Building the Iron Gates of Alexander: The Migrant Caravan & Geographies of Fear

Thousands of refugees are currently standing at the US-Mexico border. In their 2,500 mile journey from Central America, these women, children, and men from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have endured much in order to petition for a grant of asylum within the United States. As I have written about before, the concept of the sanctuary city is an ancient one; within the archaic and classical Greek world, the concept of ἀσυλία (asulia) developed in relation to spaces in and around temples.

Despite the fact that these individuals are unarmed, President Trump has sent 5,800 troops to the border in order to stave off any attempt to enter the country by persons he has dubbed “invaders.” A look back at the late Roman and Byzantine world reveals that the otherizing language and actions of Trump are nothing new. The Biblical myth of Gog & Magog and the later role of Alexander the Great demonstrates how both language and mythical architecture–of walls and gates–were perpetuated by Christian, Jewish, and early Islamic sources as a means of reifying fear.

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Alexander shuts out Gog and Magog (14thC CE, Hellenic Institute codex 5 f. 179v. Image via Wikimedia and is in the Public Domain).

A few months ago over at Hyperallergic, I reported on the new mosaics uncovered at Huqoq along the Sea of Galilee. Since about 2012, Jodi Magness (UNC-Chapel Hill) and her excavation team have uncovered mosaics that depict both scripture and myth in vibrant colors. While some of the most recently uncovered mosaics have Hebrew inscriptions that label the scenes, the most enigmatic find at Huqoq has been a mosaic possibly depicting the meeting of Alexander the Great with the high priest of Jerusalem that dates to the 5th century CE.

The story of Alexander and the high priest was retold by the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 11.317-345). Many have argued that the meeting never actually happened. True or untrue, the lore of Alexander’s interaction with the high priest was widely mythologized and retold well into Late Antiquity. From his death in 323 BCE, the biography and escapades of Alexander the Great became the inspiration for much literature, art, and even hairstyling.  What interests me today is the late antique blending of  the myths surrounding the deeds of Alexander the Great with the Book of Ezekiel, which transmits the prophecies of Ezekiel ben-Buzi, a priest living in exile within Babylon from 593-571 BCE.

Alexander Mosaic, Huqoq
A Huqoq mosaic dated to the 5thC CE which may depict Alexander the Great interacting with the high priest of Jerusalem (Image by Mark Thiessen for National Geographic).

This syncretism is seen particularly in the myth of Alexander’s building of iron gates in the Caucasus mountains in order to keep out barbarians on the northern steppes. These are gates that Josephus had also noted in the first century CE were originally built by Alexander to keep out Scythians (BJ 7.7.4). As François Hartog famously wrote about in his book, The Mirror of Herodotus, the geography and the identity of the Scythians had long been used by Greek writers as a foil––Scythia was the “other.”

In his structuralist approach, Hartog demonstrates how writers like Herodotus cast the Scythians as the uncivilized other. In the historical prose of Herodotus, the uncivilized Scythians formed a false binary with the civilized Greeks. Over 500 years after Herodotus, Josephus would explain more about the origins of these peoples from the Black Sea region as connected to the Hebrew Bible. In his Antiquities of the Jews (Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία), he stated that the Scythians were people derived from a grandson of Noah named Japheth (AJ 1.6.1), 

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Gold sew-on clothing appliqué in the form of two Scythian archers back to back, probably blood-brothers (Hellenistic depiction, 400-350 BCE; Image and caption via the British Museum). 

The late Roman manipulation of the myths surrounding Alexander the Great and his life is something that historians Michael Maas and Nicola di Cosmo have recently delved into within a fascinating new edited volume that I am currently finishing: Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250–750. Maas’ chapter is called “How the Steppes Became Byzantine” and in it, he addresses the popularity of the 3rd century CE writer Pseudo-Callisthenes, which purported to be the Macedonian court historian Callisthenes, who wrote Alexander’s biography. Pseudo-Callisthenes’ work would be responsible for many of the myths that later developed into the popular Alexander Romance retold across the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages.

When Pseudo-Callisthenes was translated into Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, and Arabic in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the tale of Alexander’s Gates spread quickly. Yet the barbarians being kept from entering into Alexander’s empire often shifted to reflect the current climate and anxieties. In the early Byzantine period, the story appears to have fused with biblical lore and prophecy. Maas notes: “When the Syriac translation appeared in 629-630 CE, following Heraclius’ victory over the Sasanians, Gog and Magog entered the story as the horse-mounted barbarians and demons held back by Alexander’s Gate” (Maas 2018: 33).

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The marble stele with a bust of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius personified as Alexander the Great (Image Credit: ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ via the Archaeology News Network).

In the Hebrew Bible, Gog and Magog were the enemy  peoples of God and invaders of Israel mentioned as “Gog of the land of Magog” in Ezekiel 38-39. This was later distorted as “Gog and Magog” in Revelation 20:7-8. In the 7th century CE, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 CE) became closely associated with the tale within the Syriac version of the Alexander Legend, since it noted that Alexander had earlier inscribed a prophecy upon a gate he had built to keep out the Huns. This prophecy appeared to foretell of Heraclius’ role in a divine plan as the ‘Alexandros Neos’ (van Donzel and Schmidt 2010: 18)––the New Alexander.

Archaeological remains seem to support the close and cultivated early Byzantine association between Heraclius and Alexander the Great. The discovery of a bust of the mythic general adorned in a Phrygian cap was found in the excavations at Katalymmata ton Plakoton on the island of Cyprus only a few years ago. It likely portrays the emperor Heraclius with Alexandrian features. Visual propaganda and rewritten legends were widely used to cast Heraclius as a Greek, Roman, and Biblical hero reborn to save his people. From King David to Alexander, Heraclius knew the power of association.

In the Latin West as well, historians such as the Spanish archbishop Isidore of Seville equated the origins of the Goths that had pressed into the Roman Empire with Gog and Magog. This is something Ambrose of Milan had done as early as the fourth century CE. Those “unclean” and “wild” peoples that were kept out by the gates of Alexander regularly changed over time, depending on who and when the story was told. Fears over migrating peoples and the blurring of the traditional borders of the Roman Empire were mapped onto the myth of Alexander’s Gates.

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Detail of a silver plate depicting the battle of David with Goliath, wherein Heraclius is cast as David (629-630 CE; Plates now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and image under a CC0).

In Christian, Jewish, and then early Islamic sources extending into and then beyond the 9th century CE, the peoples of Gog and Magog kept out by Alexander’s Gates or his Wall occupied an imaginary eschatalogical geography to the extreme north and to the East. Apocalyptic tales popularized at the time foretold that in the Last Days, these gates would be opened and the barrier broken. Gog and Magog would be let loose upon the civilized world bringing about the end of days. In the 4th century CE, this was the Goths, but by the 12th century version of the Iskandarnameh written by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), these were now Mongols.

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A 16th-century Persian miniature of genies (“jinn”), helping Alexander build the Iron Wall. (Image via Wikimedia Commons). 

From Byzantine emperors to Abbasid Caliphs, rulers used the morphing Alexander legend as a means of striking fear into the heart of their constituency and casting themselves as their foretold savior. I have been thinking a lot about the use and abuse of this myth lately, as we see the invective and the actions against the “migrant caravan” heightened by the Trump Administration.

Although I have no power to intervene as either a diplomat or a soldier on behalf of the refugees currently waiting to be granted asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border, what I can point out is that geographies of fear––and the use of walls or gates to address them––are an synthetic and archaic trope often employed by autocrats. They empower them to use force and to galvanize their people through the creation of a scapegoat. Though Trump has chosen to associate himself with Lincoln and Reagan instead of Alexander the Great, we should still be wary of his demonizing of peoples who, like many in antiquity and today, simply strive for sanctuary.

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President Trump sits among Eisenhower, Nixon, Lincoln, Reagan and other past Republican presidents in a picture that now hangs at the White House (Photo CreditAndy Thomas via the New York Times). 

Abbreviated Bibliography: 

A. Runni Anderson, “Alexander and the Caspian Gates”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association , 59 (1928): 130-163.

Nicola di Cosmo and Michael Maas (ed.), Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250–750 (Cambridge: 2018).

E.J. van Donzel and Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest for Alexander’s Wall (Leiden: 2010) [Internet Archive].

François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley: 1988).

Travis Zadeh, Mapping Frontiers across Medieval Islam: Geography, Translation and the ‘abbasid Empire (London: 2011). 

Walter Emil Kaegi, Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge: 2003).

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