Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Part 5 : Talisman ...Two Phoenixes ... City of the God King

by Graham Hancock
Robert Bauval
Chapter 9 
Two Phoenixes 
‘A divine city hath been built for me, I know it and I know the name thereof…’ (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 109)

‘I have come into the city of god – the region which existed in primeval time.’ (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 183) 2 

‘The opening into the city is fire… and the god hath made it for those who follow willingly in his train… He hath made the city so that he may dwell therein at will, and none can enter therein except on the day of the great transformations…’ (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 149) 3 

Specialized scholars who study ancient literature often argue that there is no strong genetic link between the known religious texts of ancient Egypt (which span the period from roughly 2300 BC to 0 BC) and the Hermetic texts composed in Alexandria in Egypt between approximately AD 1 and AD 300. ‘There is a want of technical Egyptian mythological, liturgical and sacerdotal knowledge in the [Hermetic] texts,’ explains Tobias Churton. ‘We really learn nothing about Egyptian religion, except in the most general terms, terms which would not stretch the vocabulary gained by the average reader of a tourist guide to ancient Egypt today.’ 4 

The scholarly dissection of the Hermetica began with Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), who late in his life argued, successfully, that none of the texts could possibly have been written by an ancient Egyptian named Hermes Trismegistus – as had been widely believed since their rediscovery in 1460. By skilful textual analysis he rightly attributed them to the early Christian period in the first three centuries AD and thus, it seemed, ‘debunked’ the notion that they were as old or older than Moses. Casaubon’s findings took many years to be fully accepted, but wherever they were accepted they removed from the texts the aura of prestige that their false antiquity had given them. The inevitable result, over the next century and a half, was that ‘the Hermetic writings lost their hold on men’s interest, and sank into comparative neglect’. 5 

A renewal of academic interest in the Hermetica was brought about almost single-handedly in the 1960s by Dame Frances Yates, whose works we cite frequently in Talisman. By ‘making Hermes a major figure in the preliminaries to the scientific revolution’ and a vital catalyst of the Renaissance she has ensured that the Hermetic writings are now once again ‘required reading for many students of early modern thought and letters’. 6 

In Yates’s view Casaubon’s debunking exercise in the seventeenth century had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. To be sure, the texts were not ancient Egyptian in origin – Casaubon was right about that. Nevertheless the ‘Egyptian illusion’, which misled the scholars of the Medici Academy and their successors all over Europe for the best part of two centuries, gave the Hermetic texts the power and leverage – and enough time – to effect profound changes in the way that people thought about the world and understood the human predicament. 7 

Preserving the Essence 
This argument for pragmatic study of the effects of the Hermetic writings, regardless of any debate about their antiquity, has made the subject academically respectable again but has done nothing to advance our understanding of their origins. We are left to believe that these astoundingly sophisticated texts arose fully formed out of nowhere in the first three centuries BC, with no background or evolution, and are asked to accept that: ‘The precise provenance of the philosophical Hermetica remains to a large extent a mystery.’

The one certainty, all the experts agree, is that there must have been a close connection between the philosophers and religious thinkers who composed the Hermetica in Alexandria in the first three centuries AD and the philosophers and religious thinkers who composed the Gnostic texts in Alexandria in exactly the same period. It is not simply that certain texts of the Hermetica (including the Asclepius) were part of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library 9 – although this is strongly indicative of overlapping interests in the Hermetic and Gnostic communities of that period. Much more significant are the deep structural connections at the level of ideas that can be demonstrated between the two collections of texts. 

The painstaking work that has revealed these connections, and begun to get to grips with the amazing philosophical and religious undercurrents of late antiquity, has all been done by orthodox, ‘mainstream’ scholars. Since Casaubon, however (with a few remarkable exceptions whom we’ll meet in later chapters), it has been tantamount to academic suicide to reinvestigate the supposedly settled question of any possible ancient Egyptian origin for the Hermetic texts. 

Our primary objective in Talisman is to follow the traces of what we suspect may be a ‘conspiracy’, or something very like one, based on Hermetic and Gnostic ideas and originally formulated about 2000 years ago. In complete contradiction to the scholarly consensus it is our proposal that the Hermetic texts are closely connected to the much older ancient Egyptian religion. They may have been deliberately designed to preserve its essence while dispensing with its substance. To take a metaphor from Gnostic and Hermetic teachings of reincarnation, the intention may have been to transfer the ‘soul’ of the Egyptian system, at the point of its death under the Roman Empire, into an entirely new and different ‘body’ better adapted to the times. 

Building the City of the God 
There is a consistent emphasis on cities throughout the Hermetic literature. 

At the end of Chapter 8 we drew particular attention to the magical ‘cosmic city’ of Adocentyn, said in the Picatrix to have been built in the remote past by Hermes Trismegistus and so designed that it brought benevolent celestial influences streaming down on its inhabitants. We also pointed out that a similar magical city built by the gods is described in the Asclepius, probably the best-known of all the Hermetic texts. There it is intriguingly portrayed not as a city of the past but as a prophesied city – a city of the future, ‘which will be founded towards the setting sun, and into which will hasten, by land and sea, the whole race of mortal men’. 10 

If there is no genetic connection between the ancient Egyptian and the Hermetic texts, as scholars tell us, then it is presumably a coincidence that Chapter 183 of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, dated to about 1200 BC, contains this curious passage: ‘I come from the city of the god, the primeval region; soul, ka and spirit are what is in this land. Such is its god, namely the Lord of Truth possessor of provisions, he to whom every land is drawn…’ 11 

Soul, ka and spirit are the names given to different elements of the person all believed by the ancient Egyptians to survive death, while ‘Lord of Truth’ is a frequently used epithet for the wisdom god Thoth/Hermes. So here in the Book of the Dead we have a ‘city of the god’ (indeed a city of the god who would become Hermes) towards which ‘every land is drawn’. Isn’t that essentially the same concept that crops up more than 1400 years later in the supposedly unconnected Asclepius (circa AD 268–73), where ‘the whole race of mortal men’ hasten towards a city built by the gods? 

Going further back in time we come to the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest scriptures, dated to around 2300 BC. Here too we find references to the sacred functions of cities that are echoed in the much later and supposedly unconnected Hermetica. Of particular interest is Utterance 319, in which we learn that it is the responsibility of the King, during his reign, to build the city of the god: ‘The King has united the heavens, the King has power over the southern and northern lands, and the gods who were aforetime, the King has built the city of the god in accordance with its proper due.’ 12 

This idea that it is the sacred duty of the King to build a city that will harmoniously unite earth and heaven for the benefit of its inhabitants would be taken up some 4000 years later by the great Hermetic philosopher Tommaso Campanella. Based entirely on his studies of the Hermetica, Campanella claimed in the early seventeenth century that he could ‘make a city in such a wonderful way that only by looking at it all the sciences may be learned’. 13 He would go on, as we’ll see in Chapter 12, to prophesy that King Louis XIV of France would be the one who would actually build this magical ‘city of the sun’. 

We recall the words of Frances Yates, reported in Chapter 8, to the effect that Adocentyn, the magical city of the Picatrix, kept its citizens healthy and wise through the ‘powerful manipulation of astral magic’ which ensured that only ‘good celestial influences’ could reach them. How different is this from Campanella’s claim to be able to make a city from which its inhabitants could learn and benefit merely by looking at it? Or from this passage in the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, where the King says: ‘I build you, O city of mine; You shall do for me every good thing which I desire; You shall act on my behalf wherever I go’. 14 

Sky and Ground 
We suggest that key shared concepts underlie this shared interest in the cosmic ‘city of the god’ and/or ‘city of the sun’ that is found in both the ancient Egyptian and the Hermetic texts. The most important of these concepts is, indeed, the unifying theme of the entire corpus of Hermetic writings: ‘That which is below corresponds with that which is above, and that which is above corresponds with that which is below, in the accomplishment of the miracle of the one thing…’ 15 

The passage quoted is from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, not part of the so-called ‘philosophical’ Hermetica but one of a large number of ‘alchemical’ Hermetic tracts from various periods that fall largely outside the scope of this discussion. Nonetheless, in both the alchemical and the philosophical Hermetica, as throughout the much older ancient Egyptian texts, we encounter the consistent deployment of a distinctive metaphor in which ‘sky’, ‘heaven’, ‘above’ and other related terms represent the spiritual, immaterial realms to which the soul properly aspires, while ‘ground’, ‘earth’ and ‘below’ represent the world of gross matter in which the soul is imprisoned. Implicit – and often explicit – in the relevant texts is the understanding that perfection belongs exclusively to the ‘above’ world, while the world of ‘earth’ and ‘below’ is corrupt and eternally imperfect.

Let’s look first at a few examples from the ancient Egyptian texts, all of which in different ways explore, describe and prepare the initiate for life after death as it was conceived in the religion of the Pharaohs:

Your soul is bound for the sky, your corpse is beneath the ground… You shall go up to the sky… You shall ascend to those who are above the earth…16 (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead) 

You shall ascend to the sky, you shall traverse the firmament, you shall associate with the stars…17 (Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead) 

This King is Osiris in a dust-devil; earth is this King’s detestation… This King is bound for the sky…18 (Pyramid Texts) 

Arise, remove your earth, shake off your dust, raise yourself, that you may travel in company with the spirits, for your wings are those of a falcon, your gleam is that of a star…19 (Pyramid Texts) 

‘How lovely to see you, how pleasing to behold!’ says Isis, ‘when you ascend to the sky, your power about you, your terror about you, your magic at your feet… The doors of the sky are opened for you, the doors of the starry firmament are thrown open for you…’ 20 (Pyramid Texts) 

A particularly clear example of what we might call ancient Egyptian ‘matter– spirit dualism,’ is found in the Coffin Texts, circa 1900 BC: 

The King is pure on that great tomb-plateau; the King has got rid of his evil; the King has discarded his wrongdoing; the King has cast down to earth the evils which were on his flesh…21 

This passage contains the by now familiar equivalences (matter = evil; spirit = good) that we’ve encountered repeatedly in Part I of this book amongst the Gnostics of the early Christian era and their dualist successors the Bogomils and the Cathars. Yet it was composed 2000 years before any of the surviving Gnostic texts and 3000 years before the upsurge of the Cathar phenomenon in Western Europe in the twelfth century AD. 

In our view it is not a coincidence that the Hermetic texts are redolent of exactly the same system of ideas. A few extracts are sufficient to make the point: 

Evil, as I have told you before, must needs dwell here on earth, where it is at home; for the home of evil is the earth. 22 (Hermetica, Libellus IX) 

It came to pass that evils inherent in matter were intermingled with the human body. 23 (Hermetica, Asclepius III) 

The soul of a child… is still hardly detached from the soul of the Kosmos. But when the body has increased in bulk, and has drawn the soul down into its material mass, it generates oblivion; and so the soul separates itself from the Beautiful and Good, and no longer partakes of that; and through this oblivion the soul becomes evil. 24 (Hermetica, Libellus X) 

I see that by god’s mercy there has come to be in me a form which is not fashioned out of matter, and I have passed forth out of myself and entered into an immortal body. 25 (Hermetica, Libellus XIII) 

You are purified, now that you have put away the earthly tabernacle. 26 (Hermetica, Libellus XIII) 

The last quoted remark, although from the Hermetica, could equally well sum up the state of the Cathar perfectus in receipt of the consolamentum – who thereafter severed all connections with the world of matter. Meanwhile, in the Pyramid Texts of the ancient Egyptians the formula ‘remove your earth, shake off your dust’ 27 was used in exactly the same way and to exactly the same purpose. 

The Divided Creature 
Scholars do not dispute the existence of a strong genetic link between Gnostic and Hermetic beliefs. On the contrary, such a link is fully accepted. As we’ve seen, however, the notion of a similarly close link between the Hermetic religion and the ancient Egyptian religion is rejected outright. It’s provocative, then, that all three systems appear to be in complete agreement in their analysis of the fundamental dilemma of the human being as an ambiguous or ‘dual’ creature composed both of matter and of spirit. 

The doctrine of the Gnostics, Bogomils and Cathars on this subject has been explored extensively in Part I. The reader will recall the vivid picture painted in their teachings and myths of the souls of fallen angels trapped in the ‘alien’ material world within the gross physical bodies of men and women. The view that emerges of the human condition is undeniably that of a creature made of ‘mud’ and corruption that is paradoxically illuminated by a divine and deathless spark – a creature in large part of ‘earth’ that also contains a fragment of ‘heaven’. 

Could this permanent state of duality be what the composers of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead were hinting at with an enigmatic formula found in Chapter 156 that reads: ‘His one arm is toward the sky, his other arm is toward the earth’? 28 It is certainly what the Hermetic sages had in mind in the Poimandres when they wrote: 

Man, unlike all other living creatures upon earth, is twofold. He is mortal by reason of his body; he is immortal by reason of the man of eternal substance… He is exalted above the structure of the heavens… yet he is mastered by carnal desire and by oblivion. 29 

In the Hermetic text that bears his name, the student Asclepius asks Hermes the obvious question about this arrangement: ‘But what need was there, Trismegistus, that man should be placed in the material world? Why might he not have dwelt in the region where God is, and there enjoyed perfect happiness?’ 30 In reply Hermes explains that God first created man as an ‘incorporeal and eternal being’ – the reference here is to the spiritual man, the immortal soul, the ‘divine spark’. Then, however: 

Perceiving that the man whom he had made could not tend all things on earth unless he enclosed him in a material envelope, God gave him the shelter of a body to dwell in, and ordained that all men should be formed in like manner. 31 

While we recognize that the Hermetic script at this point diverges sharply from the Gnostic/Cathar script (in which the soul of man is made by the God of Good and the body of man is made by the God of Evil) the general scenario of incorporeal souls immersed in matter nevertheless remains almost identical in the two religions. One profound difference must, however, be acknowledged concerning their attitudes towards matter – for while the Gnostics and Cathars deduced from their beliefs that matter should be hated, the Hermeticists reached a much more positive conclusion about the creation and about man’s place in the scheme of things: 

Thus he [God] fashioned man of the substance of the mind, and the substance of body – of that which is eternal and that which is mortal – blending and mingling together portions of either substance in adequate measure, to the end that the creature so fashioned might be able to fulfil the demands of both sources of his being, that is to say, to venerate and worship the things of heaven, and at the same time to tend and administer the things of earth. 32 

Knowledge, Reason, Intelligence... 
Later in the same Hermetic text – the Asclepius – the argument verges back into close proximity to Gnostic ideas when it reminds us that it is the ultimate destiny of the human soul to end its sojourn on earth and return to the heavens where it belongs: 

God saw that of all living creatures men alone had need of reason and knowledge, whereby they might repel and put away from them the evil passions inherent in their bodies; and for this cause he imparted to them the gift of reason; and at the same time… he held out to them the hope of immortality, and gave them power to strive toward it. 33 

In the case of the Gnostic religion the reader will recall from Part I that the return to the heavenly realm could not be achieved by blind faith but was to be striven for through gnosis – ‘revealed knowledge of the reality of things’. In the case of the Hermetic religion we see this same emphasis on knowledge, now also combined with the ‘gift of reason’. Indeed, the Asclepius goes so far as to state that the ‘divine part’ of man consists of ‘mind, intellect, spirit, and reason’, and to assert that it is on account of these ‘higher elements’ that he is ‘found capable of rising to heaven’. 34 

This goal of the return to heaven, the Poimandres asserts explicitly, is ‘the consummation for those who have got gnosis’. 35 And in one of the Discourses of Hermes a helpful definition is even offered of the precise kind of knowledge involved in gnosis. It seems that it ‘cannot be taught by speech, nor learnt by hearing’: ‘Knowledge differs greatly from sense-perception… Knowledge is incorporeal; the organ which it uses is the mind itself; and the mind is contrary to the body.’ 36 

The individual’s quest for gnosis, in both its Hermetic and purely Gnostic forms, involved putting off the material world and its illusions. The reader will recall from Part I the asceticism of the Gnostic sages of Alexandria and of their successors the Cathar and Bogomil perfecti. The writers of the Hermetic texts would have approved: ‘If a man understands the design of god,’ says the Asclepius, ‘he will despise all material things.’ 37 

On the other hand, for those who persist in wilful ignorance, all the vices and evils that are inherent in the material realm: 

grow in strength, and lacerate the soul with incurable sores; and infected and corrupted by the poison, the soul breaks out in tumours, so to speak, save in the case of those whose souls are cured by the sovereign remedy of knowledge and intelligence. 38 

Like so much else in the Hermetica, this constant emphasis on the role of knowledge and intelligence in the soul’s struggle to win immortality seems to have strong precursors in the ancient Egyptian funerary texts. There we encounter a bearded god called Sia who attends Ra in the solar barque. Sia’s special quality is that he is the personification of intelligence 39 so it is interesting that his role in bringing the soul of the deceased safely through the Netherworld is repeatedly emphasized. In Spell 237 of the Coffin Texts, for example, the deceased embarks on his afterlife journey with confidence, stating: ‘I know what Sia knows, and a path is opened for me…’ 40 Earlier, in Spell 38, we read: ‘I have seen the chest [i.e., strongbox] of Sia and I know what is in it…’ 41 Another metaphor for the crucial importance of intelligence is employed in Spell 689, which states: ‘This King has swallowed Sia, he has eaten magic from the magician.’ 42 In the Book of What is in the Duat we find Sia accompanying the deceased on his journey through the Netherworld and opening gates of fire that would otherwise remain closed to him. 43 

Stars and Angels Falling to Earth 
In the ancient Egyptian system the afterlife journey through the Netherworld – the Duat – was the opportunity for the ‘perfected spirit’ (i.e., one that had acquired the necessary knowledge during incarnation on earth) to throw off for ever the entrapments of matter, ascend to the spiritual realms and become, metaphorically, a star in heaven. In the case of initiates in the Gnostic system, whether in its early Christian or later Cathar forms, we know that this sought-after ‘ascent to heaven’ was in fact understood as a re-ascent of our angelic souls to the heavenly realms from which they had fallen long ago. 

The reader will recall from Chapter 3 vivid descriptions of angels falling ‘like rain upon the earth’ through a hole in heaven, having been tempted downwards by Satan, who then trapped them in human bodies and the cycle of reincarnation. There are some striking but neglected passages in the ancient Egyptian texts which seem to us to be expressions of essentially the same idea and once again provide support for a mysterious connection between the religion of ancient Egypt and the Hermetic and Gnostic religions. For example, in Chapter 99 of the Book of the Dead we read: ‘This land is baleful and the stars have overbalanced themselves and have fallen on their faces therein, and they have not found anything which will help them to ascend again…’ 44 

Routine use is made in the ancient Egyptian texts of the star as a metaphor for the beatified and ‘perfected’ soul. We therefore see little difference in intent between this image of fallen stars unable to get back to the sky and the Gnostic image of fallen angels unable to return to heaven. Of course, the purest and most spiritual angels in the Gnostic/Cathar system were those who resisted temptation and never fell to earth at all. So it was, too, amongst the ancient Egyptians as far back as the Pyramid Texts in 2300 BC: ‘The King is one of those… beings… who will never fall to the earth from the sky…’ 45

Reproducing Eternity in a Copy 
At the heart of all such imagery, whether ancient Egyptian, Gnostic or Hermetic, is the sense of a radical rupture between matter and spirit, sky and earth. We’ve seen how all three of these religions taught the need for some sort of special knowledge – gnosis – as a way of escape for souls trapped ‘below’. In the case of the Cathars the saving knowledge was acquired through asceticism, study, and the initiation ritual known as the consolamentum. In the case of the Hermeticists and the ancient Egyptians, as we saw earlier and in Chapter 8, there was a curious interest in cities which were to be made, so far as possible, in ‘the image of heaven’. By somehow replicating or ‘copying’ celestial perfection on earth, the clear implication of the Hermetic texts is that such cities would provide untold benefits to their inhabitants, constrain them ‘to be virtuous’ and keep them ‘healthy and wise’. 46 

In the Poimandres (‘Pimander’), the first book of the Hermetic collection, we even find this idea of replication of the above by the below employed in describing the process of creation. We are led to understand that there exists an ‘archetypal form’, perceptible only to the mind and not at all to the senses, ‘which is prior to the beginning of things and is limitless’. The material world ‘issued from God’s Purpose, which beheld that beauteous world [i.e., the archetypal form] and copied it’. 47 

The Asclepius likewise speaks of a ‘higher’ archetypal Kosmos that is imperceptible to the senses but that nevertheless influences and shapes the lower ‘sensible Kosmos’ that we inhabit as beings of matter: ‘If you consider the whole, you will learn that in truth the sensible Kosmos itself, with all things that are therein, is woven like a garment by that higher Kosmos.’ 48 A little later the same text adds: 

God… stands unmoved; and eternity likewise is ever changeless, containing in itself a Kosmos which is without beginning, even that Kosmos which we rightly call ‘imperceptible to sense’. This sensible Kosmos [i.e., the universe of matter and space that we see all around us] has been made in the image of that other Kosmos, and reproduces eternity in a copy. 49 

In The Discourses of Hermes to Tat we learn more about the mechanisms of the ‘copying’ process: ‘The forces do not work upward from below, but downward from above. The things in heaven receive no benefits from the things on earth; but the things on earth receive all benefits from the things in heaven.’ 50 

In the beautiful and mysterious Kore Kosmou the point is reemphasized with more detail: 

All the world which lies below has been set in order and filled with contents by the things which are placed above; for the things below have not the power to set in order the world above. The weaker mysteries, then, must yield to the stronger; and the system of things on high is stronger than the things below. 51 

Hermetic Landscapes 
We are now better equipped to understand the central Hermetic notion, introduced in Chapter 8, of ancient Egypt as an ‘image of Heaven’: Do you not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven? 

Or, to be more precise, that everything governed and moved in heaven came down to Egypt and was transferred there? If truth were told, our land is the temple of the whole world…52 

If the land of Egypt is ‘an image of heaven’, and for that reason ‘the temple of the whole world’, then it’s easy to understand how those who believed this might have wanted to build temples that were also – in their own smaller-scale way – ‘images of heaven’. The same logic would also apply to the creation and positioning of great monuments. And of course to the planning and building – or rebuilding – of cities. In other words, if we know that a person is a committed initiate of the Hermetic system then we can predict that he or she will take an interest in temples, monuments and cities that in some way ‘imitate’ or ‘copy’ heaven. If it so happens that the initiate is a great king or a person otherwise in a position to have a major influence on decisions about the built environment, we might expect to see that interest turned to action. 

It is understood that the earthly ‘copy’ is and always will be inferior to the heavenly archetype on which it is modelled because ‘there is nothing good on earth; there is nothing bad in heaven’, and because while ‘nothing in heaven is in bondage, nothing on earth is free’. 53 Nevertheless, the clear logic of the Hermetic texts is that it is better to copy the perfection of heaven on earth – however inferior the results – than to do nothing at all. In the Discourses of Hermes to Tat we read: 

All things on earth… are unreal; but some of them – not all, but some few only – are copies of reality… When the appearance flows in from above, it becomes an imitation of reality. But apart from the working of power from above, it remains an illusion; just as a painted portrait presents to us in appearance the body of the man we see in it, but is not in itself a human body. 54 

It seems perfectly obvious from this that a Hermetic king would prefer to dispose his monuments, temples and cities so that ‘power from above’ would be able to work in them. And the way to do that, as the texts themselves suggest, would be to fashion the built environment as an ‘imitation of reality’, ‘an image of heaven’, ‘a reproduction of eternity in a copy’… 

The Beauty of the Archetype 
Practised in Europe between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries, the Gnostic religion of the Bogomils and the Cathars taught an intense ‘matter– spirit dualism’. As we would expect in such closely interconnected systems, it also made use of ‘sky–ground’ metaphors of the specifically Hermetic and ancient Egyptian type. In Chapter 3 we cite several examples of such Bogomil and Cathar teachings, including the notion that a number of their sacred books had been ‘written in heaven and brought down to earth’ and the following classically ‘Hermetic’ doctrine: ‘For just as it is on earth, so also it is in the firmament, because replicas of what are in the firmament are on earth.’ 55 

Once again we find striking precedents in the supposedly unrelated funerary texts of ancient Egypt. There are, for example, numerous exhortations calling upon initiates to make copies on the earth of a region of the sky called the Duat, incorporating the constellation of Orion – associated with the god Osiris – and the star Sirius, associated with the goddess Isis. 56 This was the sky-region believed to be the location of the ancient Egyptian Netherworld, where souls journeyed and were judged after death. It was therefore thought to be vitally important to gain foreknowledge of it and of the trials that awaited the soul there. We learn from the Book of What is in the Duat (circa 1400 BC) that one way to attain this gnosis was to build copies on the ground ‘of the hidden circle of the Duat in the body of Nut[the sky]’: 57 

Whosoever shall make an exact copy of these forms, and shall know it, shall be a spirit well equipped both in heaven and in earth, unfailingly, and regularly and eternally. 58 

Whosoever shall make a copy thereof, and shall know it upon earth, it shall act as a magical protector for him both in heaven and in earth, unfailingly and regularly and eternally. 59 

For a supposedly unrelated text, it is odd that the Book of What is in the Duat seems to draw the same distinction as the Hermetica between the heavenly archetype, which is perceptible only to the mind, and the earthly copy, which is perceptible to the senses. Both traditions therefore necessarily imply a group of initiates who were trained to ‘see’ – i.e., attain gnosis of – what otherwise only the gods could see: 

The secret representation of the Duat is not known to men and women. 60 Whosoever shall make a copy of these representations according to this copy of what is in the Ament of the Duat, which cannot be looked at or seen, and whosoever shall know these secret images, shall be in the condition of a spirit who is equipped for journeying…61 (Emphasis added.) 

To become ‘a spirit equipped for journeying’ was, of course, the goal of the entire ancient Egyptian religious system in the sense that it sought to equip its initiates for spiritual immortality and freedom from the fetters of matter. But it was possible to fail in this quest and for the soul to be destroyed utterly. Consistent and repeated evil acts were inevitably fatal to the soul of the perpetrator. Wilful ignorance – always detested by the Hermetic sages – was also believed to be extremely dangerous to one’s prospects of eternity. Thus: ‘He who hath no knowledge of the whole or part of the secret representations of the Duat, shall be condemned to destruction.’ 62 

We reiterate that the Duat, for the ancient Egyptians, was understood to be a region of the starry sky and that those who aspired to immortality rather than extinction in the afterlife were more or less obliged to attain knowledge of it. Is it a coincidence that an almost identical scenario is painted in the Hermetic texts where, after a lengthy exposition on the sky and stars, we are abruptly told: 

He who has not failed to get knowledge of these things is able to form an exact conception of god… But it is impossible, my son, for one who is yet in the body to attain to this happiness. A man must train his soul in this life, in order that, when it has entered the other world, where it is permitted to see God, it may not miss the way which leads to him. But men who love the body will never see the vision of the Beautiful and Good. How glorious, my son, is the beauty of that which has neither shape nor colour. 63 

In other words, the beauty of the archetype, which ‘cannot be looked at or seen’ by uninitiated men and women because it is perceptible only to the mind and not at all to the senses. 

Transforming the World 
The recurrent emphasis on intelligence, reason and the use of the mind to ‘train the soul’ that characterizes the Hermetic texts was also the wellspring of their immense influence on science and scientific thinking following their rediscovery in the mid-fifteenth century. By promoting the individual’s quest for knowledge and illumination they would prove as powerful an antidote to the dogmas and received wisdoms of the Church during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as the Gnostic teachings of the Cathars had done in the Middle Ages. Nor in our view is it an accident, but an almost inevitable by-product of these closely related systems of thought – wherever and whenever they may be applied – that Cathar Gnosticism stimulated its own ‘mini-Renaissance’ across southern Europe in the twelfth century. 

We speculated in Chapter 2 that this Cathar revolution in religious and philosophical ideas, music and poetry, culture and social order, might have transformed the world if the Church had not crushed it – utterly – in the thirteenth century. It’s true that in the Balkans a few scattered Bogomils lingered on as late as the fifteenth century. To all extents and purposes, however, we accept that the hitherto unbroken chain of Gnostic heresy stretching back to the dawn of the Christian era was snapped when the very last Cathar perfectus, William Belibaste, was burned at the stake in 1321. 

We find it rather remarkable, therefore, that another embodiment of essentially the same ideas should have slipped through the gates of Western culture less than 120 years later. We mean, of course, the Hermetic texts, their emergence from the wilderness after a millennium of silence, and their transferral to the Medici Academy in Florence in 1460. 

Either by accident or by some hidden design, they arrived at exactly the right place and time to bring alive again the ancient religion of ‘salvation through knowledge’ that the Church thought it had just killed. In this latest incarnation, however, it would wear a much more overtly ‘ancient Egyptian’ and much less ‘Christian’ face. Perhaps for that very reason it would also set out a more positive and life-giving route towards the goal of world transformation than Gnosticism, with its world-hatred, could ever have achieved. 

The Hermeticists shared the Gnostic view that evil is inherent in matter, and thus – through the body – in mankind. Yet they did not allow this recognition to seduce them into the mood of hopeless nihilism and species suicide that one sometimes senses could have led Cathar dualism down a very dark road. Far from that, the Hermetic ‘way’ accepted the human condition, sought our transformation through the elevation of the spiritual element within us, and handed the responsibility directly to the individual and to his own conscience: 

It is man’s duty not to acquiesce in his merely human state, but rather, in the strength of his contemplation of things divine, to scorn and despise that mortal part which has been attached to him because it was needful that he should keep and tend this lower world. 64 (Hermetica, Asclepius) 

Moreover, ‘keeping and tending the lower world’ in the Hermetic scenario is not a repulsive and humiliating imprisonment in matter but a sacred responsibility with a vital role in the cosmic scheme of things that can only be fulfilled by man. The texts speak eloquently for themselves: 

Man is a being partly divine and partly mortal; not that he is to be thought the lower because he is mortal in part; we ought rather to regard him as exalted by his mortality in that he is by such a lot more fitly and effectively constituted for a purpose preordained. For since he could not have met the demands of both his functions if he had not been made of both kinds of substance, he was fashioned out of both, to the end that he might be able both to tend the earth and to do service to the Deity. 65 

Man is a marvel, then, Asclepius; honour and reverence to such a being!… Strong in the assurance of that in him which is divine, he scorns the merely human part of his own nature… He raises reverent eyes to heaven above; he tends the earth below… He has access to all; he descends to the depths of the sea by the keenness of his thought; and heaven is not found too high for him, for he measures it by his sagacity, as though it were within his reach. 66 

To man is given charge of that part of the universe which consists of earth and water; and this earthly part of the universe is kept in order by means of man’s knowledge and application of the arts and sciences. For God willed that the universe should not be complete until man had done his part. 67 

If man takes upon him in all its fullness the function assigned to him, that is, the tendence which is his special task, he becomes the means of right order to the Kosmos, and the Kosmos to him. 68 

Despite the protests of scholars that there is no clear link between the Hermetica and the religion of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs too believed that it was their function, and the function of their divine land, to interact in the correct manner with heaven and thus to serve as a force for the maintenance of right order (Ma’at) in the universe. 69 Indeed, the pharaoh was a Hermetic king par excellence, and we’ve suggested that one of the ways that he could fulfil his responsibility to cosmic ‘right order’ would have been to build a temple, or even a city, ‘in the image of heaven’. We’ve shown specific textual authority for such a course of action in the Book of What is in the Duat of the fourteenth century BC. Likewise, in the highly enigmatic Building Texts inscribed at the Temple of Edfu in Upper Egypt in the third century BC, the following words are put into the mouth of the god Thoth-Hermes himself: 

I will cause its [i.e., the temple’s] long dimension to be good, its breadth to be exact, all its measurements to be according to the norm, all its sanctuaries to be in the place where they should be, and its halls to resemble the sky. 70 

Dedicated to Horus, the golden son of Isis and Osiris, the Edfu Temple was built in several stages between 246 and 51 BC by pharaohs of the Graeco-Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty on a site that had been sacred since before 3000 BC. Although there is no doubt that they took their conversion to the ancient Egyptian religion extremely seriously, the Ptolemies were newcomers, having ruled Egypt only from the late fourth century BC following the conquests of the godking Alexander the Great. 

Before his premature death in 323 BC Alexander founded a great city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast that would ever afterwards bear his name – Alexandria. A few centuries later it was here that Christian Gnosticism and its pagan Hermetic twin would emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of the ancient Egyptian religion and begin to wing their way silently towards the modern world.

Chapter 10 
City of the God King 
‘The city still shall follow you…’ (Constantine Cavafy, Alexandrian poet [1863– 1933], ‘The City’, 1930) 

‘Alexandria, the capital of memory!’ (Lawrence Durrell, Clea, The Alexandria Quartet, Faber and Faber, London, 1989) 

‘When alive, Alexander had founded a city; when dead, he gave birth to the universal metropolis…’ (François de Polignac, L’ Hombre d’Alexandre, Editions Autrement, Series no. 19, p. 48) 

In the autumn of 332 BC, Alexander the Great marched triumphantly into Egypt at the head of his Macedonian army after it had crushed the Persians at the battle of Issus in Syria. The Egyptians had been under the much-detested Persian occupation for nearly two centuries, and Alexander was now hailed as their liberator. He entered the Nile valley at Memphis and was immediately crowned pharaoh and legitimate successor of the pharaohs – the divine solar kings who had ruled this ancient land since time immemorial. 

Alexander’s behaviour at this point tells us much about his state of mind. His very first act as pharaoh was to order the complete restoration and restitution of the famous twinned temples of Karnak and Luxor in Upper Egypt (about 500 miles south of Memphis) which had suffered damage and degradation under the Persians. Why did Alexander give this matter such priority? The answer is to be found in the strange circumstances of his birth in 356 BC. 

Alexander’s mother, Olympias, was the daughter of the King of Ipirus (today a part of north-western Greece) and a high-priestess of the temple-oracle of Zeus-Ammon at Dodona, located south-west of the modern city of Ioannina. This oracle was one of the most revered in the ancient world and the story of its foundation was linked to the temple of Amun at Karnak-Luxor in Egypt; it was also considered to be ‘twinned’ to the temple-oracle at the Oasis of Siwa in Egypt – which was likewise dedicated to Zeus-Ammon. The Hellenic scholar Joan Wynne-Thomas presents us with a concise overview of these connections: 

During the fourth century BC there were public sacrifices in Athens to Zeus-Ammon, whose original cult was at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. The cult was, of course, Egypto-Greek, as Ammon or Amun, also in Egyptian Amun-Ra, was the all powerful god of the Egyptian pantheon, whom the Greeks equated with their own great god, Zeus.

Any attempt to explore in detail how and why the Egyptian solar cult of Amun (Zeus-Ammon) came to mainland Greece is outside the scope of this book. But the legendary background is given by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 450 BC, a century or so before the birth of Alexander the Great. This is the story as he reported it: 

About the oracles – that of Dodona in Greece and of Ammon in Libya [Western Egypt or Siwa] – the Egyptians have the following legend: according to the priests of the Theban Zeus [priests of Amun-Ra at Karnak-Luxor], two women connected with the service of the temple [Karnak-Luxor] were carried off by the Phoenicians and sold, one in Libya [Siwa] and one in Greece, and it was these women who founded the oracles of these two countries. I asked the priests at Thebes what grounds they had for being so sure, and they told me that careful search had been made for the women at the time, and that though it was unsuccessful, they had afterwards learned that the facts were just as they had reported them. At Dodona, however, the priestesses who delivered the oracle had a different version of the story: two black doves flew away from Thebes [the district of Karnak-Luxor] in Egypt, and one of them alighted in Dodona, the other in Libya [Siwa]. The former perched on an oak, and speaking with a human voice, told them that there, on the very spot, there should be an oracle of Zeus. Those who heard understood this to be a command from heaven, and at once obeyed. Similarly, the other dove which flew to Libya [Siwa] told the Libyans to found the oracle of Ammon – which is also an oracle of Zeus. The people who gave me this information were the three priestesses Dodona…2 

Also according to Herodotus, it was the Egyptians who originated and eventually taught the Greeks to use ‘ceremonial meetings, processions and liturgies’. He said that the Greeks had even modelled their gods on those of the Egyptians. 

Dodona, Olympias, Egypt and the Persians 
Nowadays such views are scoffed at by Hellenistic scholars and Egyptologists alike. Despite the well-known tendency of the Greeks to ‘identify’ their gods with specific ancient Egyptian deities – e.g. Zeus Ammon or Hermes-Thoth – the academic consensus is that the two pantheons are structurally unrelated. Yet it seems beyond doubt that the cult of Amun-Ra did find its way into Greece at least as early as the fifth century BC, perhaps even much earlier, and was somehow involved with the temple oracle at Dodona. 

Dodona itself is located in the lovely pastoral and mountainous region of Epirus adjacent to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, where Alexander the Great was born. No one really knows the truth about exactly when or why it was consecrated, but according to consensus: 

The original shrine of the oracle probably existed before 2000 BC, and was dedicated to the ‘Earth-mother’ or goddess. This was a cult of southern Greece which had, like the cult of Zeus, originated in the east. Archaeological finds date from the Early Bronze Age, approximately 2500 BC, and are in the Museum of Ioannina. There is a mention of the shrine by Homer, in the Iliad, which is the earliest reference known…3 

The priests of Dodona were known as the Helli or Selli, and it was they who interpreted the proclamations and prophecies made at the oracle. This they did by listening to the rustling of leaves from an oak grove within the sanctuary. Legend had it that it was from the wood of this sacred grove that was fashioned the prow of Jason’s ship carrying the Argonauts (hence the figurehead’s gift of speech and prophecy). 

The Dodona temple-oracle was held in particular reverence by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who had consulted it on numerous occasions. But Philip’s links with the oracle were to go much deeper when he married Olympias. The latter, as we have said, had been a priestess at Dodona and is known to have been a zealous devotee of the god Amun of Egypt. 

Philip met Olympias when he was twenty-six years old and she sixteen. The fateful encounter took place on the island of Samothrace, off the Thracian coastline of Greece. Philip and Olympias had both come independently to the island in order to attend the religious celebration of the Cabeiri, a curious festival where violent fertility and sexual rituals were performed in various mythical settings. It was during one of these events that Philip and Olympias fell in love, and thus began that potent union that was to change the course of world history. 

Endowed with a deep and mystical nature, the young and lovely Olympias was obsessed with the idea that she was destined to bear a divine child in the likeness of the god Dionysos – in Greek mythology the handsome and heroic son of Zeus, who had been born from the womb of the mortal Semele. Dionysos literally means ‘Son of God’, and Olympias would certainly have been acquainted with the works of the Greek historian Herodotus who, a century earlier, had identified Dionysos with the Egyptian god Osiris. 4 

When Olympias became Philip II’s queen in 357 BC, Egypt was under assault by the Persians, the most bitter enemies of the Greeks and Macedonians. In 525 BC Cambyses, the son of the legendary Cyrus I, had occupied Egypt and thus widened his already vast empire. His successor, Darius I, consolidated Persian rule in the Nile valley after suppressing a major Egyptian revolt there. Then he took his army north across the Mediterranean and occupied Thrace and Macedon before being decisively defeated at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. A decade later the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece and brought terrible destruction to Athens, but he too was eventually defeated in 479 BC. 

Even though Darius and Xerxes had failed in Greece, the fear that a new Persian invasion would be attempted at some point was a very real one. Neighbouring countries were also targets. By 356 BC, when Alexander was born, Egypt had freed herself from Persian rule but was under attack again and was finally reoccupied in 350 BC. Humiliated and defeated, Egypt suffered heavily under the new ‘King of Kings’ of Persia, Artaxerxes III, who was a brutal and merciless oppressor – as was his equally vicious son, Oarses. So despised was their rule that they were eventually poisoned by one of their eunuchs called Bogoas, who offered the throne of the ‘King of Kings’ of Persia to Darius III. Bogoas was duly ‘rewarded’ by being forced to swallow his own poison. 

Nectanebo, Osiris, and the Ancestry of Alexander 
For a brief period Egypt managed to oust the Persians yet again, and the last native pharaoh to rule there was Nectanebo II, who had usurped the throne from his brother Teos in 358 BC – two years before the birth of Alexander. There is a tale told of Nectanebo II that seems worth recounting, even though it is almost certainly fictional, in view of its association with the strange circumstances surrounding Alexander’s birth. But first we should place Nectanebo II in the correct historical setting. 

After initial successes in resisting the Persians, Nectanebo II was hailed by his people as a great hero and liberator. Much loved for his military deeds and for his devotion to the supreme god Amun (whose ‘son’ he deemed himself to be) he was also renowned as a powerful magician 5 – a reputation that was taken very seriously in ancient Egypt. As Alexander was to do some years later, Nectanebo marked his coronation by ordering a massive restoration programme for the many sanctuaries of Amun that had been destroyed or desecrated by the Persians. He paid special attention to the restoration of the temple complex of Karnak-Luxor. It had been Nectanebo’s own father who had been partly responsible for the magnificent avenue of sphinxes (a segment of which survives to this day) that joined Karnak with Luxor. Nectanebo also restored the existing temples of Amun at the Oasis at Siwa, and built a magnificent new one there, the remains of which still stand at the Umm Ybaydah area of the modern oasis. 6 

Married to Philip or not, we may imagine that the association of Nectanebo II with the temple-oracle of Amun at Siwa must have impressed the young Olympias, who, as we recall, harboured dreams of giving birth to a ‘Son of Amun’. Surely the idea of being seeded by a pharaoh in whose veins flowed the blood of the god Amun, and who had such close links with the oracular centre of Amun at Siwa as well as Luxor, would have been one of the wild fantasies of this very impressionable and very young queen? In this respect, the strange stories reported by some of Alexander’s biographers might contain an element of truth in them. According to one such account found in pseudo-Callisthenes, Nectanebo fled Egypt after the Persian invasion that ultimately dethroned him, and made his way to Macedon in Greece. There he was received at the court of Philip II, to whom Nectanebo presented himself as a magician and astrologer. At night, however, the exiled pharaoh turned into a huge snake, a symbol of Amun, and in this form seduced and impregnated Olympias. 7 

Another legend, this time associating the royal ancestry of Alexander the Great with the god Osiris of Egypt, is told by the Greek chronicler Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the first century bc. In Book I of his famous Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus recounts the mythical origins of the non-Hellenic and Hellenic people of Greece up to the destruction of Troy. It is in this first book that the story of Macedon, a mysterious ‘son’ of Osiris, is narrated. 8 

According to Diodorus, Osiris left Egypt with his brother Apollo on a universal mission to teach men to plant the vine and sow crops of wheat and barley: 

two sons of Osiris, Anubis and Macedon,… took the field with him… Osiris also brought Pan [Egyptian Min] on this expedition. 

[After visiting the countries of Africa and Asia] Osiris… crossed over into Europe at the Hellespont. In Thrace he slew Lycurgus, a barbarian king who opposed his plans… And he left his son Macedon behind as king of Macedonia, which was named after him… 

Diodorus does not give us his sources. It is generally thought that for the part of his Bibliotheca dealing with Greek history, he drew from the works of earlier writers such as Ephorus and Hieronymus of Cardia. For his Egyptian material the evidence suggests that Diodorus relied heavily on Hecataeus of Abdera. 

Hecataeus (365–270 BC) lived in Alexandria – the prototypical city of the classical world, founded in Egypt by Alexander the Great. There Hecataeus benefited from the liberal protection of Ptolemy I Soter, the general in Alexander’s army who set himself up as Pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BC after Alexander’s premature death. As a foreign traveller who reached as far south as the temples of Karnak and Luxor, Hecataeus was an eyewitness to the early stage of Greek and Egyptian fusion in Egypt. He produced a rather idealized account, the Aegyptiaca, aimed at Greek readers, and it was this text that was to serve as Diodorus’ source when he came to write his own history of Egypt 200 years later. 

Let us look at the context when Hecataeus was in Egypt. First, it is well known that Ptolemy I Soter was extremely keen to promote any idea that would integrate his newly founded ‘pharaonic’ Macedonian dynasty with that of the true Egyptian solar pharaohs whose divine lineage was believed to extend back to the god Osiris. It is, therefore, quite possible that Hecataeus made up the story of Osiris’ journey to Greece and the founding of Macedonia by one of his ‘sons’ – Macedon – in order to create a link between the Macedonian ‘pharaoh’ of Alexandria and the mythical ancestry of Egyptian pharaohs. 

In Egyptian mythology Osiris had only one son, Horus, whose sacred animal was not the wolf, as Diodorus says, but the hawk or falcon. It is easy to see how such a mythological association between Osiris and the origin of the Macedonian royal family, when it is also coupled with the strange tales told by pseudo-Callisthenes about the pregnancy of Olympias, would create a belief that Alexander was somehow linked by birth to the gods of Egypt and, by extension, would add legitimacy to the Macedonian claim to pharaonic kingship in Alexandria. This strange belief and, especially, as we shall see, the persistent theme of a symbolic sexual union between the god Amun and Olympias, would have untold repercussions on the future history of Egypt and, by cultural osmosis, the rest of the Hellenistic world. 

Lightning Seed and the Star Sirius 
Legend has it that when Olympias gave birth to Alexander the two stone eagles that decorated the roof of her apartments were struck by lightning. Other accounts speak of living eagles that came to perch there. Others say that at that very same moment the temple of Diana Artemis at Ephesus was destroyed by fire while the goddess herself was in Macedon attending Alexander’s birth. This link involving Diana-Artemis, eagles and the lightning bolt is most interesting. For Diana-Artemis was worshipped at Ephesus in the form of a sacred omphalos – a conical or pyramid-shaped stone which had supposedly ‘fallen from the sky’ as though ejected from a lightning-bolt. It was also said that the foundation of the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi occurred when two eagles sent from Zeus alighted near the omphalos there. Meanwhile in Egypt a pyramid-shaped ‘stone from heaven’ called the Benben had formed the central symbol of religious worship at the sacred city of Heliopolis since before history began. 9 Indeed such baetyls and omphali played a significant role in many ancient religions, and were typically associated with fertility and the birth of divinities. 

According to Plutarch, Olympias claimed that she had become pregnant when lightning had struck her womb and fertilized her with the seed of Zeus-Amun – thus siring Alexander. 10 Elsewhere Plutarch narrates how the womb of the sacred cow-goddess of Egypt (a form of Isis) was also seeded by the god’s lightning in order to create the new Apis calf, symbol of the ruling solar pharaohs, i.e., the Horus-king. 11 In Egyptian religious iconography, the goddess Isis was often represented by a cow with a five-pointed star above her head, the latter being the star Sirius, called Sothis by the Greeks. Traditionally the heliacal (dawn) rising of this star denoted the moment of the divine birth of the solar kings of Egypt. It is therefore notable that many classical authors fix the birth of Alexander at 20 July in the Julian calendar, a date that would have been on or near the heliacal rising of Sirius in that epoch. The implication is that this star must have played an important role in his birth-myth. As French author Jean-Michel Augebert points out, it even led Alexander to abandon the old Greek calendar and replace it with one like that of the Egyptians that was based on the heliacal rising of Sirius. He did this some time before his armies reached Egypt: 

The doors of Egypt now lay open for him. But Alexander met up with further resistance at the port of Tyre, the siege of which lasted for six months, from January to July 332 BC, which Alexander did not want to leave behind. There occurred, then, an extraordinary event: the taking of the city corresponded to the astronomical date of the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog-star, which meant that the star, after having been absent in the sky for a part of the year [seventy days], reappeared in the east horizon to mark the victory of Alexander and to announce that he would soon be wearing the crown of pharaoh… [thus] Alexander the Great, pious son of Amun, modified the Greek calendar such that henceforth the rising of Sirius would mark the New Year, as it was done in Egypt…12 

Further strengthening the sense of a definite association between Alexander and the star Sirius, Jean-Michel Augebert also draws attention to the so-called ‘ascent to the sky of Alexander’. This was an illustrative theme popularized in medieval times which showed the deified Alexander rising to heaven and the sun on a carriage towed by griffins with a five-pointed star – identified as Sirius by Augebert – leading the way: 

Many scenes, sculptures, paintings and even jewellery represent this apotheosis… Concerning the ‘ascension’ of the hero, we often see Alexander standing in the chariot of Helios (the sun) pulled by griffins or lions; another type of representation shows him being carried on his throne; a third type shows Alexander being carried by eagles towards the sun. On all these representations, a star is seen shining over the head of the figure, an obvious symbol of Sirius, the celestial body which presides over the destiny of kings according to the Egyptians…13 

This association with the ‘birth star’ Sirius is also found with Alexander’s successors and in the city of Alexandria itself. For according to French Egyptologist Sydney H. Aufère, a specialist in Ptolemaic studies, 14 the Ptolemaic queens were portrayed wearing the head-gear of the goddess Sothis, i.e., Sirius. Aufère also shows that the goddess of the Pharos, the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, was once again none other than Sothis/Sirius. This strongly suggests that the spot of bright light that mariners would see when approaching the coastline of Egypt was likened to the spot of light from the star Sirius when rising in the east to guide the mariners back to Alexandria. 

Son of Amun 
Plutarch also reported another version of the birth-myth of Alexander which seems to be related to the Nectanebo story told by pseudo Callisthenes, but this time without the presence of Nectanebo. In the Plutarch version Philip II peeped through the keyhole of Olympias’ chamber on the night of their nuptials, and was aghast to see his virgin wife in their bed copulating vigorously with a huge snake. Deeply shocked, Philip went to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, where he was told that he must henceforth make special sacrifice to Zeus-Amun, for the snake was a well-known symbol of Zeus-Amun. 

Another incident that also seems to reflect this link between Alexander and Zeus-Amun concerns the city of Aphitis, which surrendered to the forces of Phillip II without a struggle on the day of Alexander’s birth. The people of Aphitis were worshippers of Zeus Amun on account of which, 150 years earlier, Aphitis had been spared by the great Spartan general, Lysander. This was because Lysander himself was a devotee of Zeus-Amun and had actually performed a pilgrimage to Siwa to consult the oracle there. 15 

After Alexander was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt at Memphis and recognized as the legitimate heir to Nectanebo II, he too set out with a small party of friends to the Oasis of Siwa. His companions included his childhood friend, Ptolemy (future ‘Pharaoh’ of Egypt), and Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle. They followed the desert route west from Rhakotis (the site of the future Alexandria) towards Marsa Matruh, some 320 kilometres away. Today the journey from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh is covered in four hours by car, but Alexander and his group took at least a week on horseback. 

From there the royal party turned due south and inland and began their slow march towards Siwa, which required a further eight days. Now, as it would have been in Alexander’s time, the whole route is arid flat desert with only the occasional mound or hill to change the monotony of the quasi-lunar landscape. After hours of this, however, the vista suddenly changes into a sort of mini-Grand Canyon, and in the distance, like some desert Shangri La, spreads the lush oasis flanked by two lakes in the east and west. 

Upon entering Siwa, Alexander was hailed with the cries ‘son of Amun’. With great ceremony he was then escorted to the oracle temple of Zeus-Amun, where he was taken by the high priest into the inner sanctuary. No one knows what happened to Alexander there, or what he saw, but it is probable, amongst other things, that he was shown an omphalos sacred to Amun as evidence of his own divinity. 16 

The Intellectual Parenthood of Alexandria 
Far to the south of Siwa the city of Thebes, our modern Luxor, with its vast temple complex dedicated to the supreme god, Amun, was the sacred city par excellence of the ancient world even at the height of Greek civilization. And although Heliopolis – in the north of Egypt near the Great Pyramids – had been pre-eminent in earlier times, it was now at Thebes that the solar kings of Egypt were deemed to be legitimized and divinized. So it was perfectly natural, and indeed predictable, that Alexander the Great, in his capacity as the ‘son of Amun’, would have wanted to link his own person to Thebes. 

This was why he acted so swiftly to restore the temple complex there, the most important centre of Amun worship in Egypt. When we consider that he also had the temple’s inner sanctuary converted into a chapel bearing his own name it is clear that he soon intended to perform a pilgrimage to Luxor – there to be consecrated, like all solar kings before him, as the ‘son of Amun’. Fate intervened, however, and Alexander died on campaign in Babylon. His troops decided that he should be buried in Egypt, in the land of his ‘father’ Zeus-Amun. 17 Ptolemy, now in control of Egypt, and soon to become pharaoh, intercepted the funerary cortège and took command of the body of Alexander which, some years later, he would finally bring to Alexandria. 

Alexandria had been Alexander’s dream. He had wanted to create a new city dedicated to wisdom and learning – a sort of intellectual bridge on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea that would unite east and west. It was to be a city that would enlighten the world. 

When Alexander was a boy, his father, Philip II, selected for him a special tutor. The choice fell on Aristotle, the greatest and most imaginative and influential philosopher of the epoch. 

Aristotle was born in the year 384 BC at the city of Stagira in Macedon. His father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician and friend of the king of Macedon, Amyntas II, the grandfather of Alexander the Great. At seventeen Aristotle travelled to Athens and entered Plato’s Academy, and soon became its most noted pupil, so much so that his master, Plato, called him ‘the intelligence of the school’. When Plato died in 347 BC, Aristotle left the Academy and embarked on a journey that took him to all parts of Greece and Asia Minor. Then in the year 342 BC Philip II of Macedon summoned him to his court at Pella, and appointed him tutor to his fourteen-year-old son, Alexander. Aristotle, who was now forty-two, brought along his brilliant nephew Callisthenes and also the scientist Theophrastus. The team of learned men were provided with a country residence at Mieza near Pella, where, for the next three years, Alexander was tutored and groomed. 

When Alexander became king at the age of twenty-one, Aristotle left Macedon and returned to Athens, where he founded his famous Lyceum. It was there that he created the first prototype of a university library; it would eventually be transferred after his death to the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Aristotle died at the age of sixty-two, a year after Alexander’s death in Babylon. His lectures were collated in 150 volumes devoted to philosophy, ethics, politics and, his great love, the natural sciences. Until the Middle Ages Aristotle was regarded as the supreme authority on all matters concerning science. He was to write, probably with Alexander in mind, that: ‘If there is one man superior in goodness and political capacity to all others, such a person may be like a god among men… and should be gladly obeyed, for they are permanent kings.’ 18 

There is much speculation and debate as to what extent Alexander’s sense of mission might have been influenced by Aristotle. Apart from teaching the sciences to Alexander, the philosopher’s main objective was to instil in his pupil his concept of ‘virtues’, the most important of which, according to Aristotle, was reason. A few years before Aristotle became tutor to Alexander, he had completed his famous work on Politika (The Politics) in which he examines various systems of ‘constitutions’ and expounds on the idea of the ‘Ideal State’. And it would seem almost certain that Aristotle discussed his concept of the ‘Ideal State’ with the young Alexander and imbued the future hero-king with those high virtues and ideals that were eventually to be put into practice at Alexandria in Egypt. 19 Alexander also received from Aristotle copies of Herodotus’ Histories as well as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which became the future world conqueror’s most precious possessions. 

In the Odyssey Homer speaks of the fabled island of Pharos off the coast of Egypt in connection with the Argonauts, while Herodotus recounts how Helen of Troy and Paris took refuge at Herakleion, a few miles east of the future Alexandria. So enthralled and influenced was Alexander by these epics that apparently he once angrily slapped Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle, for openly criticizing Homer. It was such literary influences, and the influence of his mother Olympias, that must have fired Alexander in his quest to weld the eastern and western worlds into one great empire ruled from a capital city of light modelled on the ideal state: Alexandria. 

The Founding of the Universal City 
It is often said that sound military principles are sufficient to explain why the peninsula of Rhakotis on the Mediterranean Sea was chosen as the site of Alexandria. The assumption is that Alexander saw in the natural harbour formed between the small island of Pharos and the peninsula the ideal place to build a port. Tradition has it that although Alexander had selected the site, it was the architect Dinoclates of Rhodes who actually designed the city. In opposition to this view, we shall attempt to show that a strong Egyptian influence also cast its spell over the whole enterprise from the very beginning. 

There was a kind of enchantment and magic about this place that was unlikely to have been ignored by Alexander and his other educated companions such as Ptolemy and Callisthenes, especially considering the high spirits and frame of mind they were in. They all were keen readers of Homer’s works and surely were now acutely aware that in the Odyssey Homer wrote: ‘There is an island in the surging sea which they call Pharos, lying off the coast of Egypt. It has a harbour with good anchorage and hence they (the Argonauts) put out to sea after drawing water.’ 20 

To Alexander and his loyal companions, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey had the same forceful effect as the Bible had on the crusading Christian knights in medieval times. Most educated Greeks could quite easily recite long sections from Homer, and often quoted Homer, as we do the Bible today, as the source of moral and practical examples for daily life. Leaders such as Alexander – perhaps especially Alexander – used the Iliad and Odyssey not only for spiritual and moral guidance, but also as a practical guidebook for their own lives. And there is much to suppose that Alexander saw himself as a Homerian hero of boundless courage and dash. 

It must be realized that such heroes were not viewed by the Greeks as mythological and legendary characters but rather as real historical men and women who had lived in a golden age among the gods. When Alexander and his companions came upon the island that Homer had described in such warm terms we may therefore safely imagine that they took it as a favourable omen from the gods. It was recalled by Alexander and his engineers and architects that Pythagoras, the ‘father of geometry and philosophy’, and likewise the noble Plato after him, had also sojourned in Lower Egypt as guests or ‘students’ of the Heliopolitan priests and had learned from them the wisdom that had made Greek culture great. Such evocative visions of Homer, Pythagoras and particularly Plato, the tutor of Aristotle himself, surely inspired the young conqueror, then barely twenty-four years old, to raise, near this magical Homerian island of Pharos, a great and wonderful city. What he had in mind was a metropolis that would rival Athens and in which the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle could mingle with the ancient wisdom of Egypt. 

So, using Pythagorian geometry, Alexander’s architect, Dinoclates, began to draw the plan of the future Alexandria, with Alexander himself supervising every small detail. The city, oblong in shape, would be developed on a system of parallel grids. The main east–west artery, to be known as the Canopus Way, would bear the name of the Homerian hero Kanopos, the legendary navigator who steered the ship bearing Helen of Troy. According to a legend, Helen and her lover, Paris, had taken refuge at Canopus (modern Abukir) at the eastern end of the Alexandrian shoreline on their way to Troy. Helen was the daughter of the god Zeus from his union with Leda, as well as the sister of the famous immortals the Dioscuri, i.e., the twins Castor and Pollux, who became stars in the zodiacal constellation of Gemini. 

Helen of Troy, the Egyptian Aphrodite and Isis-Pharia 
There is a curious story told of Helen which is of relevance to the connection Alexander the Great felt with Egypt, and gives us more background to his mystical claims to descend from the divine lineage of the pharaohs. This story is found in a poem of Stesichrus (632–553 BC) which has it that after escaping from her husband (King Menelaus) Helen and Paris attempted to sail to Troy. On the way their ship was driven by a storm to the shores of Egypt near Canopus. Here the ‘real’ Helen was detained by the Pharaoh Proteus, whilst a ‘phantom’ Helen – a very similar idea to the ‘phantom’ or ‘apparition’ Christ of the later Gnostic Gospels – went on to Troy with Paris. 

Stesichrus’ version of the story was later made into a play by Euripides around 412 BC, but underwent further mutation, placing the ‘real’ Helen in the custody not of the legendary Proteus but of his equally legendary son Theoclymenus. Herodotus, too, reports a somewhat similar story, which he tells us he obtained from an Egyptian priest. 21 He also speaks of a temple dedicated to ‘Aphrodite the Stranger’ in honour of Helen, within the royal city of Memphis: 

Within the enclosure there is a temple dedicated to Aphrodite the Stranger. I should guess, myself, that it was built in honour of Helen daughter of Tyndraeus, not only because I have heard it said that she passed some time at the court of Proteus, but also, more particularly, because of the description of Aphrodite as ‘the stranger’, a title never given to this goddess in any of her other temples (in Egypt). 22 

To the Greeks the ‘Egyptian Aphrodite’ was the goddess whom the ancient Egyptians called Hathor. 23 But the Greeks also associated the goddess Isis, in her loving aspect, with Aphrodite. This suggests that they appreciated the very close connection that does in fact exist between Hathor and Isis in the ancient Egyptian pantheon and, presumably, the association that Hathor and Isis share with the star Sirius. In Ptolemaic Alexandria Isis also became the protecting deity of the port and of its famous lighthouse, the Pharos (named after the island of Pharos on which it stood). In this capacity, Isis was known as Isis-Pharia, the protector of mariners, suggesting another connection with Helen of Troy, who – presumably on account of her many nautical adventures – was similarly called the ‘patron goddess of sailors’. 

There was a temple dedicated to Isis-Pharia near the Pharos. Apparently also her colossal statue once stood directly outside the Pharos, and is likely to have been perceived as part of the lighthouse complex. In Roman times Isis was frequently known as Stella Maris, i.e., ‘Star of the Sea’, 24 and the same epithet has, for a very long while, been applied by Christians to the Virgin Mary. Sir James Fraser, the great British mythologist of the 1920s, goes so far as to suggest a causal link: 

To Isis in her later character of patroness of mariners the Virgin Mary perhaps owes her beautiful epithet of Stella Maris, ‘Star of the Sea’, under which she is adored by tempest tossed sailors. The attributes of a marine deity may have been bestowed on Isis by the seafaring Greeks of Alexandria. They are quite foreign to her original character and to the habits of the Egyptians, who had no love of the sea. On this hypothesis Sirius, the bright star of Isis, which on July mornings rises from the glassy waves of the eastern Mediterranean, a harbinger of halcyon weather to mariners, was the true Stella Maris, ‘the Star of the Sea’. 25 

Let us also note that many of the Ptolemaic queens of Alexandria, and especially the celebrated Cleopatra, identified themselves with Isis Pharia or Isis-Sothis (Sirius) and, to emphasize their beauty and art of love-making, with Isis-Aphrodite as well. Glamorous Cleopatra posed as the goddess Isis-Aphrodite when she presented herself to Mark Antony in Tarsus. According to Egyptologist Julia Samson: 

The dramatic couple quickly became linked in people’s minds with the gods: Anthony with Bacchus (Dionysos) whom the Greeks associated with Osiris; and Cleopatra with Venus (Aphrodite) and long associated with Isis…26 

The connection between Sothis-Sirius and Isis-Pharia of the Pharos is probably due to the beacon of light from the lighthouse as it was seen from afar by sailors approaching the harbour, and may explain why the Pharos lighthouse was sometimes called ‘the second sun’ 27 – a term used by the ancient Egyptians for the star Sirius. 28 At the temple of Isis on the island of Pharos, the statue of the goddess wore a crown made up of a sun/moon disc surmounted by two gazelle horns. 29 These horns, according to French Egyptologist Sydney H. Aufère, are similar to those of the goddess Satis, the divine gazelle who watches over the Nile’s flood. 30 The same headdress is seen on representations of the Ptolemaic queens at temples in Upper Egypt such as Denderah, Philae, Edfu and others. Dr Aufère also points out that Ptolemy III, in the Canopus Decree of 238 BC, states how he had adjusted the religious and civic calendars (which had become desynchronized with the passage of time) so that the start of the new year would once again coincide with the heliacal rising of Sirius – an event which itself coincided closely with the beginning of the Nile’s flood in mid-summer. Aufère also offers this account of why one of the many names of Sirius was ‘the Eye of Ra’: 

In order to explain the mechanism of the Flood on the religious level, there was witnessed at the opening of the new year a fusion or ‘coalescence’ of the solar and lunar myths, such that the ‘Distant One’ was considered both as the ‘Eye of Ra’ and the ‘Eye of Horus’ – in other words Sirius and the full Moon. The two – the star and the Moon – unite the magical effects of their manifestations which result in the Nile’s Flood. Sirius by its rising announced the New Year and the Flood, and the full Moon symbolising the fullness of the latter. 31 

Brief Excursion to Paris 
According to the French Egyptologist Bernard Mathieu: 

Isis was named Pelagia (‘of the sea’), or Euploia (‘of safe navigation’) and Pharia (‘of Pharos’), and was said to have invented the sail and had a temple on the island of Pharos. She was so famous in the whole Mediterranean world that we find her even in 17th century manuscripts, and comfortably installed on the prow of the boat on the coat of arms of Paris which Napoleon commissioned in 1811…32 

The reader will recall from Chapter 1 the bizarre religious rituals and symbolism of the French Revolution that frequently seemed to link the city of Paris explicitly to the goddess Isis. The comments made by Dr Mathieu suggest that such a link may have some basis in historical truth. It is also notable that the seventeenth-century writer, Jean Tristan, claimed that the name Paris was actually derived from Isis-Pharia or, more precisely, from Pharia-Isis corrupted to Paria-Isis and, finally, to Paris. 

Tristan based his hypothesis on ancient coins dating from the time of the Roman Emperor Julian which depict his empress, Helen, as Isis-Pharia or Faria. 33 Julian, who reigned some decades after Constantine, brought a very temporary halt to the onward march of Christianity and was commonly known as ‘Julian the Apostate’ for having readopted the ancient pagan cults and declared himself a ‘follower of Helios’, the sun-god. Helios in turn was a divinity whom the Romans closely associated with Alexander the Great. 

Julian had governed Gaul – ancient France – for five years and had resided in Lutecia, ancient Paris, for three years between 358 and 360 AD. Julian and his wife Helen were also devotees of the Alexandrian god Serapis and the goddess Isis-Pharia, and may have imposed, or at the very least encouraged, her cult on the inhabitants of Lutecia. At any rate, Jean Tristan was to write: 

The Parisians received their name of Paria Isis, because of the cult of this goddess which had been introduced in Illyria and in Gaul, in the region next to the river Seine and in Lutecia, called ‘Lutecia of the Parisians’, or ‘Farisians’, because of this. 34 

As further support to this hypothesis, the French classicist Jurgis Baltrušaitus points out that in a fragment of a manuscript from St Hilaire concerning the synod of Rimini, the city of Paris is actually referred to by him as ‘Farisea Civitas’ i.e., the city of the Farisians or, as Jean Tristan suggested, the city of those who worship Isis-Pharia or Faria Isis. 35 We shall return to this problem in a later chapter. 

The Canopus Way 
The Roman writer Arrian tells us that, when Alexander came to the site on the coast where his future city, Alexandria, would rise: 

he was taken by a strong desire to carry out his project, and setting out himself the plan of the city, he fixed the place where the Agora should go, the number of sanctuaries and to which deities [they were dedicated]: the Greek gods but also to Isis, goddess of Egypt…36 

The ‘Agora’ was the equivalent of a town hall or square where public meetings were held in Greek cities. In the case of Alexandria the Agora was located at the intersection of two main arteries, the north–south artery known as the Soma and the east–west artery known as the Canopus Way. This arrangement formed a huge cross and it was at the intersection of its two arms, according to most accounts, that was eventually raised a small Doric temple to serve as the mausoleum for the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. 

At both ends of the Canopus Way were gates. The west gate was called the ‘Gate of the Moon’ (Selene) while the east gate was the ‘Gate of the Sun’ (Helios). 

It has always been assumed that the physical layout of Alexandria was designed in accordance with the principles of Greek city planning based on a rigid grid system with sets of parallel roads crisscrossing each other at right angles. In fact such grid plans were also known in Egypt long before the Greeks. The French Egyptologist André Bernard rightly observes that the Giza necropolis in the area of the Great Pyramids is effectively a mortuary city gridded with roads running east–west and north–south. A similar scheme can be seen at Saqqara and, much further south, at Akhetaten (modern Tel-el-Amarna), the city of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. 37 

This notwithstanding, what is often not considered as a direct influence on the design of Alexandria is the state of mind of the twenty-four-year-old Alexander the Great at the time of the foundation of the city. He had just conquered the hitherto invincible solar Persian King of Kings, Darius III, and was now the undisputed ruler of the known world. He had been hailed as hero and liberator by the Egyptians, and recognized as the legitimate successor of the Pharaoh Nectanebo II. He had been proclaimed the ‘son of Amun’ and ‘son of Isis’ plus all the other titles attributed to a legitimate pharaoh of Egypt. And all this had happened almost certainly immediately before the foundation of the city of Alexandria. 

Another factor to consider is Alexander’s deep psychological identification with the temple complex of Karnak-Luxor at Thebes as an expression of his identification with the god Amun. The French scholar François de Polignac has pointed out that Alexander demonstrated an unusual knowledge and sensitivity to Egyptian religious customs by paying so much attention to the restoration of this temple and, more particularly, by grafting his own name on to the inner sanctuary near the temple’s sacred ‘birth room’ or mammisi. These acts suggest that Alexander must have been closely advised by a native Egyptian high priest, probably much in the same way that the high priest Oud-ja-Hor-esne of Sais had acted as advisor to the Persian King Cambyses, and the high priest Manetho of Heliopolis was to become senior advisor to Ptolemy I Soter, the successor of Alexander the Great in Egypt. 38 

We have seen how Alexander had developed a connection with the star Sirius, the star of Isis and divine birth, when he changed the Greek calendar at Tyre. We have seen, too, how the rising of this star was the ‘calibrator’ of the Nile’s flood and we will show in a later chapter how its position on the eastern horizon often served to align the axis of ancient Egyptian temples dedicated to the birth of Horus, the ‘son’ of Isis-Hathor. Finally, we have also noted that the heliacal rising of Sirius during Alexander’s lifetime fell on the ‘official’ date of his birth, i.e., 20–21 July (Julian). 

It would be odd, indeed improbable, if such a rich network of symbols, ideologies and mythical associations had not influenced Alexander when he was about to supervise the design of a city on the Mediterranean shore of Egypt opposite the enchanted island of Pharos… 

Brief Excursion on Napoleon and Sirius 
Before Napoleon invaded Egypt and occupied Cairo at the end of the eighteenth century he commissioned the famous mathematician Gaspard Monge to round up a group of the finest scholars – called the ‘lumières’ or ‘lights’ in those days – to accompany the expedition. Comprising a total of 167 men, the group of savants included the mathematician Fourier, the chemist Berthollet, the naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the geologist Domie, the geographer Jomard and the engineer Conte. Such men were to form the basis of Napoleon’s Institut d’Egypte, a sort of academy of science – the first of its kind ever to study ancient Egyptian monuments – founded on 22 August 1798, very soon after the invasion. Vivant Denon, a painter and a favourite of the future Empress Josephine, became the institute’s first director, while Gaspard Monge was made its first president. 

The reader may recall from Chapter 1 that Monge was a Freemason and a prominent member of the Nine Sisters lodge in Paris. He was instrumental in creating the so-called republican calendar, which, we also saw in Chapter 1, was almost certainly modelled on the ancient Egyptian civic calendar ‘calibrated’ by the heliacal rising of Sirius. On 22 September 1798 the first volume of the Institut d’Egypte’s journal was published. Its title was the Décade égyptienne, a name selected by Monge to evoke this new republican calendar. 

It was on 5 March 1798 that Napoleon left Paris for Toulon to meet up with the fleet that he had readied to sail for Egypt. And it was on 21 July 1798 that Napoleon engaged the Egyptian Mamluk army at the Battle of the Pyramids. Whether by design or by chance is yet to be decided but it is a fact that both these dates have a direct association with Isis, her ‘boat’ and her ‘star’. In ancient Rome 5 March had marked the well-known feast of Isis Navigum or Isis/Pharia, when an effigy of the goddess seated in her boat was carried in procession around the city. And 21 July (Julian) was the date of the heliacal rising of Sirius. Coincidence? Perhaps. But we shall return to such issues in later chapters. 

Mapping Ancient Alexandria 
After Napoleon, the fine example set by the Institut d’Egypte later prompted the new ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, to fund the education and training of Egyptian scholars in France. His most prominent scholar was the astronomer Mahmoud el Falaki, better known as Mahmoud Bey, who was to found the first modern astronomical observatory in Egypt. Mahmoud Bey was also trained as an engineer and geographer, a combination that was to serve him well in his ‘Alexandria Mapping Project’ that was to come later under the Khedive Ismail in 1865. Perhaps it should be also noted that Mahmoud Bey’s numerous other contributions to science, such as the charting of geomagnetic and meteorological phenomena around the globe, earned him the respect and official praise of the Belgian as well as the French Academies of Science. 

During his Alexandria Mapping Project, Mahmoud Bey carried out excavations and through them was able to determine that there had been eleven main streets running parallel along the width of the ancient city, and seven main streets also running parallel but at right angles to the other eleven. The two principal arteries were confirmed as the Canopus Way running the length of the city, and the Soma, running the width of the city, thus, as we’ve observed, forming a huge ‘cross’ by their intersection. 

Some European archaeologists were quick to criticize Mahmoud Bey’s ‘reborn’ plan of ancient Alexandria, but according to Dr JeanYves Empereur, the present director of the Centre of Alexandrian Studies in Egypt:

In spite of the criticisms levelled at it in the later 19th century, this plan is still used by archaeologists today ... Mahmoud el Falaki decided to publish his plan in Copenhagen in 1872, six years after he had completed it. It is an outstanding work, reflecting the considerable resources employed in its production, rendered even more effective by the support of the Khedive and the solid training of its maker. Almost a century and a half after its publication it is still used as a reference work by archaeologists working in Alexandria. 39 

The Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon 
After digging several trial pits and trenches, Mahmoud Bey was able to establish that the Canopus Way was approximately 2300 metres long and that its axis was oriented to a point on the horizon about 24 degrees north of east. 40 Two factors indicate that this alignment was not accidental but was interwoven in the astronomical ideologies prevailing at the time. The first, of course, is the conspicuous angle of 24 degrees north of east, which immediately brings to attention a possible solar alignment close to the summer solstice. The other factor, perhaps even more obvious, is that the gate on the eastern side of the Canopus Way was called the ‘Gate of Helios’, i.e., the ‘Gate of the Sun’, again strongly suggestive of a solar alignment. The sun’s rising points on the eastern horizon as observed from Alexandria fluctuate between 28 degrees south of east (winter solstice) and 28 degrees north of east (summer solstice), with the mid-point, due east, falling on the spring and autumn equinoxes. 

In his Life of Alexander, the well-known first-century author Plutarch tells us: ‘Alexander was born the 6th of Hekatombaion, which month the Macedonians call Lous, the same day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burned…’ Hekatombaion, the first month in the Greek year, began on the first new moon immediately following the summer solstice. From this, many chronologists have calculated that Alexander must have been born on 20 July (in the Julian calendar) or very near to that date. Since this was also the time of year when the sun rose in the horoscope sign of Leo, it may explain the powerful leonine symbolism that ancient writers associated with Alexander’s birth and character. 41 

The persistent mythological connections between Alexander and Diana, which we explored earlier, are also of interest. Diana, the Artemis of the Greeks, was often identified with the Egyptian goddess Isis, the mother of Horus, the mythical prototype of the solar pharaoh-kings of Egypt with whom Alexander was keen to identify. These ‘Horus-kings’ were traditionally believed to be born under the protection of the star Sirius, the heliacal rising of which was the celestial sign that divinized and legitimized the reign of each and every future king of Egypt. It is a verifiable astronomical fact, and in our view most unlikely to be a coincidence, that the helical rising of Sirius in Alexander’s epoch occurred on 20 July as seen from the latitude of Egypt’s ancient capital, Memphis. Tradition has it that it was Alexander himself who fixed the central axis of the future city of Alexandria, later to be known as the Canopus Way. It is thus also unlikely to be coincidental that this axis turns out to have been aligned approximately 24 degrees north of east, targeting the point of sunrise on the day of the heliacal rising of Sirius through the appropriately named ‘Gate of the Sun’. 

Alexander, admittedly promiscuous in his choice of divine ancestors, is known to have claimed descent from Dionysos and Herakles – both of whom were associated with the Egyptian god Osiris by Herodotus, one of Alexander’s favourite authors. Bearing this in mind, let us note that if we extend the axis of the Canopus Way further in the direction of the horizon we find it passing the ancient city of Heraklion (later submerged by an earthquake and recently relocated by marine archaeologists in Aboukir Bay). At least since the time of Herodotus it was known that a temple dedicated to Herakles-Osiris had stood at Heraklion. 

The Gate of the Moon at the other (western) extremity of the Canopus Way may also have had astronomical connotations linked to the myth of Isis and Osiris. We’ve seen that Isis, and the many Ptolemaic queens who emulated her, were commonly depicted with the full-moon disc and/or lunar crescent above their heads – a motif that continued to be used for the goddess-queens of Alexandria in Graeco-Roman times. Cleopatra is well known to have identified herself with ‘Isis and the Moon’, and when she bore twins – a boy and a girl – by Mark Antony, she called them Selene (Moon) and Alexander-Helios (Sun), clearly an allusion to Isis and Osiris/Dionysos as well as to the city of Alexandria itself with its Moon and Sun gates. In order for a full moon to occur, it must be in almost direct opposition to the sun. This seems to explain why the west end of the Canopus Way was named ‘Gate of the Moon’ (Selene) and the eastern extremity named ‘Gate of the Sun’. 

With all such possible symbolic alignments it would seem likely, if not certain, that the city of Alexandria was sacred to Isis or, more specifically, to the figure Isis-Pharia who dovetailed perfectly with the Alexander-Dionysos-Helios myth. Indeed, so important was Isis to Alexandria that she became effectively its co-tutelary deity, being held in equal reverence to its very own specially invented supreme god Serapis. The reader will recall from Chapter 5 that it was within the compound of the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria – the Serapeum – that a great number of Gnostics and so-called ‘pagans’ were massacred by Christian mobs in the late fourth century AD. 

The Making of a Universal God 
When Alexander the Great died on campaign in Babylon in 323 BC, his vast empire was split into smaller dominions to be shared among his generals. His closest friend, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, inherited the kingdom of Egypt and was crowned pharaoh in 305 BC after the death of Alexander IV (the son of Alexander the Great by the Persian princess Roxanne). Ptolemy adopted the name Soter, meaning ‘The Saviour’, and thus is best known to historians as Ptolemy I Soter. 

A very wise and enlightened man, Ptolemy set out to fulfil Alexander’s dream to make his city, Alexandria, a universal centre of wisdom and learning. He recruited as his principal advisor an Egyptian high priest from Heliopolis called Manetho, and consulted him on all matters related to religion, history and protocol. Manetho, who came from the Delta city of Sebennytos, is best known to Egyptologists for having compiled a chronology of all the dynastic and predynastic pharaohs which, to a great extent, is still used as reference today. It is almost certain, too, that Manetho was the principal contributor to the creation of the ‘new’ god Serapis for the city of Alexandria. 

It seems that Ptolemy I Soter wanted to find an ideal deity for the cosmopolitan citizens of the universal city of Alexandria – the latter now perceived as the symbol of a regenerated Egypt that he, Ptolemy, was destined to govern. The choice quite naturally went towards the most revered of Egyptian gods, Osiris, or, to be more specific, as we saw in Chapter 5, to a special form of Osiris known as Osiris-Apis, the Wsr-Hapi of the ancient Egyptians. This linked Osiris to the worship of the bull-god Apis, a very ancient cult with its main centre at Memphis in Lower Egypt. 42 According to Herodotus, who visited Egypt when this cult still flourished, the sacred Apis bull was: 

The calf of a cow which is incapable of conceiving another offspring; and the Egyptians say that lightning descends upon the cow from heaven, and that from thence it brings forth the Apis. This calf, which is called Apis, has the following marks: it is black, and has a square spot of white on the forehead; and on the back the figure of an eagle…43 

Indeed, the Apis bull was said to be born from the womb of a sacred cow known as ‘Isis’, and when the Apis bull died he was considered to have become Osiris. As Egyptologist George Hart states: 

Following concepts about the dead pharaoh in the Underworld, Apis, upon dying, became the god Osiris. It is the sacred bull of Memphis in his form of Osiris-Apis that provides the Egyptian nature of the hybrid god created under early Ptolemaic rulers known as Serapis. 44 

The close similarity between the Apis bull cult and the Isis and Osiris cult is obvious. And the close identification between the Apis calf and the Horus child said in Egyptian mythology to have been born from the womb of Isis is thus inescapable: (1) The Apis bull was associated with the Horus-king or living pharaoh; (2) the sacred ‘Isis’ cow became pregnant by divine intervention in the same manner that the goddess Isis had become pregnant; (3) the sacred ‘Isis’ cow bore only one calf in the same way Isis had borne only one son; (4) the Apis became ‘Osiris’ after death in the same way that the Horus-king – the pharaoh – was also devoutly believed to became ‘Osiris’ after death. As Hart further explains: 

The pharaoh identifies closely with Apis-bull imagery (with its inherent notion of strength and fertility) being an ancient characteristic in the propaganda of the god-king, as can be seen from carved slate palettes and in one of the names used in the royal protocol ‘victorious bull’. Celebrating his jubilee festival, a ceremony concerned with the rejuvenation of the monarch’s power, the pharaoh strides briskly alongside the galloping Apis bull. The ritual which took place at Memphis is vividly portrayed in a relief on a block from a dismantled chapel in the temple of Karnak at Thebes. 45 

A contemporary account of the Apis cult is given by Diodorus Siculus, who visited Egypt in the first century BC. Diodorus describes the funeral of the Apis bull in much the same terms as that of a pharaoh: 

After the splendid funeral of Apis is over those priests who have charge of the business seek out another calf as like the former as they can possibly find, and when they have found one an end is put to all the mourning and lamentation, and such priests as are appointed for that purpose lead the young bull through the city of Nile and feed him forty days. Then they put him into a barge wherein is a golden cabin and so transport him as a god to Memphis… For the adoration of the bull they give this reason: they say that the soul of Osiris passes into a bull and therefore whenever the bull is dedicated, to this very day the spirit of Osiris is infused into one bull after another for posterity. 46 

The most crucial aspect of the ancient Egyptian mystery religion is that the ‘son of Osiris’, i.e., Horus, was perpetually reincarnated in the person of the pharaoh, and after each pharaoh died he became ‘Osiris’, while his eldest son became the new living ‘Horus’. Or, to put it another way, each successive pharaoh was the living embodiment of Horus while, at the same time – as was the case with the Apis bull – it was held that his soul would become ‘Osiris’ after his death. It can be seen, therefore, that the idea of the combined name ‘Osiris-Apis’ – which transmuted to Serapis – was modelled on the idea of ‘Osiris-Horus’ and, consequently, must be understood to be the ultimate name that symbolizes the legitimacy and divinity of the ruling pharaoh. 

This is precisely how Alexander the Great wanted to be perceived by the world, and this was also in the mind of Ptolemy when he was crowned the successor of Alexander in Egypt. When, in the summer of 323 BC, Alexander lay dying in Babylon from malaria (made worse by drinking excessive quantities of wine as a ‘cure’), his priests prepared a makeshift temple of Osiris-Apis, i.e., Serapis, in his encampment, leaving us with no choice but to conclude that Alexander had embraced this god as his own. According to the official royal journal kept by the scribe Eumenes, 47 Alexander was seized by a violent fever on 4 June which persisted for several days and, by 8 June, it was becoming clear to all that he was dying: 

8 June: The fever continues. The Macedonians, thinking that he was dead, came screaming to the gates of his palace and insisted to see him. The doors were opened. They all passed in procession in front of the bed. In silence he [Alexander] greeted each of them by nodding his head or by making a sign with his eyes. In the temple of Serapis, Peithon, Attalos and Demophon [Alexander’s close companions] slept in turn waiting for an oracle from the god to tell them if they should transport Alexander to his sanctuary for him to be cured. The fever continued all night. 

9 June: Same condition [the King is now in a coma]. New consultation of the god [‘father’ of Alexander] by Kleomenes, Menidas and Seleukos who relayed in the temple of Serapis to sleep and to consult the god. 

10 June: The god gave his reply, which was not to bring Alexander to the temple as he was better off where he lay resting. The companions reported this to the soldiers. A short while later, towards evening, Alexander died. 48 The above text make it clear that a temple of shrine of Serapis had been raised somewhere near Alexander’s palace in Babylon, and that this god was consulted over a matter of great importance – i.e., whether or not Alexander’s body should be transported to the principal ‘sanctuary’ of Serapis, i.e., Osiris-Apis, in Egypt. There is an apparent anomaly in the text which refers to Serapis as the ‘father of Alexander’ when we know that Amun of Siwa already filled that role. But perhaps in the minds of the Macedonians at least, no clear distinction was made between Serapis and Amun, since both in the Egyptian tradition were ‘fathers’ to the pharaohs. Herodotus clearly equates Amun of Siwa with Zeus, 49 and we know that Serapis was also equated with Zeus by the Alexandrians. 

The Labyrinth of Serapis 
The main sanctuary of the Osiris-Apis bull (Serapis) was near Memphis in Lower Egypt, not far from the complex of the step pyramid Zoser at Saqqara. Here, from at least 1400 BC, successive generations of Apis bulls were buried, in huge stone sarcophagi, in a subterranean labyrinth known today as the Serapeum (the same name applied to the temple of Serapis at Alexandria). Herodotus, who wrote his Histories a century or so before Alexander’s arrival in Egypt, is the first foreigner to mention the ‘temple of Apis’. It probably was still operational well into Christian times, but by the Middle Ages the Serapeum had been completely buried in sand and its location forgotten. It was not until 1850 that it was rediscovered by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette. The story goes that Mariette, while trekking in the desert near Saqqara, stumbled on one of the many small sphinxes mentioned by the ancient geographer Strabo that had once flanked the processional road leading to the Serapeum. He was later to write: 

‘One finds,’ said the geographer Strabo (1st century AD), ‘a temple to Serapis in such a sandy place that the wind heaps up the sand dunes beneath which we saw sphinxes, some half buried, some buried up to the head, from which one can suppose that the way to this temple could not be without danger if one were caught in a sudden wind storm.’ Did it not seem that Strabo had written this sentence to help us rediscover, after over eighteen centuries, the famous temple dedicated to Serapis? It was impossible to doubt it. This buried Sphinx, the companion of fifteen others I had encountered in Alexandria and Cairo, formed with them, according to the evidence, part of the avenue that led to the Memphis Serapeum…50 

Inspired by his find, Mariette organized a workforce and, within a few weeks, had uncovered the entrance to the Serapeum which, even today, remains a hugely impressive and awe-inspiring place. It is located about a kilometre to the north-west of the stepped pyramid of Zoser, and is approached from the east through a sloped alley going downwards into the bowels of the sand-rock desert. The vastness of this underground maze is what first hits you, with its dark and sprawling corridors running in several directions like a hellish labyrinth built for giants. Today there is low-wattage electric lighting, but even so, if left wandering alone in this strange Hades, one is gripped by a curious sense of uneasiness, a sort of slow panic that mingles with the eerie and deathly stillness. There is something almost unnatural and something almost superhuman here. For what is seen all along the huge tunnels and corridors are dozens and dozens of enormous sunken niches, the size of large living rooms, in which were inserted massive granite sarcophagi that once contained the mummified corpses of the Apis bulls. The size and weight of these sarcophagi – some over 60 tons and cut from a single block of granite – fire the imagination for, at least on face value, it is very difficult to see how they were brought down here in the first place let alone manoeuvred into the niches. One has the sense that deep and dark mysteries were performed here. Their atmosphere still lingers – the charged residue of a place where, in the words of the ancient Greeks, men were transformed into gods. 

Alexander’s Return 
Nectanebo II (the ‘father’ of Alexander in some legendary accounts) had his tomb built not far from the Serapeum at Saqqara. 51 Could this have played a part in the strange events that took place after Alexander’s death and the dilemma confronting his generals and officers as to where the remains of their heroic demi-god should be taken? For while still in Babylon, the body of Alexander was prepared in the ancient Egyptian manner by embalmers brought specially for this task. Alexander’s body was then placed within a golden sarcophagus and a huge catafalque was built – the size of a house on wheels according to some eyewitnesses – in order to transport the dead hero-god back to Egypt. 

The journey took almost two years. Finally, when it arrived at the borders of Egypt, the catafalque was met by Ptolemy, and the golden sarcophagus taken to Memphis. There it was buried near the Serapeum in a sumptuous tomb befitting the hero-god. So entrenched is the idea that Alexander’s ‘lost tomb’ lay hidden in Alexandria that it generally comes as a surprise for some to know that his coffin remained at Memphis for at least ten years, and perhaps even longer, before finally being taken to Alexandria. At that time the city of Memphis was still the capital of Egypt, and the temple of Heliopolis was still functioning as the priestly school for the state. As for Ptolemy himself, he was still Satrape, i.e., governor of Egypt under the authority of Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great by his Persian wife, Roxanne. In 310 BC, however, when Alexander IV was thirteen, he was assassinated, and the succession not settled. Against this background, five years later, Ptolemy seized his chance and declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BC. 

We may guess that it was to strengthen and symbolize his own legitimacy as the true successor of Alexander the Great that Ptolemy transferred Alexander’s golden sarcophagus, and along with it the cult of Serapis-Osiris-Apis, to the newly built city of Alexandria. It is also likely that the kernel of the future Great Library of Alexandria was brought at this time from the great temple-library at Heliopolis. 

This, then, was the manner in which Alexandria was turned into the new ‘capital’ of Egypt and created the great spark of enlightenment that was to illuminate the Western world at the time of the Renaissance. 

A Special Gnosis 
It has long been recognized that the ancient Egyptians did not have a ‘religion’ – at least not in the sense that we understand the meaning of this word today. And although the term Egyptian ‘religion’ has been extensively used in Egyptology, and we ourselves use it in this book, the fact remains that it cannot be found in the vocabulary of the ancient Egyptians. It simply does not exist. As the eminent Egyptologist and philologist Alan H. Gardiner explains, ‘From the Egyptian point of view we may say that there is no such thing as “religion”; there was only heka, the nearest English equivalent of which is “magical power”…’ 52 

Everything about the ancient Egyptian monuments and texts leads us to suppose that heka, i.e., magical powers, were believed to be acquired through a very intense spiritual and intellectual learning process involving elaborate and secret initiations. Heka was a sort of sacred science or, as we prefer to call it, a special gnosis, and it was thought to be the gift of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom (the Hermes Trismegistus of the Greeks). According to British Egyptologist Patrick Boylan, Professor of Eastern Languages at University College, Dublin: 

Thoth… is god of wisdom and orderer of the cosmos. His word has to call things into being… [and is] endowed with magical powers. Magic presupposes always a special Gnosis. The magician claims to possess a higher and deeper knowledge of the secret nature of things, and the hidden connection which holds things together. He is the wise one whose words have power to control mysterious forces, and to ward off invisible perils. And the magician does all this by the power of his special gnosis…53 

This special gnosis, or magical knowledge, was said to have been gathered by Thoth and written in sacred books which, according to a legend found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, were taken to the temple of Heliopolis by the goddess Hathor, whose star, the reader will recall, was Sirius. 54 A rather similar legend that associates Thoth and his sacred books to the city of Heliopolis is found in the Westcar Papyrus. In this 3500-year-old text a story is told about a magician brought to the court of the Pharaoh Khufu, the legendary builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Khufu is keen to find the secret chamber of Thoth (presumably where the magical ‘books’ were kept) in order to design his pyramid, and he is told by the magician that it will be found at Heliopolis in some sort of ‘Inventory Room’ or library or hall of scriptures and records. 55 This story therefore associates the idea of the pyramid with the magical knowledge of Thoth – knowledge, as we shall see, that was specifically connected to the stars. As the French Egyptologist and author Christian Jacq asserts: 

The greatest centre of magic in Egypt was probably the holy city of Heliopolis, the city of the sun, where the most ancient theology developed. Here were preserved numerous papyri, ‘magic’ in the widest sense of the word, including medical, botanical, zoological and mathematical texts. Most Greek philosophers and savants travelled to Heliopolis to study some of that knowledge…56 

Jacq then goes on to say that at Heliopolis and other similar learning centres was practised the most ‘sacred science that requires specialists trained for many years to grasp the most secret forces of the universe’. 57 Everything points to the fact that the most important aspect of this ‘sacred science’, or special gnosis, rested on the belief that the influences and powers of the stars could be somehow drawn down to earth. As Christian Jacq and others have pointed out, the edifices of the ancient Egyptian sacred science rested on the fervent conviction that innate objects such as amulets, statues, shrines, monuments, temples and even whole cities could be imbued with the divine essence of the star-gods which was harnessed with the application of heka, i.e., magic.

Western civilization in the twenty-first century does not, by and large, believe in magic. Earlier civilizations did, and the ancient Egyptians were emphatically amongst them. What they understood by heka, however, does not necessarily accord with modern ideas of magic at all and therefore needs to be clearly defined. According to the late Dame Frances Yates of London University, who made a lifetime study of these matters: 

The type of magic with which we are to be concerned differs profoundly from astrology which is not necessarily magic at all but a mathematical science based on the belief that human destiny is irrevocably governed by the stars, and that therefore from the study of a person’s horoscope, the position of the stars at the time of his birth, one can foretell his irrevocably foreordained future. This magic is astrological only in the sense that it too bases itself upon the stars, their images and influences, but it is a way of escaping from astrological determinism by gaining power over the stars, guiding their influences in the direction which the operator desires. Or, in the religious sense, it is a way of salvation, of escape from material fortune and destiny, or of obtaining insight into the divine. Hence ‘astrological magic’ is not a correct description of it, and hereafter, for want of a better term, I shall call it ‘astral magic’…58 

Frances Yates, as we shall see in the next chapter, was speaking here not of ancient Egyptian ‘astral magic’ but, more specifically, of the revival of the Egyptian magical religion during the Italian Renaissance. But she might as well also have referred to ancient Egypt itself, for the definition she gives covers precisely the sort of ‘astral magic’ that seems to have existed in Egypt since time immemorial. 

A Time of Change 
In the years after the coronation of Ptolemy I Soter as the successor of Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria began to flourish. First, a magnificent tomb was built to house Alexander’s coffin and then various monumental and religious projects were planned. Most notable among these were the Pharos, one of the wonders of the ancient world, the great temple and library complex of Serapis – the Alexandrian Serapeum – and, of course, the legendary Library of Alexandria. 

It was at the Alexandrian Serapeum that the Ptolemies regenerated the cult of Serapis, the supreme universal god, and where a huge statue of the Serapis was erected. And at the Pharos, as we have already seen, was raised a great temple dedicated to Isis, ‘consort’ of Serapis, but now specially designated in this new maritime city as Isis-Pharia. 

As for the famous Library, this was dedicated to the seven muses or sisters, patrons of music and the arts. It is most likely that much of the Library’s original collection was derived from stocks brought from other parts of Egypt, especially Heliopolis and Memphis, which had been preserved since time immemorial in the temple libraries of the ancient Egyptians. Also, literary works of philosophy, religion, science and the arts were imported from other parts of the world, especially Greece. Ptolemy I Soter, moreover, took a great personal interest in having brought to him a copy of the Old Testament of the Hebrews and, for the first time ever, had the latter translated into Greek, making it available to the non-Jewish world. Thus an incredible intellectual and spiritual vortex began to swirl in Alexandria, and the result would be the creation of an even more powerful magical religious philosophy, which was to be attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the name given to the Egyptian wisdom god, Thoth, by the Graeco-Egyptian population of Alexandria. 

Over the coming centuries, as we shall see, the ancient Egyptian magical tradition was to dress itself in Greek garb and subliminally inject itself into Western Europe. 

In 586 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem, causing a mass expulsion of Jews, many of whom found their way into Egypt. Evidence of a Jewish presence in Egypt in those times is widespread from the Nile Delta area in the north to the distant south at Elephantine near Aswan. Also two centuries later, when Ptolemy I Soter took control of Palestine and Jerusalem, he brought back Jewish mercenaries and encouraged Jews to settle in his newly founded city of Alexandria. By the first century BC and the reign of the fabled Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic rulers, a large segment of the population of Alexandria was made up of Jews who had adopted Greek language and customs. And there can be no doubt that it was with the Jews of Egypt that a patriarchal, monotheistic religion that abhorred idols and graven images began to take hold in the ancient land of the pharaohs. 

In 30 BC the Roman legions of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) reached the gates of Alexandria to challenge his arch-rival, Mark Antony. Inside the virtually defenceless city there was panic and pandemonium. The armed forces commanded by Antony and Cleopatra had been decisively defeated at the naval battle of Actium and now any resistance to Octavian would simply be foolish bravado. Indeed, earlier Mark Antony, in a moment of heroic folly, had attempted a valiant charge against Octavian’s Roman legions only to find himself deserted by his own men, who hailed Octavian as their true leader. Thus abandoned but still unable to face defeat, Mark Antony committed suicide, begging the last of his loyal soldiers to finish him off. When the news reached Cleopatra, she became determined not to be captured alive by Octavian, and committed the most famous suicide in history by being bitten by a deadly asp. 

Thus 3000 years of pharaonic civilization came abruptly to an end. Octavian immediately declared Egypt to be a province of Rome, and the might of the Caesars fell on this ancient and sacred land like a gigantic sledgehammer. Within years Egypt was reduced to nothing more than a granary to feed Rome’s legions. 

Alarmed at changes they saw being introduced all around them, what the Egyptian priests undoubtedly feared most was the extinction of their magical religion. Throughout the three centuries of Ptolemaic rule, the ancient Egyptian temple-cult had not only survived but had received active state sponsorship and had boomed everywhere. This was because its time-honoured antiquity had a powerful, almost enchanting appeal for the Ptolemies, who found that it meshed perfectly with their own mythologies and ideas of the divine. Indeed, the ancient Egyptian magical religion was seen as a boon for the universal dream of the Ptolemies and, like many other things, fitted the city of Alexandria like Cinderella’s slipper. The Romans, on the other hand, saw the connection simply as another source of political power to run Egypt and its resources efficiently. It is true, of course, that Roman emperors appointed themselves as ‘pharaohs’ and even adopted the religion of Serapis and Isis. They also restored temples and built new ones in honour of the Egyptian deities – the famous temple of Denderah was restored to its present-day appearance by the Emperor Tiberius. 59 None of this, however, won over the Egyptians let alone the Egyptian priests. They knew that under the Romans, things would inevitably be very different. The enlightened Ptolemies saw themselves as successors to the Egyptian pharaonic tradition, whereas the Romans had come as conquerors and masters. As the Coptic scholar Dr Jill Kamil points out: 

The institution of sacrosanct monarchy, a cardinal feature of Egyptian life in pharaonic times which had been maintained by various later dynasties (the Ptolemies, for example), was lost in Roman times. The emperors may have claimed to be divine but it was their prefects who ruled Egypt, reduced the prestige of the priests, and exerted pressure on the people. They siphoned off the wealth of the land to Rome and recruited Egyptians to fight Roman wars in other countries. The Egyptians, who had accepted Ptolemaic rule, resisted Roman. It is not difficult to see the difference between them. Under the Ptolemies, Egypt had retained its integrity and had a stable economy. Under the Romans the country was shorn of identity and impoverished. It was no more than a private estate for the emperor and a pleasure-ground for the Roman upper classes. 60 

There was at first some semblance of prosperity and even a sense of protection under the Romans, 61 but on the whole it did not benefit the Egyptians themselves. The wealth extracted from agriculture fed the Roman garrisons and filled the treasury of Rome; and if any new temple or hydraulic project was built by the Romans it was done for strategic reasons and to strengthen their political and military hold on Egypt. Soon the Egyptians – now a people mixed with ‘Egyptian’ Greeks and Jews – began to revolt. In AD 115 a huge revolt, apparently led by the Jews, was brutally crushed by the Romans. Another massacre was to take place in Alexandria during the visit of the mad Emperor Caracalla in AD 215, after he was accused by the rash Alexandrians of his brother’s assassination. And an even more serious revolt took place in AD 297, this time firmly put down by the emperor Diocletian, who recaptured Alexandria after a siege of eight months. 

But not all imperial visits were aggressive. There was the time when the Emperor Vespasian had come to Alexandria and, like Alexander the Great before him, was proclaimed ‘son of Amun’ and even the ‘reincarnation’ of Serapis. So seriously did Vespasian take this that he apparently went through the streets of Alexandria performing ‘miracles’, and on one occasion restored the sight to a blind man. 62 

Then there had been the relatively peaceful visit of Hadrian to Alexandria and to Thebes in Upper Egypt in AD 130. While in Egypt Hadrian’s favourite companion and lover, a youth called Antinous, drowned in the Nile, whereupon Hadrian promptly ordered that a city be founded near the tragic spot to be called Antinoupolis. Hadrian also left us an observation of very great value concerning the worship of Christ and of Serapis in Alexandria when he wrote as follows to Sevianus, the governor of the city: 

So you praise Egypt, my very dear Servianus! I know the land from top to bottom… In it the worshippers of Serapis are Christians, and those who call themselves Bishops of Christ pay their vows to Serapis… Whenever the patriarch himself comes to Egypt he is made to worship Serapis by some and Christ by others. 63 

Amid such alarming religious syncretism, and constantly threatened by the temperamental debaucheries and cruelty of the Roman emperors, the Egyptian priesthood must have paused to reflect. So far they had succeeded, beyond their wildest dreams, in ensuring the survival of their age-old magical religion by accommodating and converting the Ptolemies. Now, however, they saw the Romans as a much more serious and perhaps even insurmountable danger. When the Romans had arrived in Egypt in AD 30 an intellectual and literary osmosis had long taken place between the Greeks and the educated Egyptians, many of whom were priests, scribes and functionaries associated with the temple-cult. As Dr Kamil explains: 

The languages in official use in Egypt were Greek and Egyptian, Greek being the more widely used. Egyptian literates had learned Greek long before the conquest of Alexander. They also realized that if they transcribed their own language in the Greek alphabet, which was well known among the middle classes and was simpler to read than demotic (the cursive form of hieroglyphic writing in its latest development), communication would be easier. Scribes started translating Egyptian sounds in Greek, adding seven extra letters from the demotic alphabet to accommodate the sounds for which there were no Greek letters. The emergence of this new script [is] now known as Coptic. 64 

There had been much encouragement in the exchange of ideas and written works, and the first Ptolemies, such as Soter and Philadelphus, would actually issue decrees that important Egyptian writings from the temple libraries should be translated into Greek, the lingua franca of Egypt and its neighbours. 65 As noted above, tradition has it that Ptolemy I Soter also commissioned seventy-two erudite Jewish scholars to translate the Old Testament into Greek, a version now known as the Septuagint, which was to serve as the basis for future Latin translations. 

Not surprisingly a very powerful spiritual and intellectual mutation began to occur in Alexandria which ended up producing a ‘neo Egyptian’ wisdom philosophy that was readily embraced by the cosmopolitan inhabitants. One element of this was Christian Gnosticism, which we have examined at length in Part I, and which is represented most strongly today in the surviving Nag Hammadi texts. Another, closely linked but with its own distinct character, was the ‘pagan’ Hermetic literature we’ve explored in Chapters 8 and 9. Also compiled in Alexandria in the first three centuries BC, it is these Hermetic texts, claims Jill Kamil, that most perfectly sum up the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of the period: 

Although, therefore, Egypt was ruled by a Greek speaking elite, and the bulk of the population was largely illiterate, there was a bilingual community that was multinational. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in a collection of syncretistic treatises known as the Corpus Hermeticum. The corpus was purportedly written by Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom who, under his Greek name Hermes Trismegistus, gave the compilation its name. The Hermetic texts, some composed in Greek, some translated from Egyptian into Greek, were a blend of semi-philosophical treatises on the divine, ancient Egyptian wisdom and literature, and esoteric teachings including cosmological conceptions and mysticism. Through such literature, one can best appreciate the varied and subtle ways in which the consciousness of the divine manifested itself among the whole cultural amalgam in Egypt. 66 

In Chapter 8 we saw the effects of this strange and mysterious Hermetic literature after it burst upon the European scene in 1460. Let us now place it at its origins into its proper intellectual and cultural setting alongside the emergent force of Christianity in both its Gnostic and its ‘literalist’ forms. 

The Three Major Players 
Around the year AD 30, some sixty years after Augustus Caesar invaded Egypt, it is claimed that a man called Jesus from the town of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem. This claim – that Christ was indeed man as well as god – is central to the doctrine of Roman Catholicism. On the other hand the reader will recall from Part I that the Gnostics held an entirely different view which did not admit the physical incarnation of Christ. Who is to say, at this remove of 2000 years, which side was right and which was wrong, whether or not Christ was a man, or an apparition, or ever existed at all? Christianity exists, of that there is no doubt. It has shaped the world we live in. But Christ himself still proves elusive, and nothing about the story of his life and death, or even about what happened to his followers during the first thirty or so years after his death, can honestly be said to be confirmed as solid historical fact. 

Tradition has it St Mark went to Rome and in that city wrote his famous Gospel. Then, during the reign of the Emperor Nero at about 60 BC, he left Rome and travelled to Alexandria on his apostolic mission to convert the Egyptians. The great persecution of the Christians had already begun in Rome under Nero, and thus Egypt was not only a safer place to be but, and perhaps more important, was ripe for such a mission to succeed. And succeed it did, well beyond the wildest of St Mark’s expectations. 

According to Egyptian-Coptic tradition, the first person in Egypt to be converted to Christianity by St Mark was a Jewish shoemaker from Alexandria. Whether this is historically true or not is unimportant, but it does emphasize the fact that the large Jewish population of Alexandria would have been an obvious target for such conversion to a new Judeo-Messianic cult. It is possible, indeed very probable, that some of the early followers of Jesus – whoever this mysterious figure really was! – found refuge in Egypt and formed the first nucleus of proto-Christian adepts in Egypt. Conversion thus naturally began within the existing Jewish population and then gradually spread to the indigenous as well as to the Graeco-Roman populations. 

This process, almost organic in its progress, had the inevitable effect of producing a variety of religious factions in Alexandria. Right from the outset two key players were the Christian Gnostics on the one hand, who frequently interpreted the Scriptures symbolically and allegorically, and ‘literalist’ Christians on the other, who interpreted the Scriptures literally. We have considered both at length in Part I. 

A third major player resisted the Christian tide and remained ‘pagan’, retaining many original ancient Egyptian beliefs but now expressed in Greek, with rituals structured for Greek-speaking adepts. These were the Hermetists – so called, as we know, because they followed the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, the alter ego of the ancient Egyptian wisdom god Thoth. Vilified and hated by the Catholic Church, the Gnostics and Hermetists found in each other a common bond – this being the search for salvation and spiritual illumination through divine knowledge, that is to say through gnosis. And although the Gnostics were labelled ‘heretics’ by the Church and the Hermetists were branded as ‘pagans’, both were perceived as equally dangerous enemies and were, accordingly, persecuted with equal ferocity. 

We’ve seen in Chapter 5 how the persecution reached a point in the late fourth century BC, when the Christian Emperor Theodosius closed all the ‘pagan’ temples in Egypt. Gnostics and pagans alike were hounded into the desert and their places of worship either destroyed or ‘converted’ into Catholic churches, while their books were seized and burned. It seems, however, that both groups had previously taken precautions to ensure that their sacred texts and ancient traditions would not be completely erased. 

We followed the story of Gnosticism in Part I and how it survived as a living tradition until the destruction of the Cathars and the Bogomils in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD. We also reported the story of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts in Part I, their loss to the world for sixteen centuries, their miraculous recovery in 1945, and their implications for our understanding of Christianity. 

The Hermetic texts, the so-called writings of Hermes Trismegistus, came to light rather sooner. Copies had been smuggled out of Egypt, probably during the fifth or sixth centuries, with some reaching Byzantium and Macedonia. One complete collection would pass from hand to hand, albeit recopied several times but nonetheless remaining essentially the same for 1000 years until, as we described in Chapter 8, an aging Italian monk found it, recognized it for what it was, and brought it to Cosimo de’ Medici. 

The man of his epoch best suited to respond to such a discovery, Cosimo’s early sponsorship launched the Hermetic message on a glittering Renaissance career that saw it infiltrate its symbolism into the very apartments of the Pope before the end of the fifteenth century. Where Christian Gnosticism had been utterly crushed in Occitania after its re-emergence as Catharism, is it possible that the ‘pagan’ branch of the Alexandrian gnosis – i.e., Hermetism – was about to succeed in overthrowing the hated tyranny of the Catholic Church?

The Prophet of Hermes

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