How Alexander the Great conquered Egypt

Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC was a relatively smooth and bloodless campaign.

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt through a combination of strategic timing, limited resistance from the Persian forces, and a welcoming reception from the Egyptian population. Image: Alexander Mosaic, National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Alexander the Great’s invasion of Egypt in 332 BC marked a significant chapter in his conquests. He entered Egypt peacefully and was welcomed as a liberator from Persian rule.

This conquest by the Macedonian king led to the foundation of Alexandria, which became a major cultural and economic center in the ancient world.

Alexander’s approach to Egypt, his symbolic actions, and the establishment of the city of Alexandria had a lasting impact on the region’s history and culture.

READ MORE: Notable Accomplishments of Alexander the Great

Below, World History Edu provides an in-depth look at how he achieved the conquest:

Defeat of Persian Forces

Alexander’s campaign to conquer Egypt was part of his broader conquest of the Persian Empire, which he embarked upon after defeating the Persian king Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.

As Alexander’s forces advanced into the Persian Empire, they encountered limited resistance in Egypt, which was then a satrapy (province) of the Persian Empire.

READ MORE: Battle of Granicus – Alexander the Great’s First Major Victory Over the Persians

Surrender of Egyptian Satrap

The Persian satrap (governor) of Egypt at the time was Mazaces. When he learned of Alexander’s victory at Issus and his approach towards Egypt, he chose to surrender rather than resist.

Mazaces presented the city of Memphis and the entire province of Egypt to Alexander without a fight. This decision was likely influenced by the fact that the Persians were preoccupied with defending their core territories.

READ MORE: List of Achaemenid Empire Rulers: From Cyrus the Great to Artaxerxes V

The welcoming reception Alexander the Great received from Egyptians

Alexander and his army were welcomed by the Egyptian population as liberators from Persian rule. They were greeted with enthusiasm, and the Egyptians saw Alexander as a deliverer from Persian oppression.

Sacrifice to the Apis bull at Memphis

Alexander was known for his policy of respecting the religious and cultural traditions of the regions he conquered. In Egypt, he encountered a rich and ancient religious tradition centered around the worship of various deities, including Apis, the great bull deity that was prominently worshiped Memphis.

Sacrificing to Apis would have been seen as a symbolic gesture of his acceptance of Egyptian customs and his desire to be perceived as a legitimate ruler in the eyes of the Egyptian population. It was a way of demonstrating that he intended to rule as a protector of Egyptian religion and traditions.

By honoring Apis, Alexander could gain the favor and support of the Egyptian priesthood and religious authorities. The priesthood held considerable influence in Egypt, and winning their approval could help secure the stability of his rule in the newly conquered territory.

Foundation of Alexandria

Alexander saw the strategic and economic potential of Egypt, particularly its access to the Mediterranean Sea and its fertile Nile Delta.

He decided to found a new city, which he named Alexandria, at the western edge of the Nile Delta. Alexandria would go on to become a major cultural and economic center in the ancient world.

His decision to found Alexandria and his visit to the Oracle of Siwa helped solidify his rule and influence in Egypt, making it an important part of his empire as he continued his conquests in the east. Image: Location of Alexandria in Egypt

Visit to the Oracle of Siwa

After entering Egypt, Alexander made a significant visit to the Oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis in the western desert in Libya. This visit was of great religious and political importance.

According to historical accounts, the Oracle confirmed Alexander’s divine parentage (claiming he was the son of Zeus) and gave him a favorable prophecy, which further solidified his legitimacy and divine status in the eyes of the Egyptians. As Alexander saw the Libyan Amun as the local equivalent of Zeus, Alexander viewed himself as the son of Amun.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis

Return journey from Siwa to Egypt

The details of Alexander the Great’s return journey from Siwa to Egypt, particularly whether he took a direct route across the desert or retraced his steps via Paraetonium and Alexandria, are a subject of debate among historians.

One perspective, as suggested by Ptolemy, is that Alexander took a direct route from Siwa to Memphis, crossing the desert. This route would have been a more direct and expedient path.

However, another school of thought is that Alexander likely retraced his original route, which took him through Paraetonium and Alexandria. This route might have been considered more practical, as it would have allowed him to utilize established roads and settlements.

Some historians propose that it was during this return journey that Alexander founded the city of Alexandria, capitalizing on its strategic location along the Mediterranean coast and at the confluence of trade routes. This act would have further solidified the city’s importance in his vision of a thriving Hellenistic metropolis.

Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt

Departure and Future Rule

After securing Egypt and founding Alexandria, Alexander continued his campaigns in Persia and the eastern regions of his empire. He left Egypt under the administration of a trusted Macedonian officer named Cleomenes.

Egypt remained a vital part of Alexander’s empire, providing him with resources, including grain, and serving as a naval base.

Did Alexander the Great ever return to Egypt?

While Alexander the Great did not have the opportunity to visit the city of Alexandria or Egypt again during his lifetime, his journey did not end with his death. Instead, after his passing, a remarkable series of events unfolded, culminating in one of the most audacious heists in history.

In 323 BC, less than a decade after the conquest of Egypt, Alexander the Great died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon. Following his death, there was a significant power struggle among his generals, known as the Diadochi, who sought to carve out their own empires from the vast territory he had conquered.

Alexander’s body became a valuable and symbolic prize in this struggle. Ptolemy I, one of his trusted generals and the future founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, claimed the body and embarked on a journey to ensure that Alexander received a grand burial fit for a king.

19th-century depiction of Alexander’s funeral procession, based on the description by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus

Ptolemy’s plan was to transport Alexander’s body to Egypt, where he had already established his own rule. However, the transportation of the body proved to be a challenging and secretive endeavor. To protect the body from being intercepted or stolen, Ptolemy took a circuitous route, misleading potential pursuers and rivals.

Ultimately, Alexander’s body arrived in Memphis, Egypt, in 320 BC, where it was temporarily interred. The heist of Alexander’s body and its eventual resting place in Egypt added to the intrigue and mystique surrounding the legendary conqueror.

Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria would later become a famous and revered site in the ancient world. The city itself would go on to flourish as a center of culture, learning, and commerce, leaving an enduring legacy that continued long after the death of its namesake.

Alexander’s empire was the world’s most extensive at the time, spanning more than 5 million square kilometers.

Did you know…?

Prominent Roman figures like Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and Augustus made pilgrimages to Alexander’s Alexandria tomb. Legend has it that Rome’s first emperor Augustus, by accident, damaged its nose. Also, Emperor Caligula reportedly appropriated Alexander’s breastplate. And Emperor Septimius Severus, around 200 AD, restricted public access to the tomb of Alexandria. Severus’ son and successor, Caracalla – who like his predecessors were avid admirers of Alexander the Great – also visited the tomb during his reign. Unfortunately, it remains unclear to this day what happened to the tomb of Alexander after Caracalla’s era.

READ MORE: Most Notable Accomplishments of Augustus, Rome’s First Emperor

Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt

Questions and answers about Alexander the Great’s invasion of ancient Egypt

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot (1767) by French painter Jean-Simon Berthélemy

How long had the Persians been ruling Egypt before Alexander the Great’s emergence?

At the time of Alexander’s arrival in Egypt, the region was under Persian control. Egypt had been ruled by a Persian satrap named Mazaces since 343 BC when the Persians had conquered the kingdom. What this means is that the Persians ruled had ruled Egypt for about a decade before Alexander the Great marched into Egypt.

It must also be noted that prior to Alexander’s invasion of Egypt, Egypt was conquered by the Persian Empire multiple times, first by Cambyses II (27th Dynasty) in 525 BC and later by Artaxerxes III around 340 BC. The former was the son of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

In 526 BC, Persian King Cambyses II defeated Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik III. Cambyses II then crowns himself pharaoh of Egypt. Shortly after, many minor rulers in the region surrendered to Cambyses II without a fight. Some examples of those territories were the Libyans. Image: Imaginary 19th-century illustration of Cambyses II meeting Psamtik III.

Why wasn’t there any resistance to Alexander the Great at Pelusium?

At the time of Alexander’s arrival in Egypt in 332 BC, the Persian Empire was facing significant military setbacks. Alexander had already defeated Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, and Persian forces were weakened and demoralized. The Persian satrap (governor) of Egypt, Mazaces, likely recognized the precarious position of the Persian Empire and may have decided not to engage in a futile defense of Pelusium.

Secondly, the Egyptian population had grievances against Persian rule, and many Egyptians welcomed Alexander as a liberator from Persian oppression. This favorable reception may have discouraged any resistance from the local population, as they saw Alexander as a deliverer.

Also, it’s possible that diplomatic negotiations took place between Mazaces and Alexander or his representatives. Surrendering peacefully might have been seen as the most pragmatic option, especially if terms of surrender were negotiated to ensure the safety and stability of the city and its inhabitants.

How important was Pelusium in Alexander the Great’s invasion of Egypt?

Pelusium was a strategically important city due to its location at the eastern entrance of the Nile Delta. Its capture allowed Alexander to control access to the Nile and the fertile Delta region. Recognizing the importance of Egypt, Alexander may have taken a diplomatic approach to secure control over Pelusium without a protracted siege or battle.

Why did Alexander make sacrifices to the Apis bull?

The cult of the Apis bull was a significant religious tradition in ancient Egypt, with its primary center of worship located in Memphis. Believed to possess divine qualities, the Apis Bull was associated with regeneration, fertility, and the cycle of life and death. Image: Apis Bull in ancient Egypt

The Apis bull, known as Hapis in Egyptian, was a sacred animal associated with the god Ptah, who was the principal deity of Memphis, an ancient Egyptian city located near the Nile River. The Apis bull was considered a living manifestation of Ptah and was revered as a deity in its own right.

Alexander the Great’s choice to offer sacrifices to the Apis Bull in Egypt held profound symbolic significance. In stark contrast to Persian monarchs who had displayed disrespect for the Egyptian deity, the Macedonian king sought to present himself as a reverent and liberating leader who held local religious customs in high regard.

This action was a shrewd and calculated move in ancient public relations, underscoring Alexander’s respect for Egyptian spirituality and his image as a deliverer from Persian dominance. It positioned him as a monarch willing to pay homage to and show esteem for indigenous deities, setting him apart from earlier Persian rulers who had dismissed Egyptian beliefs.

READ MORE: Major Events in Ancient Egyptian Mythology

The Serapeum was a monumental and elaborate burial complex located at Saqqara, a necropolis near Memphis. It served as the burial place for deceased Apis bulls. The complex is said to have consisted of a series of underground galleries and chambers where the mummified remains of the Apis bulls were interred in massive stone sarcophagi. Image: The remains of the Serapeum built by the Ptolemaic rulers in Alexandria

What titles did the Egyptians bestow upon Alexander?

During his stay in Egypt, Alexander the Great received acclamation as the new pharaoh and was granted esteemed titles such as ‘Son of Ra & Beloved of Amun.’

There are some that state that the Macedonian ruler was given an elaborate coronation ceremony in Memphis. However, primary sources like Arrian and Curtius make no mention of it. Therefore, the primary source alluding to such an event, the Alexander Romance, has to be viewed with some bit of skepticism.

Nevertheless, irrespective of a formal coronation, Alexander was held in high regard as a pharaoh throughout Egypt. A lasting portrayal of Alexander dressed in Egyptian attire can be observed in Luxor Temple, where he is depicted alongside Amun in the manner of a traditional Egyptian pharaoh.

Name of Alexander the Great in Egyptian hieroglyphs (written from right to left), c. 332 BC, Egypt. Louvre Museum in Paris, France

What was the significance of Alexander the Great’s depiction alongside ancient Egyptian god Amun?

Amun, also spelled as Amun-Ra, was one of the most significant and powerful deities in ancient Egyptian religion. The deity was associated with the sun and air and was often referred to as the “King of the Gods.” Amun’s name itself means “the hidden one” or “the invisible.”


Ancient Egyptian god Amun

Therefore, Alexander the Great’s depiction alongside Amun underscores the profound impact and prestige of ancient Egyptian culture on individuals like Alexander, his contemporaries, and subsequent Ptolemaic rulers.

READ MORE: Most Popular Ancient Egyptian Goddesses

What influenced Alexander the Great’s decision to found the city of Alexandria?

One of the most significant factors was the city’s strategic location at the western edge of the Nile Delta, where the river meets the Mediterranean Sea. This position offered several advantages, including access to both land and sea trade routes. It provided a natural harbor for ships and allowed for control over maritime trade in the region.

The geographical features of the area were appealing. The Nile Delta was fertile and agriculturally productive, making it an ideal location for a city. Additionally, the nearby Lake Mareotis provided a source of freshwater.

Alexandria’s location allowed for better communication and control over both Egypt and the Mediterranean. It served as a gateway between the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean, facilitating the movement of goods and troops.

Alexander’s conquests had brought together diverse cultures and peoples. Founding a new city in Egypt, named after himself, symbolized his vision of unity among his conquered territories. It was a way to integrate the Greek and Egyptian worlds, promoting cultural exchange and cooperation.

It must also be noted that Alexander was known for his ambitious projects and grandeur. He envisioned Alexandria as a great Hellenistic city that would bear his name and serve as a lasting legacy.

Ultimately, Alexandria’s position at the crossroads of land and sea trade routes made it an attractive hub for commerce. It became a significant trade center for goods flowing between Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The city also became a center of cultural exchange, where Greek, Egyptian, and other cultures would interact. The famous Library of Alexandria, which housed an extensive collection of texts from various cultures, was a testament to this vision.

Alexander intended Alexandria to be a key administrative and political center in Egypt. It played a crucial role in the administration of his vast empire and served as a base for further military campaigns in the region. For example, the Great Library of Alexandria was built during the early period of Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt. Image: 19th-century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria by the German artist O. Von Corven

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