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Egypt: The Temple of Alexander the Great in the Bahariya Oasis


The Temple of Alexander the Great in the Bahariya Oasis

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Brian Rosewood


Alexander the Great


For some years, Egypt was under the control of the Persian King, and while other outside forces had ruled Egypt over the years, the Persians seem to have had few friends in Egypt. In fact, Egyptian elements had already mounted revolts, weakening the Kings hold over the country when Alexander the Great arrived at Egypt's border in the Sinai during October of 332 BC. The Egyptians, apparently seeking any relief from the Persian ruler, seem to have almost welcomed Alexander with open arms, so his armies met little resistance. Soon, he arrived with his army in Memphis, where he made an offering to the Apis bull and was crowned king of Egypt. He took as his Egyptian throne name, Setp n Ra Mery Amun.

Alexander's visit to the Western desert Siwa Oasis to consult with the Oracle of Amun, where his kingship was made divine as the son of Amun, is well documented. But apparently, this great warrior who was also one of histories grandest politicians, gained considerable respect in other areas of the Western Desert as well. Some Egyptologists believe that he may very well have traveled through the Bahariya Oasis on the way back to his new capital, Alexandria, on Egypt's northern coast. This oasis prospered considerably during his rule, and counted among its population many Greeks.

The Temple of Alexander the Great in the Bahariya Oasis

The temple of Alexander the Great located in the Bahariya Oasis has the distinction of being the Macedonian ruler's only known temple in Egypt. The temple was built during Alexander's lifetime and dedicated to Amun and Horus.

Land scape view from Temple of Alexander the Great in the Bahariya Oasis

Ahmed Fakhry never found the stela of Tuthmose II that he was searching for when he stumbled across the temple in 1938, but this discovery, very near the (then unknown) Valley of the Golden Mummies, most certainly made up for that failure. It was to be Fakhry's last day in the Bahariya Oasis and he was exploring a spring called Ain el-Tabinieh, about three miles west of El Qasr (Bawiti), that had been mentioned by Sir Gardner Wilkinson in 1837. Here, he discovered a mound surrounded by stones that he thought might be a New Kingdom temple.

Carving in Alexander the Great temple in the Bahariya Oasis

He recorded the location of the ruins, but with his funds depleted, he was forced to leave the Oasis. He would return in 1942 with enough resources to complete the excavation, and it was not until then that he discovered the true nature of his find from blocks carved with the cartouches of Alexander the Great. Later, from 1993 to 1994, Zahi Hawass, the current chairman of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), re-excavated the site, including several rooms that had never been cleared. Some excavation of the temple appears to be ongoing, though it is now open to the public1.

The temple proper is fairly large by any standard, and certainly one of the largest in the Bahariya Oasis, with at least 45 chambers built of mudbrick and encased in sandstone. Located only three hundred yards from the Valley of the Golden Mummies, a necropolis that was probably situated purposefully near the temple, the entrance to the temple was on the south end of the structure, accessed through a gate. Just outside the temple, a red granite altar was discovered. It should be noted that red granite is not found in any of the western oasis, so it must have been carried a great distance to the temple through the vast desert, presumably by donkeys.

Entrance of Alexander the Great's temple in the Bahariya Oasis

Just to the right of the entrance to the temple is a scene that depicts, unfortunately, only the lower half of two individuals facing each other. It is probable that one of these individuals is Alexander the Great, dressed as a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, making offerings to a principle Egyptian deity.

However, on the lower register on the north wall of the second room which was covered by debris, Alexander is revealed. This relief, which retains some of its original colors, depicts Alexander offering two vessels that may contain Bahariya wine as an offering to Horus and Isis. The god, Horus, and the goddess, Isis, both hold a scepter on one hand an the ankh symbol in the other. In the background a priest wearing a long robe stands, holding incense and an unknown tool, and an offering table bearing bread, meat, cucumbers, pomegranates and other fruits, along with vessels for ointments is also displayed.

Map of Alexander the Great temple

In another carved relief, Alexander makes an offering of incense to the god, Amun, who is followed by various goddesses, one of which is probably Mut, Amun's consort. In this scene, the governor and high priest of the Oasis stand behind the pharaoh with offerings of incense. Just visible in the depiction is an offering table laden with bread, meat, vegetables, wine and flowers.

Surrounding the temple complex were auxiliary storage rooms and houses that were probably used by guards and priests. There is, on the east side of the temple, a building that was possibly used for administrative purposes. Only two of the buildings chambers were roofed with large limestone blocks, originally inscribed with Greek graffiti which is now lost.

One of perhaps the most interesting artifacts found in the temple complex is a bronze statue of a royal lady who Zahi Hawass believes may have been the wife of Alexander the Great. A small statue of a priest of Re was also discovered in one of the temple corridors. but a number of smaller artifacts were discovered in and about the temple, including Greek, Roman and Coptic pottery shards, painted vases, fragments of bronze statues, Greek amulets, and coins from the 5th and 6th centuries, AD. Some of the pottery discovered with rectangular marks and human figures appear to be of Semitic origin from Asia, while other shards and lamps are from the Coptic Period and later. These discoveries have led Egyptologists to believe that Christians probably inhabited the temple until about the 12th century AD, and some chambers may have been occupied as dwellings into the Middle Ages.

1. Many of the monuments in the Bahariya Oasis are not actually constantly open to the public. Often, arrangements have to be made in advance to visit a number of these monuments.

References:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexander to Actium (The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age) Green, Peter 1990 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-05611-6
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egypt in Late Antiquity Bagnall, Roger S. 1993 Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-1096-x
Egypt, Greece and Rome (Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean) Freeman, Charles 1996 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815003-2
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Valley of the Golden Mummies Hawass, Zahi 2000 American University in Cairo Press ISBN 977 424 585 7

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011

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