ALEXANDRIA: The Solar City of Alexander the Great

By Robert Bauval © 2013

Before the coming of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, Egyptian had suffered a brutal and humiliating century of occupation by the Persians who desecrated and destroyed many of its temples and even whole cities, leaving the country badly scarred, physically and mentally. Not surprisingly then, when Alexander defeated the Persian army of Darius III at Issus in Syria, and afterwards marched triumphantly into the ancient land of the Nile, the twenty-four year old Macedonian hero was treated like a god, a returning pharaoh come to liberate Egypt. The priests of Egypt already knew that since his childhood this young and valiant prince had entertained the belief that his true ‘father’ was the solar god of Egypt, Amun, whose oracle was at the oasis of Siwa. This belief was put into Alexander’s young mind by his highly strung and mystical mother, Olympias, who had once been a priestess at the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona twinned with the oracle of Amun at Siwa. Endowed with a deep mystical nature, Olympias believed she was destined to give birth to a divine male child who would conquer and unite the known world like Dionysos, the handsome and heroic son of Zeus and the mortal Semele. To the Greeks, Zeus was akin to Amun, and even said to be the same. When Olympias married Philip II of Macedonia in 357 BC,  she claimed that on her wedding night she had been visited by the god Zeus-Amun and was made pregnant by him.

Alexander’s dream was not just to unite the known world but also to rule it from city dedicated to wisdom and learning, an intellectual haven where scholars would share their knowledge and discoveries to enlighten the world. It is probable that such an idea had been drummed into him by Aristotle, who had tutored Alexander for many years. Aristotle had written his famous tract on Politika, The Politics, in which he examines various systems of constitutions and the Ideal State, and which he surely must have discussed with Alexander. Was the future Alexandria to be that ‘Ideal State’? It certainly became the universal center of learning for several centuries, as well as the place where its inhabitants saw themselves as ‘cosmopolitans’, citizens of the World,  and where all religions and races could cohabited. The term ‘cosmopolitan’ probably comes from the statement of Diogenes of Sinope (c. 415 BC) who, when asked to which state he belonged, answered: “I am a citizen of the World’ –Kosmopolites. Alexandria was probably the nearest thing to a ‘Cosmopolitan Utopia’ the world has ever known.

Tradition has it that it was the architect Dinoclates of Rhodes who, under the orders of Alexander, designed the city plan of Alexandria. The layout of the new city, however, shows an Egyptian influence that, for lack of better words, can be termed ‘solar’, a sort of ‘City of the Sun’ to emulate perhaps in some ways Heliopolis, the quintessential ‘City of the Sun’ of the ancient world, or the great sun-temples of Amun-Re at Karnak and Luxor [fn: A chapel dedicated to Alexander the Great was built within the holy of holies of the Luxor temple]. Take for example the two principal arteries of the ancient city, the Canopus Way and the Soma. The Canopus Way ran west to east and headed towards the town of Canopus some 20 kilometers from Alexandria, and the Soma ran south to north, crossing the Canopus Way to form a huge cross at the center of which was the Agora, the traditional square or piazza in the heart found in most ancient Greek cities. The Canopus Way was probably named after Kanopos, the legendary Homerian navigator who piloted the fleet of Menelaus in the Iliad. According to a Homeric myth, the town of Canopus (modern Abukir) in Egypt was founded by Menelaus, who named it after the pilot of his ship who died on its shore. Homer says that Menelaus built a shrine to his memory there, around which the town was later developed. A temple dedicated to Osiris was later built at Canopus by Ptolemy III.  Herodotus, who wrote a century or so before the foundation of Alexandria, claimed that there was a temple dedicated to Heracles in that region. According to some Egyptologists, however, the name ‘Canopus’ was because the road led to a temple where pilgrim deposited ‘canopic jars’ used in funerary rituals. Alexander is also well known to have claimed descent from Dionysos and Herakles, both of whom were associated with the Egyptian god Osiris by the historian and author Herodotus whose celebrated books The Histories Alexander had diligently read. So at least since the time of Herodotus it was known that a temple dedicated to Herakles-Osiris at a town called Herakleon near modern day Abukir. The future Canopus Way axis, when extended towards the eastern horizon would have passed near Herakleion, something that Alexander would certainly have been made aware of. Herakleion was later submerged after a terrible earthquake but has been rediscovered by recently by French marine archaeologists.

At both ends of the Canopus Way were gates leading in and out of the city of Alexandria. The west gate was called the “Gate of the Moon” (Selene) while the east gate was the “Gate of the Sun” (Helios). Although historians have assumed that the layout plan of the city was based on the classical Greek system of grids, it has been pointed out that much older Egyptian cities such as Akhetaten, the ‘solar’ city of Akhenaten at Tell el Amarna, also had a gridded layout. It must be remembered that Alexander had been proclaimed pharaoh of Egypt, a role that associated him to the sun god of Egypt, Amun-Re. As pharaoh, Alexander was regarded as the reincarnation of Horus, the solar falcon god or, to put it in other words, a solar Horus-king. The divine birth of such Horus-king were associated to the first appearance at dawn of the star Sothis (our modern Sirius) which in antiquity took place near the time of the summer solstice. At the epoch of Alexander this cosmic event took place at the location of Alexandria on the 20 July on the Julian calendar, and it cannot be a coincidence that many classical authors fixed the date of Alexander’s birth, now himself a ‘solar’ king of Egypt, also on that same date. It would seem unlikely, knowing the mystical aspect of Alexander’s birth and his coronation as a divine Horus-king of Egypt, and also knowing that main axis of cities and major temples in Egypt were often aligned to sunrise on some important day, it would seem highly unlikely and quite atypical of the mental state of its designers that the Canopus Way, the main axis of which was probably decided by Alexander himself, would not have a similar solar alignment fixed on an important day associated to Alexander’s solar divinity.

The alignment of the Canopus Way has been determined to be some 24 degrees north of east. [This was confirmed in the 1860s by the eminent Egyptian astronomer Mahmoud El Falaki Bey, who carried out excavations and showed that there had been eleven main streets running parallel along the width of the ancient city, and seven others also running parallel but at right angles to the other eleven. The two principal arteries were the Canopus Way running the length of the city, and the Soma running the width of the city. Several trial pits and trenches that were dug out by Mahmoud Bey established that the Canopus Way was some 2300 meters long and that it was oriented to 24º north of east, within + – 30 minutes accuracy]. This specific alignment does not appear to be accidental.  The sun’s rising points on the eastern horizon as observed from Alexandria fluctuate between 28º south of east (winter solstice) and 28º degrees north of east (summer solstice), with the mid-point, due east, falling on the spring and autumn equinoxes. In Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the 1st century the author tells us that,


“Alexander was born the 6th of Hecatombaeon, which month the Macedonians call Lous, the same day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burnt…”

Hecatombaeon was the first month in the Greek year, and it started on the first new moon immediately following the summer solstice. It has been calculated that in 356 BCE the year of Alexander’s birth, the new moon after the summer solstice was on 14 July (Julian), thus Alexander’s birth fell six days later on 20 July. At this time the sun also was in the sign of Leo, which may also explain the leonine attributes that ancient writers associated with Alexander. As we have said earlier, Alexander himself probably determined the alignment of the central axis of the future city of Alexandria, later to be known as the Canopus Way, and it is therefore very significant to note that this axis, which is at about 24 degrees north of east, targeted the rising sun on the 20 July Julian.

 [Postscript: In 2004 I presented this hypothesis in my book TALISMAN: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith (Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 204-209). Later in 2012, the Italian astronomer Giulio Magli of Milano Politecnico and his colleague Dr. Luisa Ferro, an architect from the same polytechnic, have published a peered reviewed article which confirmed this theory (G. Magli and L. Ferro “The Astronomical Orientation of the Urban Plan of Alexandria”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Volume 31, Issue 4, November 2012, Pages: 381–389). The Oxford Journal of Archaeology is publishing in its next issue, Volume 32.2, the following text by Magli and Ferro: “‘In the paper ‘The astronomical orientation of the urban plan of Alexandria’ we have applied rigorous archaeoastronomical and archaeological arguments to show that the Alexandria main axis was deliberately oriented to the sun rising on the day of Alexander’s birth and to the king’s star Regulus. After publication we have been informed that a similar solar orientation of the Alexandria main axis also related to Alexander’s birth had already been proposed in 2004 in the book ‘Talisman:Sacred Cities, Secret Faith’ by Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock (Penguin Books, London 2004), whose priority in elaborating this idea is therefore here acknowledged.”]

Comments are closed.