the harbor, Alexandria, the prosperous capital of the Ptolemy dynasty for nearly three hundred years. In conclusion, why was Alexander the Great regarded as the savior by the Egyptians? It was the ruthless rule of the Persians that made the Egyptians full of eagerness for a liberator. And it was Alexander’s respect for the Egyptian faith separated him from the Persians, responded to the expectations of the Egyptians. This is also why, after Alexander’s sudden death, his general Ptolemy managed to bring his body back to Alexandria in Egypt, to legitimate himself as the successor of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s behavior in Egypt was regarded as a model of the Ptolemy dynasty monarchs, showing how important the Alexander the Great was to both his successors and the Egyptians.