Print this page



Oracle of the Siwa Oasis

Entrance to the ruined Siwa Temple (2003), Egypt; walking in the footsteps of Alexander. Courtesy of Marcus Pailing.

In the winter of 332/331 B.C. Alexander made an 1100 kilometer detour in Egypt to pay a visit to the famous oracle of Siwa, situated in an oasis deep in the Libyan desert. Probably on November 14th of 332 B.C. Alexander was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt in Memphis, close to what is the present day capital of Egypt, Cairo. On April 7th of 331 B.C. Alexander was back to establish Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, the future metropolis of the Hellenistic world (although both Arrian and Plutarch record the foundation of Alexandria before the Siwa episode.) Anyway, the journey to Siwa must have happened somewhere in between those dates.

Maybe the enthronement as Pharaoh had already included divine honours to Alexander. Persian rule in Egypt - in a strange contradiction to the perception of Persian control over most other nations - might have been considered as oppressive and might have included the desacration of Egyptian holy shrines. The popular image of Alexander being welcomed as the liberator of Egypt, although Arrian limits this 'friendliness' to the Persian governor Mazaces, could be rather realistic. The whole country of Egypt fell into Alexander's hands without a single blow anyway. All our sources state that, after becoming master of Egypt, Alexander felt a strong urge (or 'pothos' if you like) to visit the oracle at Siwa.

The Siwa oasis was then called Ammonium or Hammon, its inhabitants Hammonii. It was considered to be one of the three great oracles in the ancient world, together with Delphi and Dodona (both in present day Greece). The priests of these oracles stayed in contact with each other. Especially during the Persian reign, this contact might have been quite valuable for the Siwah priests. Within the polytheistic view, there were little problems identifying the Egyptian Ammon, the Greek Zeus or the Roman Jupiter as one and the same deity.

Arrian's Account

Arrian explicitely tells us that Alexander found himself "passionately eager" to visit Siwa. Arrian refers to the tales of Perseus and Hercules, who were also believed to have ventured there, and suggests that Alexander must have had the ambition to equal himself to those mythological heroes. From present day Mersa Matruh Alexander ventured inland, accompanied by lavish rains in what was otherwise a dry and barren desert. Arrian also writes that two snakes - or two crows - were guiding Alexander and his army group inland. Because of these phenomena, he writes, he has no doubts whatever about the divine guidance of this mission.

Arrian gives a very brief summary of what actually happened when Alexander finally reached Siwah. He mentions a strange spring in the oasis: the spring water is hot during the night, cold during the day. Then he continues to say that Alexander visited the oracle and got the answers that his heart desired. That is it. Nothing more to say.

Diodorus' Account

Diodurus' story is perhaps the most vivid and entertaining account of Alexander's visit to Siwa. Diodorus talks of sudden thunderstorms, relieving Alexander's party from great thirst, and acclaims that this was a matter of divine providence. After that, we have crows guiding the army further inland. We have a description of the same spring as is mentioned by Arrian. But what is most entertaining about Diodorus, is his direct quotation of speech between Alexander and the Siwa priests.

Diodorus states that the god is represented by an image of emeralds and precious stones, which was placed on a golden boat and carried around by eighty (80!) priests. The boat is said to have moved by itself, not directed by the movement of the priests, but in fact directing the priests. There is 'speech' coming from the boat, but it is not clear whether this is actual speech or an interpretation of the movements made by the object.

Alexander aknowledges the shrine as his father, and then asks if he will indeed one day rule the whole earth. The oracle confirms this. Then Alexander asks if all the murderers of his father have been punished. Quite a stupid question, considering the situation. Subsequently the priests who interprete the answers of the god cry out loud: his real father can not be harmed by anyone, but if by chance he was referring to the mortal called Philip he should rest assured that everybody involved already has payed his penalty. After this Alexander honours the god with great gifts and returns to Egypt.

Curtius Rufus' Account

Our great source Quintus Curtius Rufus, probably the most cynical of all accounts we have, speaks of Alexander's "overwhelming desire" to visit Siwa and also of the unsual rains that facilitated Alexander's journey inland. "Whether as a gift from the gods or pure chance", Curtius writes. Again, animals (crows) are guiding Alexander through the desert.

Curtius mentions the same strange spring, with shifting temperatures opposed to the daytime sequence, and then describes the image of the god: a navel imbedded with emeralds and other jewels. The priests of Ammon address Alexander as 'son' (of Zeus, Ammon, Jupiter) and Alexander willingly accepts this title. They confirm that Alexander will rule over the world and that all murderers of Philip have already been punished. Curtius has Alexander's companions consulting the oracle as well: the oracle confirms that the god would think it is okay when they would bestow divine honours upon Alexander.

Plutarch's and Justin's Accounts

Plutarch records the same hardships for Alexander's party of getting to Siwa, but tells us it was primarily his "passion for surmounting obstacles" that made him complete the journey. Still Plutarch mentions divine assistance in the form of strange rainfall and ravens, but says that these events are in any case still more credible than the actual prophecy of the oracle. Again, in Plutarch, the Ammonic priests welcome Alexander as a 'son' and again Alexander asks the oracle if all of his father's assassins have been punished. "At this the high priest commanded him to speak more carefully", writes Plutarch.

Plutarch summarizes the event with a reflection on Alexander's behavior afterwards. When pierced by an arrow (probably in the Mallian town, India) he is to have said: "What you see here is blood, and not the ichor which flows in the veins of immortals." In the end, says Plutarch, Alexander did not allow himself to become foolishly overconfident because of his alleged divinity, but merely used it as a tool to impress others.

And finally there is Justin's account, brief as always, who states that Alexander was delighted that the 'Hammon' priests confirmed his divine origins. Alexander then goes on asking the same irrelevant question about 'his father's murderers' and his third question is answered by confirming that he will indeed once rule the entire world. Just as happened according to Curtius, his friends are told by the oracle that it is alright to venerate Alexander as a god rather than as a mortal king.


There is little evidence in the texts of our sources that after Siwa Alexander himself hold a firm believe in his divinity. It is true that he experimented with the Persian custom of proskinesis while in eastern Iran. But proskinesis was an honour traditionally bestowed on Persian kings, who although being elevated above the masses were never considered to have been conceived by a god. Proskinesis was quite modest too: it was nothing like throwing oneself on the floor in utter reverance, but a rather subtile gesture of a symbolic kiss while bowing the head in a humble way.

It is also true Alexander demanded that divine honours should be payed to him. Curtius Rufus - in a passage where he evaluates Alexander's enitire character - observes that the king reacted with excessive anger when someone refused to worship him. Arrian mentiones delegates from Greece, wearing laurel wreaths, visiting Alexander a few days before his death. The wreaths are evidence that the Greeks apparently had accepted Alexander's divinity. Whether Alexander had ever sent an official request to the Greeks to do so, is still disputed.

In Greek mythology there are generally three classes of beings: gods, men and heroes. Heroes distinguish themselves from ordinary men because, although mortal, they have supernatural origins somehow - a kind of hybrid between homo sapiens and immortal presences. Achilles was the son of the hero Peleus and the nymph Thetis. Hercules was the son of Zeus and the princess Alcmene. Perseus was the son of Zeus and the princess Danaë (her pregnancy was the result of a 'golden shower' from the god). If anything, what happened at Siwa elevated Alexander not to the level of a deity, but to the familiar concept - in Hellenic cultures that is - of a hero. In fact, the last and final hero of Antiquity.

It is very hard to put the entire matter in better words than our predecessors, who tried to understand the nature of Alexander too, already did twenty centuries ago. The best phrase might come from Quintus Curtius Rufus. Quote: "So Alexander did not just permit but actually ordered the title 'Jupiter's son' to be accorded to himself, and while he wanted such a title to add lustre to his achievements he really detracted from them." End quote.

Personal Observations

I had the privilege - though it is already long ago - to visit Siwa back in 1988. Siwa is still a delightful place and a beautiful oasis, quite a tranquil refuge from the hustle and bustle of most Egyptian cities. There is still that strange well, called 'Cleopatra's bath' nowadays, with crystal clear blue waters rising from deep beneath the desert sands and the most likely candidate for that "Water of the Sun" mentioned by our sources. (I swam in it, for the record.) However, time has gone by and there is no specific site or excavation connected to the alleged temple of the oracle of Zeus-Ammon. Those who are looking for a glimpse of Alexander's presence here, will find little or nothing.

For tales about Alexander's divinity I would gladly direct you to the original sources: Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Plutarch (all readily available in Penguin translations) or Diodorus Book XVII (17) and the epitome of Justin. Bosworth has a good short case study about Alexander's divine origins in his 'Conquest and Empire', ISBN 0-521-40679-x.

For those who want to revive or continue the Alexander cult in our modern era: the king on his deathbed explicitely told us that we should pay divine honours to him only when we ourselves feel happy (Curtius Rufus, 10.5.6.).

Written by nick

Previous page: Religion
Next page: Holy Koran