Gateway to the Classics: Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alexander the Great by  Jacob Abbott

Alexander in Egypt

A FTER completing the subjugation of Tyre, Alexander commenced his march for Egypt. His route led him through Judea. The time was about three hundred years before the birth of Christ, and, of course, this passage of the great conqueror through the land of Israel took place between the historical periods of the Old Testament and of the New, so that no account of it is given in the sacred volume.

There was a Jewish writer named Josephus, who lived and wrote a few years after Christ, and, of course, more than three hundred years after Alexander. He wrote a history of the Jews, which is a very entertaining book to read; but he liked so much to magnify the importance of the events in the history of his country, and to embellish them with marvelous and supernatural incidents, that his narratives have not always been received with implicit faith. Josephus says that, as Alexander passed through Palestine, he went to pay a visit to Jerusalem. The circumstances of this visit, according to his account, were these.

The city of Tyre, before Alexander besieged it, as it lived entirely by commerce, and was surrounded by the sea, had to depend on the neighboring countries for a supply of food. The people were accordingly accustomed to purchase grain in Phœnicia, in Judea, and in Egypt, and transport it by their ships to the island. Alexander, in the same manner, when besieging the city, found that he must depend upon the neighboring countries for supplies of food; and he accordingly sent requisitions for such supplies to several places, and, among others, to Judea. The Jews, as Josephus says, refused to send any such supplies, saying that it would be inconsistent with fidelity to Darius, under whose government they were.

Alexander took no notice of this reply at the time, being occupied with the siege of Tyre; but, as soon as that city was taken, and he was ready to pass through Judea, he directed his march toward Jerusalem with the intention of destroying the city.

Now the chief magistrate at Jerusalem at this time, the one who had the command of the city, ruling it, of course, under a general responsibility to the Persian government, was the high priest. His name was Jaddus. In the time of Christ, about three hundred years after this, the name of the high-priest, as the reader will recollect, was Caiaphas. Jaddus and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were very much alarmed. They knew not what to do. The siege and capture of Tyre had impressed them all with a strong sense of Alexander's terrible energy and martial power, and they began to anticipate certain destruction.

Jaddus caused great sacrifices to be offered to Almighty God, and public and solemn prayers were made, to implore his guidance and protection. The next day after these services, he told the people that they had nothing to fear. God had appeared to him in a dream, and directed him what to do. "We are not to resist the conqueror," said he, "but to go forth to meet him and welcome him. We are to strew the city with flowers, and adorn it as for a festive celebration. The priests are to be dressed in their pontifical robes and go forth, and the inhabitants are to follow them in a civic procession. In this way we are to go out to meet Alexander as he advances—and all will be well."

These directions were followed. Alexander was coming on with a full determination to destroy the city. When, however, he saw this procession, and came near enough to distinguish the appearance and dress of the high priest, he stopped, seemed surprised and pleased, and advanced toward him with an air of the profoundest deference and respect. He seemed to pay him almost religious homage and adoration. Every one was astonished. Parmenio asked him for an explanation. Alexander made the following extraordinary statement:

"When I was in Macedon, before setting out on this expedition, while I was revolving the subject in my mind, musing day after day on the means of conquering Asia, one night I had a remarkable dream. In my dream this very priest appeared before me, dressed just as he is now. He exhorted me to banish every fear, to cross the Hellespont boldly, and to push forward into the heart of Asia. He said that God would march at the head of my army, and give me the victory over all the Persians. I recognize this priest as the same person that appeared to me then. He has the same countenance, the same dress, the same stature, the same air. It is through his encouragement and aid that I am here, and I am ready to worship and adore the God whose service he administers."

Alexander joined the high priest in the procession, and they returned to Jerusalem together. There Alexander united with them and with the Jews of the city in the celebration of religious rites, by offering sacrifices and oblations in the Jewish manner. The writings which are now printed together in our Bibles, as the Old Testament, were, in those days, written separately on parchment rolls, and kept in the temple. The priests produced from the rolls the one containing the prophecies of Daniel, and they read and interpreted some of these prophecies to Alexander, which they considered to have reference to him, though written many hundred years before. Alexander was, as Josephus relates, very much pleased at the sight of these ancient predictions, and the interpretation put upon them by the priests. He assured the Jews that they should be protected in the exercise of all their rights, and especially in their religious worship, and he also promised them that he would take their brethren who resided in Media and Babylon under his special charge when he should come into possession of those places. These Jews of Media and Babylon were the descendants of captives which had been carried away from their native land in former wars.

Such is the story which Josephus relates. The Greek historians, on the other hand, make no mention of this visit to Jerusalem; and some persons think that it was never made, but that the story arose and was propagated from generation to generation among the Jews, through the influence of their desire to magnify the importance and influence of their worship, and that Josephus incorporated the account into his history without sufficiently verifying the facts.

However it may be in regard to Jerusalem, Alexander was delayed at Gaza, which, as may be seen upon the map, is on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a place of considerable commerce and wealth, and was, at this time, under the command of a governor whom Darius had stationed there. His name was Betis. Betis refused to surrender the place. Alexander stopped to besiege it, and the siege delayed him two months. He was very much exasperated at this, both against Betis and against the city.

His unreasonable anger was very much increased by a wound which he received. He was near a mound which his soldiers had been constructing near the city, to place engines upon for an attack upon the walls, when an arrow, shot from one of the engines upon the walls struck him in the breast. It penetrated his armor, and wounded him deeply in the shoulder. The wound was very painful for some time, and, the suffering which he endured from it only added fuel to the flame of his anger against the city.

At last breaches were made in the walls, and the place was taken by storm. Alexander treated the wretched captives with extreme cruelty. He cut the garrison to pieces, and sold the inhabitants to slavery. As for Betis, he dealt with him in a manner almost too horrible to be described. The reader will recollect that Achilles, at the siege of Troy, after killing Hector, dragged his dead body around the walls of the city. Alexander, growing more cruel as he became more accustomed to war and bloodshed, had been intending to imitate this example so soon as he could find an enemy worthy of such a fate. He now determined to carry his plan into execution with Betis. He ordered him into his presence. A few years before, he would have rewarded him for his fidelity in his master's service; but now, grown selfish, hard hearted, and revengeful, he looked upon him with a countenance full of vindictive exultation, and said,

"You are not going to die the simple death that you desire. You have got the worst torments that revenge can invent to suffer."

Betis did not reply, but looked upon Alexander with a calm, and composed, and unsubdued air, which incensed the conqueror more and more.

"Observe his dumb arrogance," said Alexander; "but I will conquer him. I will show him that I can draw groans from him, if nothing else."

He then ordered holes to be made through the heels of his unhappy captive, and, passing a rope through them, had the body fastened to a chariot, and dragged about the city till no life remained.

Alexander found many rich treasures in Gaza. He sent a large part of them to his mother Olympias, whom he had left in Macedon. Alexander's affection for his mother seems to have been more permanent than almost any other good trait in his character. He found, in addition to other stores of valuable merchandise, a large quantity of frankincense and myrrh. These are gums which were brought from Arabia, and were very costly. They were used chiefly in making offerings and in burning incense to the gods.

When Alexander was a young man in Macedon, before his father's death, he was one day present at the offering of sacrifices, and one of his teachers and guardians, named Leonnatus, who was standing by, thought he was rather profuse in his consumption of frankincense and myrrh. He was taking it up by handfuls and throwing it upon the fire. Leonnatus reproved him for this extravagance, and told him that when he became master of the countries where these costly gums were procured, he might be as prodigal of them as he pleased, but that in the mean time it would be proper for him to be more prudent and economical. Alexander remembered this reproof, and, finding vast stores of these expensive gums in Gaza, he sent the whole quantity to Leonnatus, telling him that he sent him this abundant supply that he might not have occasion to be so reserved and sparing for the future in his sacrifices to the gods.

After this conquest and destruction of Gaza, Alexander continued his march southward to the frontiers of Egypt. He reached these frontiers at the city of Pelusium. The Egyptians had been under the Persian dominion, but they abhorred it, and were very ready to submit to Alexander's sway. They sent embassadors to meet him upon the frontiers. The governors of the cities, as he advanced into the country, finding that it would be useless to resist, and warned by the terrible example of Thebes, Tyre, and Gaza, surrendered to him as fast as he summoned them.

He went to Memphis. Memphis was a great and powerful city, situated in what was called Lower Egypt, on the Nile, just above where the branches which form the mouths of the Nile separate from the main stream. All that part of Egypt is flat country, having been formed by the deposits brought down by the Nile. Such land is called alluvial;  it is always level, and, as it consists of successive deposits from the turbid waters of the river, made in the successive inundations, it forms always a very rich soil, deep and inexhaustible, and is, of course, extremely fertile. Egypt has been celebrated for its unexampled fertility from the earliest times. It waves with fields of corn and grain, and is adorned with groves of the most luxuriant growth and richest verdure.

It is only, however, so far as the land is formed by the deposits of the Nile, that this scene of verdure and beauty extends. On the east it is bounded by ranges of barren and rocky hills, and on the west by vast deserts, consisting of moving sands, from which no animal or vegetable life can derive the means of existence. The reason of this sterility seems to be the absence of water. The geological formation of the land is such that it furnishes few springs of water, and no streams, and in that climate it seldom or never rains. If there is water, the most barren sands will clothe themselves with some species of vegetation, which, in its decay, will form a soil that will nourish more and more fully each succeeding generation of plants. But in the absence of water, any surface of earth will soon become a barren sand. The wind will drive away every thing imponderable, leaving only the heavy sands, to drift in storms, like fields of snow.

Among these African deserts, however, there are some fertile spots. They are occasioned by springs which arise in little dells, and which saturate the ground with moisture for some distance around them. The water from these springs flows for some distance, in many cases, in a little stream, before it is finally lost and absorbed in the sands. The whole tract under the influence of this irrigation clothes itself with verdure. Trees grow up to shade it. It forms a spot whose beauty, absolutely great, is heightened by the contrast which it presents to the gloomy and desolate desert by which it is surrounded. Such a green spot in the desert is called an Oasis. They are the resort and the refuge of the traveler and the pilgrim, who seek shelter and repose upon them in their weary journeys over the trackless wilds.

Nor must it be supposed that these islands of fertility and verdure are always small. Some of them are very extensive, and contain a considerable population. There is one called the Great Oasis, which consists of a chain of fertile tracts of about a hundred miles in length. Another, called the Oasis of Siwah, has, in modern times, a population of eight thousand souls. This last is situated not far from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea—at least not very far: perhaps two or three hundred miles—and it was a very celebrated spot in Alexander's day.

The cause of its celebrity was that it was the seat and center of the worship of a famous deity called Jupiter Ammon. This god was said to be the son of Jupiter, though there were all sorts of stories about his origin and early history. He had the form of a ram, and was worshiped by the people of Egypt, and also by the Carthaginians, and by the people of Northern Africa generally. His temple was in this Oasis, and it was surrounded by a considerable population, which was supported, in a great degree, by the expenditures of the worshipers who came as pilgrims, or otherwise, to sacrifice at his shrine.

It is said that Alexander, finding that the various objects of human ambition which he had been so rapidly attaining by his victories and conquests for the past few years were insufficient to satisfy him, began now to aspire for some supernatural honors, and he accordingly conceived the design of having himself declared to be the son of a god. The heroes of Homer were sons of the gods. Alexander envied them the fame and honor which this distinction gave them in the opinion of mankind. He determined to visit the temple of Jupiter Ammon in the Oasis of Siwah, and to have the declaration of his divine origin made by the priests there.

He proceeded, accordingly, to the mouth of the Nile, where he found a very eligible place, as he believed, for the foundation of a commercial city, and he determined to build it on his return. Thence he marched along the shores of the Mediterranean, toward the west, until he reached a place called Parætonium, which will be found upon the map. He then left the sea-shore and marched south, striking at once into the desert when he left the sea. He was accompanied by a small detachment of his army as an escort, and they journeyed eleven days before they reached the Oasis.

They had a variety of perilous adventures in crossing the desert. For the first two days the soldiers were excited and pleased with the novelty and romantic grandeur of the scene. The desert has, in some degree, the sublimity of the ocean. There is the same boundless expanse, the same vast, unbroken curve of the horizon, the same tracklessness, the same solitude. There is, in addition, a certain profound and awful stillness and repose, which imparts to it a new element of impressiveness and grandeur. Its dread and solemn silence is far more imposing and sublime than the loudest thunders of the seas.

The third day the soldiers began to be weary of such a march. They seemed afraid to penetrate any further into such boundless and terrible solitudes. They had been obliged to bring water with them in goat-skins, which were carried by camels. The camel is the only beast of burden which can be employed upon the deserts. There is a peculiarity in the anatomical structure of this animal by which he can take in, at one time, a supply of water for many days. He is formed, in fact, for the desert. In his native state he lives in the oases and in the valleys. He eats the herbage which grows among the rocks and hills that alternate with the great sandy plains in all these countries. In passing from one of his scanty pasturages to another, he has long journeys to make across the sands, where, though he can find food here and there, there is no water. Providence has formed him with a structure adapted to this exigency, and by means of it he becomes extremely useful to man.

The soldiers of Alexander did not take a sufficient supply of water, and were reduced, at one time, to great distress. They were relieved, the story says, by a rain, though rain is extremely unusual in the deserts. Alexander attributed this supply to the miraculous interposition of Heaven. They catch the rain, in such cases, with cloths, and afterward wring out the water; though in this instance, as the historians of that day say, the soldiers did not wait for this tardy method of supply, but the whole detachment held back their heads and opened their mouths, to catch the drops of rain as they fell.

There was another danger to which they were exposed in their march, more terrible even than the scarcity of water. It was that of being overwhelmed in the clouds of sand and dust which sometimes swept over the desert in gales of wind. These were called sand-storms. The fine sand flew, in such cases, in driving clouds, which filled the eyes and stopped the breath of the traveler, and finally buried his body under its drifts when he laid down to die. A large army of fifty thousand men, under a former Persian king, had been overwhelmed and destroyed in this way, some years before, in some of the Egyptian deserts. Alexander's soldiers had heard of this calamity, and they were threatened sometimes with the same fate. They, however, at length escaped all the dangers of the desert, and began to approach the green and fertile land of the Oasis.

The change from the barren and dismal loneliness of the sandy plains to the groves and the villages, the beauty and the verdure of the Oasis, was delightful both to Alexander himself and to all his men. The priests at the great temple of Jupiter Ammon received them all with marks of great distinction and honor. The most solemn and magnificent ceremonies were performed, with offerings, oblations, and sacrifices. The priests, after conferring in secret with the god in the temple, came out with the annunciation that Alexander was indeed his son, and they paid him, accordingly, almost divine honors. He is supposed to have bribed them to do this by presents and pay. Alexander returned at length to Memphis, and in all his subsequent orders and decrees he styled himself Alexander king, son of Jupiter Ammon.

But, though Alexander was thus willing to impress his ignorant soldiers with a mysterious veneration for his fictitious divinity, he was not deceived himself on the subject; he sometimes even made his pretensions to the divine character a subject of joke. For instance, they one day brought him in too little fire in the focus. The focus, or fire-place used in Alexander's day was a small metallic stand, on which the fire was built. It was placed wherever convenient in the tent, and the smoke escaped above. They had put upon the focus too little fuel one day when they brought it in. Alexander asked the officer to let him have either some wood or some frankincense; they might consider him, he said, as a god or as a man, whichever they pleased, but he wished to be treated either like one or the other.


A Focus

On his return from the Oasis Alexander carried forward his plan of building a city at the mouth of the Nile. He drew the plan, it is said, with his own hands. He superintended the constructions, and invited artisans and mechanics from all nations to come and reside in it. They accepted the invitation in great numbers, and the city soon became large, and wealthy, and powerful. It was intended as a commercial post, and the wisdom and sagacity which Alexander manifested in the selection of the site is shown by the fact that the city rose immediately to the rank of the great seat of trade and commerce for all those shores, and has continued to hold that rank now for twenty centuries.

There was an island near the coast, opposite the city, called the island of Pharos. They built a most magnificent light-house upon one extremity of this island, which was considered, in those days, one of the wonders of the world. It was said to be five hundred feet high. This may have been an exaggeration. At any rate, it was celebrated throughout the world in its day, and its existence and its greatness made an impression on the human mind which has not yet been effaced. Pharos is the name for light-house, in many languages, to the present day.

In building the city of Alexandria, Alexander laid aside, for a time, his natural and proper character, and assumed a mode of action in strong contrast with the ordinary course of his life. He was, throughout most of his career, a destroyer. He roamed over the world to interrupt commerce, to break in upon and disturb the peaceful pursuits of industry, to batter down city walls, and burn dwellings, and kill men. This is the true vocation of a hero and a conqueror; but at the mouth of the Nile Alexander laid aside this character. He turned his energies to the work of planning means to do good. He constructed a port; he built warehouses; he provided accommodations and protection for merchants and artisans. The nations exchanged their commodities far more easily and extensively in consequence of these facilities, and the means of comfort and enjoyment were multiplied and increased in thousands and thousands of huts in the great cities of Egypt, and in the rural districts along the banks of the Nile. The good, too, which he thus commenced, has perpetuated itself. Alexandria has continued to fulfill its beneficent function for two thousand years. It is the only monument of his greatness which remains. Every thing else which he accomplished perished when he died. How much better would it have been for the happiness of mankind, as well as for his own true fame and glory, if doing good had been the rule of his life instead of the exception.

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