Posts Tagged With: Siwah Oasis

The Foundation of Alexandria

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 52 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Birth of a City: Alexandria-Outside-Egypt

  • Full interview with Dionocrates inside

The Story
Leaving Siwah, Alexander rode north-east to the Egyptian delta where he founded the city that would become Alexandria-Outside-Egypt.

The Footnotes tell me that Curtius, Diodorus and Justin ‘follow the tradition of Aristobulus… in placing the foundation of Alexandria after Alexander’s visit to Siwah’. Arrian and Plutarch follow Ptolemy who says it was founded before the trip.

Whichever way round it was, Alexander planned the city in such a way that the summer winds would run down the streets and cool the air as they blew in from the sea. He also directed that Alexandria’s walls be ‘exceedingly large and marvellously  strong’. As Alexandria was situated between a marsh (Lake Mareotis) and the Mediterranean Sea and was approachable by only two narrow roads this meant that she would be very difficult to attack.

Diodorus says that Alexandria was shaped like a chlamys (cloak) and was ‘bisected’ by a forty furlong avenue. This avenue, which is not named, was a hundred feet wide and ‘bordered throughout its length with rich façades of houses and temples’.

Alexander also ordered a huge palace to be built. There is no mention, however, of the famous Library. Despite his interest in knowledge – evidenced by the presence of surveyors on his expedition – it seems Alexander did not conceive the idea of a significant repository to contain it. That was left to Ptolemy and his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Once he had finished planning Alexandria, Alexander ‘charged certain of his Friends’ with its construction. Chief among them was the utterly rapacious, Cleomenes of Naucratis who would spend the next eight years using all the means at his disposal to swindle Egyptians out of their money. His avaricious reign came to an end in 323 B.C. when Ptolemy arrived to take up his role as satrap. Cleomenes was executed ostensibly in punishment for his corrupt behaviour but really it was because he was an ally of Ptolemy’s rival, Perdiccas.

With Alexandria taken care of, Alexander settled the rest of his affairs in Egypt. Once that was done, he left for Syria to continue his pursuit of Darius.

I wonder how it can be that Aristobulos and Ptolemy disagree on when Alexandria was founded. They were both there surely they must remember? Well, perhaps they did. Perhaps, as with Diodorus and Gaza, they changed the order of events for literary reasons.

I’m very interested in the fact that it was Ptolemy founded the famous Library. We know too little of his character to say what inspired him, although I’m sure power had a lot to do with it.

Another thing on my mind is – was the Library the first of its kind? Or was it proceeded by any other large libraries? I’m sure it was, though I can’t remember who got there first.

Diodorus notes that successive Ptolemaic rulers ‘enlarged’ the palace ‘with lavish additions’. The city also grew so that in Diodorus’ own day (he refers to the fact that he visited the city) three hundred thousand ‘free residents’ lived there. This growth, Diodorus says, has caused many to say that it is ‘the first city of the civilized world, and… is certainly far ahead of all the rest in elegance and extent and riches and luxury’. Take that, Rome!

Residents for a new city
*Seaside view!
*All new-build homes!
*A chance to meet new races (in their own quarters)!
*A chance to live under a governor even more corrupt than the usual shower!

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Oracle of Ammon

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 51 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander Visits Temple of Ammon

  • Philip’s Murderers Have Been Punished
  • Your Divinity Will Be Manifested in Your Deeds

The Story
The priests of Ammon lead Alexander into the temple. There, the king spent a little time before a statue of the god. Presently, one of the priests, who was also a prophet, joined him and said

“Rejoice, son; take this form of address as from the god also.”

To which Alexander replied,

“I accept, father; for the future I shall be called thy son.”

Having now been confirmed as the son of Ammon, Alexander had two questions for the god – would Ammon give him rule over the world? And had he punished all those involved in the murder of his father, Philip II?

The priest entered the ‘sacred enclosure’ to receive Ammon’s answer. There, statue-bearers raised a statue of the god on its bier and started to move ‘according to certain prescribed sounds of the voice’. As the Footnotes state, Diodorus doesn’t make it clear whose voice this was. The priest, however, was in no doubts as to what the movements meant: Ammon would give Alexander world domination.

The king’s second question elicited a different response.

“Silence!” the priest cried, “There is no mortal who can plot against the one who begot him. All the murderers of Philip, however, have been punished.”

This good news was immediately followed by another welcome utterance.

“The proof of his [i.e. Alexander’s] divine birth will reside in the greatness of his deeds; as formerly he has been undefeated, so now he will be unconquerable for all time.”

Unsurprisingly, ‘Alexander was delighted with these responses’ and he ‘honoured [Ammon] with rich gifts’ before returning to Egypt.

Diodorus’ account of what happened at Siwah seems to make it clear that Ammon regarded Alexander as his son and that the king was, therefore, a god; or, at the very least, a demigod. However,

… over the last century there has been certain tendency among historians and biographers of Alexander to accept, without questioning, that he was deified during his lifetime. Often, these scholars took for granted such divinity, thus narratives were constructed based on this –apparently– settled proposition. However, a rapid survey of the sources seems to indicate that this generally accepted thesis is not as solid, as it is believed. This constitutes the aim of this dissertation, namely, to analyse these modern accounts in the light of the ancient sources, in order to examine whether the deification of Alexander has enough grounds to be stated confidently…
(Matias Leiva The Divinity of Alexander the Great)

To read Leiva’s essay at Academia, click here. I certainly look forward to doing so.

I wish I knew more about the lay-out of the temple as I am wondering how Diodorus knew what happened in the sacred enclosure. I suppose his ultimate source is one of the men who accompanied Alexander to Siwah. But, I would have expected the enclosure to be off-limits to outsiders. Could I be wrong? Or maybe a Siwan told a Macedonian what happened?

Another question on my mind is what Alexander’s companions made of the Siwah expedition. If I remember rightly, the ancient Greeks weren’t in the business of deifying the living. There’s no hint that Alexander kept his reason for visiting Siwah secret, but whether or not he did, once the cat was out the bag, what did his men think of him? Sensible? Lunatic? Risky? If Diodorus covers the proskynesis controversy, we’ll perhaps get a glimpse into their later reaction.

We hope you enjoyed your visit to the temple of Ammon. To help us provide a better service in the future, please complete this questionnaire before your departure.

Name………. Race……….
Being Mortal Divine Semi-Divine Other……….
(circle as appropriate)

Did you find the atmosphere in the temple
Hardly more scary than the Persian army

Did you find the oracle to be
So mystifying as to be Delphic

Was the statue
Like seeing Ammon in person
As divine as a cow pat
Spoiled by unsteady statue-bearers; sort them out

Did the voice
Remind you of Ammon
Sound like a drunk
Both of the above
If ‘both’ please outline your ideal god-like voice…………………………

Would you recommend Siwah to others
Don’t know – what does the oracle say YES

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Siwah Oasis

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 50 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Inside Siwah
Love in a Warm Climate
Magical Marriages – Newlyweds Tell Their Incredible Stories

The Story
Diodorus dedicates Chapter 50 of his narrative to a description of Siwah oasis. It is ‘fifty furlongs in length and breadth’ and has ‘a moderate climate’. There are many springs and various types of tree, including those kinds that are ‘valued for their fruit’.

Citing an unnamed source (or sources), Diodorus says that Siwah’s sanctuary was built by Danaüs the Egyptian and that it is (as you’d expect) sacred to Ammon.

Different peoples live at Siwah: Ethiopians in the south and west, Libyans to the north, nomads and Nasamonians in the interior.

These peoples live in villages. In the middle of the oasis is a fortress, which is protected by three walls. The innermost part contains ‘the palace of the ancient rulers’. The middle section is where ‘the women’s court, the dwellings of the children, women, and relatives, and the guardrooms of the scouts’ can be found. Also here is the sanctuary of Ammon and the sacred spring. The king’s guards have their barracks in the outer section of the fortress. The guardrooms of his bodyguard are also located here.

Diodorus reports that there is a second temple dedicated to Ammon at Siwah. Nearby is a spring, known as the Spring of the Sun. Diodorus pauses for a moment to tell us a rather extraordinary fact about this spring. At daybreak, its waters are warm. As the sun rises, rather than heat up, the water actually cools until – at the sun’s peak – ‘it reaches its extreme degree of cold’. In the afternoon, as the sun dips, the water heats up until midnight when it is at its hottest. As the night progresses, the heat of the water decreases again.

This story is not unique to Diodorus. It appears in Herodotus. What are we to make of it? We’ll find out in a moment.

The chapter concludes with an description of a statue of Ammon. It ‘is encrusted with emeralds and other precious stones’. Eighty priests carry it about ‘upon a golden boat’. The priests do not follow a planned route but go where Ammon tells them. They are followed by a ‘multitude of girls and women’ who sing paeans and praise Ammon.

This is the first chapter I have covered where nothing actually happens. As I wasn’t sure how interesting writing (or reading) edited highlights of Diodorus’ description of Siwah would be, I thought it would be nice to include an up-to-date view of Siwah. To that end, I opened up a copy of Justin Marozzi’s The Man Who Invented History. In the early 2000s, Marozzi decided to take a walk in the footsteps of Herodotus. This book is his account of his journey. Marozzi has a couple of very interesting things to say about Siwah. They involve homosexuality and magic.

Marozzi states that ‘Siwa has a reputation as a bastion of illicit homosexuality’. This came about because of the rule that the city’s zaggalah (lit. ‘club-bearers’ – Young men at the bottom of Siwah’s social order who guarded the city at night from Bedouin raids), who were prohibited from marrying before the age of 40, were also prohibited from entering the city lest they fall in love with a (married) woman.

‘With time on their hands, no girls to party with and nowhere to go, the zaggalah had to make their own fun’. For some, that meant liaisons with other men – and boys. These love affairs became so part of zaggalah culture that they led to what Marozzi calls ‘gay marriage contracts’ being drawn up.

The practice continued until 1928 when the Egyptian king, Farouk, visited the oasis and berated the elders for permitting it. As a result of this, the contracts were outlawed.

At this point, I am not clear whether Marozzi says next that homosexuality or the drawing up of gay marriage contracts continued until the 50s. Perhaps it is the latter, as he also quotes GayEgypt as saying Siwah is ‘one of the best cruising places in the world’. I have not been able to find this quotation on GayEgypt’s blog. It does, however, appear on Rainbow Egypt‘s website. Perhaps the former were quoting the latter somewhere. To read about Siwah’s gay history, scroll down the page – ignoring as you go the writer’s speculations on Alexander and his burial place – and make sure you take heed of the closing comment,

If invited to dinner you should read Shane Money’s useful advice in his book “Useless Sexual Trivia” in which he warns readers that traditional belief holds that if a Siwan man mixes semen in your food you will find him irresistible.

You’ve been warned.

King Farouk’s admonition to the Siwan elders was born of his Islamic faith. As with homosexuality so with magic. Despite this, Siwans have ‘an enduring belief’ in it. For how much longer? Marozzi’s source notes that it is less popular today, due to people being better educated.

Nevertheless, come the moment, people still turn to magic to cure their ills. Or rather, cause problems for others. Marozzi mentions various curses: to stop girls marrying other men, to stop couples from having children, even to prevent the consummation of a marriage by turning the husband’s penis into a vagina.

The ‘most common spells’ aim to ‘bring about divorce, illness, infertility and love’. But they are not all-powerful. Marozzi learns that the poor newlywed husband can preserve his manhood by sprinkling holy water from Mecca around the bedroom before bedtime. Rather vexingly, his wife has to wear a ‘hijab veil to protect her from Satan’.

Marozzi also mentions the Spring of the Sun. Incredibly, he finds it just as Diodorus and Herodotus describe it. How can this be so? It’s simple. The feeling that the water is changing temperature is not derived from the water itself but the changing temperature of the air. Never dismiss a tall story. It may just tell the truth from a different perspective.

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Explorers of the Egyptian Desert


I have just finished reading The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy by John Bierman. It is an excellent read and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Almásy’s life.
Laszlo Ede Almásy is a controversial figure. Depending on who you read, he was pro-Nazi, a Soviet spy, helped saved Jews during the War, a German agent, and British agent. There are not enough documents publicly available to pin him down to one side or another.
One thing we can be certain of, though, is that he loved the Western or Libyan Desert (so named even though part of it is in Egypt), and he spent numerous years exploring it. Almásy’s abiding desire – his pothos – was to find the lost oasis of Zerzura and Cambyses’ lost army, which was wiped out by a sandstorm after leaving the Siwah Oasis (Herodotus 3:26). Thank goodness Alexander did not encounter such a menace when he visited it.

Unfortunately, Almásy achieved neither aim (unless Zerzura is to be found in the Gilf Kebir, which Almásy did explore – see below), but his exploration was by no means in vain. Along the way, for example, he found some superb examples of pre-historic cave art. His knowledge of the desert also came in useful during World War II; albeit for Rommel’s Afrika Korp. The Allies were very fortunate that, despite this, Rommel was not very interested in it.
Almasy wrote his own book about his travels – Récentes Explorations dans Le Désert Libyque (1932 – 1936) – which, as you can tell from the title, was written in French. This is bad news for me as it means I can’t read it. However, after finding the book in the library I thought I would share here some pictures that I took of it.
CaveOfSwimmersThe above watercolour must be one of the most famous images to come out of the Gilf Kebir (Wadi Sura). As you can see, it shows men swimming. Once upon a time the desert was a fertile land.
Domestic_Animals If you have heard of Laszlo Almásy these days you are either an Egyptologist or, like me, a fan of The English Patient film and/or book.  Both, however, are inspired rather than based on his life. The real Almásy did not have an affair with a woman named Katherine Clifton; neither did he bring about her death or that of her husband, Geoffrey. In fact, the Cliftons were based on a young couple named Sir Robert and Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton. Sir Robert accompanied Almásy into the desert in April 1932 but, sadly, died of an illness picked up there in September of the same year. As for Dorothy, not only did she not sleep with Almásy but appears to have actively disliked him. More could be said about that, but not here. For the remainder of this post, I would like to share with you Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton’s report on his trip into the desert. It was published by The Times newspaper on 6th July 1932.












The report reads:




Cairo messages on the attempt to discover the lost oasis in the Libyan Desert have appeared in our columns within the last two months. The following article tells the full story. Photographs by members of the expedition from their aeroplane tend to confirm the opinion that the Wadi which was discovered is identical with the lost oasis.

By Sir Robert A. Clayton East Clayton

The object of the expedition organized by Count L. E. de Almasy and myself was to explore the unknown area of the Libyan Desert north of the Gilf Kebir, and to find the legendary lost oasis called Zerzura. We had three motor-cars and one light aeroplane. Though aeroplanes had not before been used for exploration in this part of the world, we thought our machine would help us by increasing the range of vision and enabling us to examine mountain-tops. It fully bore out our expectations. At Heliopolis the Royal Air Force gave us much assistance in our preparations; and there I met Squadron Leader Penderel, who got leave to join the expedition and contributed his valuable knowledge of aeronautical matters. The Egyptian Government lent Mr. P. A. Clayton, of the Desert Survey Department; he had been most of the way in previous expeditions, and naturally became our guide and navigator.
…..From Kharga Oasis on April 12 we went in the cars to make a dump, and that night camped about 110 kilometres away. Next morning we marked out a landing-ground on a stretch of flat sand. This was done by skidding a car in a small circle to mark the centre, and driving it three times round the limits to make a boundary. Then and afterwards the method proved serviceable, for the marks lasted for a long time. But on open stretches of sand, with no stones or inequalities, it was always difficult to spot a landing-ground; the glare and complete absence of shadow made it hard to focus one’s eyes where the sand, even at no great distance below the machine, seemed like a yellow mist.
On April 15, finding ourselves near Bir Messalia, we packed camp and drove over to it. Bir Messalia means “Survey Well.” Lying in a slight hollow in the middle of a vast, featureless sand plain, it consists of one small wooden hut containing the winch, the scaffolding over the well and a wooden beacon. It looked an impossible place to find from the air, as it would hardly be visible a mile away. After winding up some water, Clayton and Almasy took the lorry and dumped petrol about 80 kilometres further on in a line of crescent dunes. Penderel and I marked out a landing-ground near the well. As there were practically no landmarks, we made corner marks of empty benzine tins in addition to our usual circle and boundary. We also prepared a smoke fire in case the machine was seen searching for the camp.
…..When we left Bir Messalia to go back to Kharga for the aeroplane and more petrol, Almasy stayed behind to see what it felt like to be alone in the desert for a few days. At Kharga Penderel and I took up the aeroplane to practice following tracks, and dropped a message in a weighted towel on Clayton, who had gone on with the three cars. The return to Bir Messalia, during which we encountered a flock of plover migrating northwards, was the worst flight I have ever experienced. As the sun got higher the tracks became invisible. I had to keep my eyes glued on the ground the whole time; lifting them for only a second would have meant losing the tracks for good. What with the terrible glare and the intense concentration needed I lost all idea of height, position, and speed. My head began to swim, and I had an almost unbearable longing to dive the machine into the ground and end it all. The worst of it all was that, as Penderel’s goggles did not fit, he could not take over to give me a rest. However, after what seemed to me an age we arrived at Messalia to find Almasy had laid out a landing. It was terribly hot, with no wind, so we just lay in the winch hut and sweated till Clayton arrived.
On April 20 we set off by car for some point south-west of the Gilf Kebir, our real objective, and finally camped under two large hills which we called Peter and Paul. Next morning Penderel and I left with three Arabs and two cars; and the Arabs, upon whom we had depended for guidance, took us out of the way. The visibility was bad, and no landmarks were to be seen. Moreover, we encountered a small sandstorm. It became necessary to ration both petrol and water. We realized that Clayton and Almasy would have very little chance of finding us with one car, and would be in a dangerous position, having to trust their lives to that car in those vast spaces. Accordingly it was up to us to get out of our own mess. So, early on the following day, we sent the Arabs on foot to see if they could discover anything. We ourselves spotted a small hill to the north which, if our map and estimates were correct, should have had a small cairn of it. But the Arabs, returning after several hours, said there was nothing on the hill. We began to think of all the stories we had ever heard about death from thirst.
…..After calculating our position, we decided to drive north. The petrol ran out at the foot of the little hill we had seen and depended upon. What was our joy on climbing to the top to find that there was a cairn! The wretched Arabs had tired before reaching the hill and reported wrongly. We now knew the camp was only 25 kilometres away, and accordingly sent the men off to collect a tin of petrol. It was getting dark by this time, so we did not expect them back till afternoon next day. Then we brewed a cup of tea from radiator water. Although the water was darker than the tea, I have never tasted a drink nearly so good. The mixture of oil, rust, and dirt only made it nicer. Having also eaten some biscuits, the first food for 36 hours, we felt better and went to bed.
The men came back next afternoon, and we were enabled to make for the camp. From this incident we learnt several lessons: Never trust an Arab guide, however good, but do your own navigation; always carry enough petrol to get back to your starting-place; keep notes of every journey and never forget that the desert will hit you a blow below the belt if you give it the slightest chance.
…..On the morning of April 26 Almasy, who had a pass from the Italian embassy, started for Kufra with two cars to get water. On April 27 Penderel and I took off for a flight over the Gilf. Soon after crossing its edge we found the beginning of a large wadi running the same course as ourselves. This broadened out and trees appeared, a bit scattered at first but thickening after a short distance. Unfortunately visibility was bad and we could not see the end of the wadi distinctly. It seemed to be about 30 or 40 kilometres long, and, as far as we could see, well filled with trees. This was intensely interesting. We would have liked to fly right to the end, but the thought of a forced landing in that broken, rocky country was too much for us. On our telling Clayton of our find he confirmed the opinion that it was quite possibly Zerzura.
Almasy returned that evening after a successful trip to Kufra. He had been received with the greatest cordiality by the Italian officers; he was apparently the first tripper there since the Expeditionary Force left. Among other things he brought 12 bottles of Chianti, which, apart from other considerations, helped to save our water.
…..Another exploratory trip up several wadis drew a blank, except for a solitary saizal tree and the spoor of one grazing camel about two or three years old. The country was terribly rocky and broken, giving ample evidence of the floods in the past. There was a little dried-up grass in one or two wadis, but nothing more. The greatest difficulty was to know which was the main scarp of the Gilf.
…..The time when we had expected to start back was now at hand, and petrol was running short. On April 20 Clayton and Penderel climbed to the top of the Gilf and found an Arab road, very old, marked with cairns. As far as they could see it led to a large wadi a bit to the south. While they were up on top, a swallow, very exhausted, came down quite close to Almasy and myself. Although we offered it water in a plate it would not drink. We took some photographs of it.
When Penderel and Clayton came down we made for the wadi they had seen from aloft. It had quite a lot of trees in it and some mountain sheep skeletons under them. However, it ended about five kilometres further on in a sidd, or dry waterfall, which showed it could not be our wadi. In the evening Penderel took up Almasy, and I took up Clayton, for a look at the wadi. Seeing it again we altered our ideas a bit, and after working out the petrol to about seven places of decimals, we decided that, if we went straight to where we now felt certain the entrance to the wadi was, we should have just enough petrol to get back to our dump at Peter and Paul.
…..Accordingly we had a try again next day, but the wadi beat us again. No wonder it is called a lost oasis. This was our last possible effort. It was disappointing not to have entered the promised land, although we had seen it several times from the air.
…..The journey home to Kharga was uneventful. Luckily we arrived the day before the weekly train for Cairo, so Clayton and Almasy did not have to wait. Penderel and I flew back to Heliopolis without incident. Clayton and Almasy had the only mechanical breakdown of the trip when the train broke down in the middle of the desert.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alexander at Siwa

For the other posts in this series, click here
According to Quintus Curtius Rufus

“From Memphis Alexander sailed upstream and penetrated into the interior of Egypt where, after settling administrative matters without tampering with Egyptian traditions, he decided to visit the oracle of Jupiter Ammon. The journey that had to be made could scarcely be managed even by a small band of soldiers lightly armed: land and sky lack moisture; the sands lie flat and barren, and when they are seared by the blazing sun the ground swelters and burns the feet and the heat is intolerable.

Siwa Oasis

“Alexander was… goaded by an overwhelming desire to visit the temple of Jupiter – dissatisfied with elevation on the mortal level, he either considered, or wanted others to believe that Jupiter was his ancestor.
“After four days in the desert wastes, [the Macedonians] found themselves not far from the site of the oracle. Here a number of crows met the column, flying ahead of the front standards at a slow pace, occasionally settling on the ground, when the column’s advance was relatively slow, and then again taking off as if they were going ahead to show the way.
siwa2“At last the Macedonians reached the area consecrated to the god which, incredibly, located though it is among the desert wastes, is so well screened on all sides by encircling tree branches that the rays of the sun barely penetrate the shade, and its woods are sustained by a wealth of fresh water springs.
“… as the king approached, he was addressed as ‘son’ by the oldest of the priests, who claimed that this title was bestowed on him by his father Jupiter. Forgetting his mortal state, Alexander said he accepted and acknowledged the title, and he proceeded to ask whether he was fated to rule over the entire world. The priest, who was as ready as anyone else to flatter him, answered that he was going to rule over all the earth.
“Alexander… offered sacrifice, presented gifts both to the priests and to the god, and also allowed his friends to consult Jupiter on their own account. Their only question was whether the god authorized [sic] their according divine honours to their king, and this, too, so the priest replied, would be agreeable to Jupiter.”

The Temple of Amun at Siwa

The Temple of Amun at Siwa

from Curtius 4:7. 5-6, 8, 15-16, 25-26, 28
Nota Bene
If you haven’t seen Michael Wood’s documentary on Alexander, made for the BBC in 2005, I thoroughly recommend it to you as a matter of course. Wood visits Siwa and says that the oracle’s shrine is ‘perhaps the only place on earth where you can trace [Alexander’s] footsteps right up to the door’.

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