My own "search for Alexander" did not track Alexander from his mythic youth through his conquests from India to Greece to Egypt, as the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art does. But it took me far from Washington -- to the deserts of Egypt -- a journey by truck to an oracle in the Siwa Oasis and then by camel across the rim of the great Qattara Depression to the Nile Valley.
Alexander had been drawn to Siwa for mystical as well as political reasons. After he had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., his armies began planning for their greatest challenge: the conquest of Persia. In the midst of preparations, Alexander announced he was going to visit the Oracle of Jupiter-Amun, as renowned to the ancient world as the oracle at Delphi. His generals pointed out that since he had already been crowned king, a visit to Siwa for additional approval was unneccessary. But Alexander remained unconvinced.
Before Alexander's birth, his father, Philip II, had dreamed of his wife, Olympias, sleeping with a snake. Philip consulted the priests of Delphi for an interpretation and they advised him to pay hommage to Jupiter-Amun.
Although skeptics said the dream was a manifestation of Philip's suspicion that Alexander was a bastard, others said the dream was proof of his divine birth. Alexander also traced his lineage from the Greek heroes Perseus and Hercules, both said to have consulted the oracle at Siwa. Wishing to quell rumors of illiegitimacy, to be linked with mythical ancestors and to receive proof from the gods regarding his invincibility, Alexander felt impelled to go.
My reasons for going were not so easily defined. I grew up in the Washington area and later studied anthropology in college. While writing my thesis on Egyptian architecture, I traveled extensively, visiting every Egyptian outpost but one -- Siwa. Permissions were almost impossible to obtain, roads uncertain, distances to far, dangers -- both real and imagined -- too great. However, like Alexander, I had my mind set on Siwa.
For Alexander, Siwa was a mecca that offered tangible rewards. Answers. For me, it was a test: Could I make the hard overland journey back to Cairo? Could I learn to handle this half-wild beast of a camel? Could I live with myself and my companions for weeks on end through the conflicts that were certain to lie ahead? I, too, was coming in search of answers -- and to ask more questions.
For more than a year many people had tried to dissuade me. Like Alexander I had my generals, each with reason why Siwa was not the palce to go. Alternative trips had been proposed ("Ride a camel along the Nile -- at least you won't run out of water.") Flat refusals were given to requests ("It is a military zone. We are nearly at war with Lybia. The desert is covered with mines from World War II. The desert is a killer.") Luckily, like Alexander, I had a will and a few supportive people -- my family and the companions of the road.
After fifteen hours crammed into the back of an ancient truck, bouncing across donkey-wide dirst roads, I slept soundly my first night in Siwa, only to be awakened by muffled bangs and thuds coming from outside the tiny dirt-floored room in what served as an inn.
What had awakened me were the sounds of the drivers hurling the last of our gear from the truck. The ground was littered with homemade saddles that looked like a ravaged pile of kindling, split sacks of onions, loosely wound coils of rope, split feed bags. Our 10 camels were still tied down and roaring. As soon as they saw us come out of the inn, the drivers began cursing the oasis -- a godforsaken place, without television, with terrible food and people who did not even speak Arabic but their own dialect. The sooner we unloaded the camels, the sooner they could start home.
At dawn we broke from the toil of hauling, tugging and cursing the camels and gear. Our innkeeper, Mohammad, suggested a hike up Darfur mountain. It was here Alexander camped, and today, in echo of the past, the modern army had an outpost.
Close to the mountain top, we came across gaping pharaonic tombs looted long ago. There were several ancient Greek inscriptions carved in rock, one which read, "here the children of Hermes stood and looked out . . ." When I looked out, I saw in silhouette the jagged outline of the ancient city of Aghurmi rising out of the palsm forest. Built on a rock outcrop, it was the center of Siwa in Alexander's time. The oracle was inside its walls and the Temple of Ammon lay before its gate.
In the shifting shadows of the late afternoon. I could visualize the rites that took place there. The image of the god, in the shape of a gem-encrusted umbilicus, was placed in a golden boat covered with tinkling silver cups. Many robed priests hoisted the boat on their shoulders and marched around the oasis calling on the god. Behind them trailed women singing hymns to Jupiter-Amun. My eyes cleared. Instead of the sun-sparkled boat, I say a white-robed man half-standing in a rickety donkey cart, furiously lashing his beast home.
Behind the mountain, away from Siwa, pools of life-choking saltwater shimmered in the darkening desert floor. Alexander's trail wound north beyond the salt pools, over the ridge out of the Qattara Depression and slowly circled back along the rim towards the Nile Valley. This was to be our trail, too, in a few days' time.
Our second morning in Siwa we set out in a donkey cart to visit the oracle where Alexander had sought answers so many centuries ago. The Temple of Amun, or Umm 'Ubaydah, as it is known today, sits before the gates to Aghurmi. Today all that remains is part of a portal, its hieroglyphics and stone-carved gods stark against the sky.
Over the centuries the stones of the temple had been used for other buildings, and soon this last bit would be gone: carvings chopped away and sold to antique dealers, the larger pieces serving as foundations for new structures. We were to discover that there were no officials in Siwa protecting the monuments.
Unchecked looting and pillaging of ancient sites is a source of income for many in the oasis. The remoteness which has kept many of Siwa's old traditions intact has also kept her from protecting eyes.
Near the entrance to Aghurmi a few "modern" houses are clustered together and a few children peeped from behind cracked wooded slats in the windows. We climbed a short, steep path leading to the only entrance to the city. A massive wooden door stood propped open, its lock hanging in the rotting wood. Inside we passed through a cool hallway, scattering a few roosting birds, out into the ruined city.
The size of a football field, the area looked as if it had been washed by waves. Portions of crumbling houses rose in jagged peaks. Dark holes pockmarked the ground leading to buried rooms. The only structures that remained standing against the devastation of time were the two places of worship -- the mosque with its towering mudbrick minaret and the oracle with its stone columns, insurance against erosion but more susceptible to the thievery of the living. How different from what Alexander must have seen.
Four feet from my head, on the other side of the brick wall the next day, a camel grunts. In the far distance a hyena barks once more before slinking away for his daylight sleep. It is time. Mohammad kicks open the door. "Good morning. Rise for your last time in Siwa."
I walk outside, splash ice water on my face from the well. I look up to see that all the camels are looking at me. Massive rectangular faces immobile the liquid brown eyes never blinking. The quiet before the chaos.
When at last we are ready to start, we each grab a camel, the camel that was to become our own in the next weeks. In the first days it took two people to hold down the camel while the third leapt onto the saddle. The trick was to grasp the pommel for support before the camel lurched to its knees and toppled you to the ground. Less than 500 yards from the inn, a saddle falls off, not for the last time.
By 4 in the afternoon Siwa is behind us. The road turns into a narrow dirt track and finally faint markings of camel hoofs. We are already all raw and aching -- the camels, never having ridden for this long or in this manner.
The trail ahead, though traveled for thousands of years, remains unknown. Water sources were located from memory and last memory died with the last caravans. We are going on leggend. Ahead lie sandstorms, rain storms, marshy ground, minefields, waterless days for the camels and our destination, the Christian monasteries of Wadi Natrun. Ahead is the past, to which the oracle still guides those in the footsteps of Alexander.