The mystery surrounding a 4,000-year-old Iraqi temple has finally been solved as archaeologists uncover signs that Alexander the Great was worshipped as a divine figure.
Scientists had been puzzled by the discovery of more recent Greek inscriptions at the ancient Sumerian temple of Girsu, in the modern-day town of Tello.
Now, British Museum archaeologists believe a Greek temple to Alexander the Great was founded on the site, possibly by Alexander himself.
The discovery of a silver coin minted around 330 BCE by Alexander’s troops suggests that the conqueror may have visited the temple after defeating the Persians.
This would make founding the temple one of the last acts of Alexander’s life, shortly before his death at the age of 32.
The mystery surrounding a 4,000-year-old Iraqi temple has finally been solved as archaeologists uncover signs that Alexander the Great was worshipped as a divine figure
Archaeologists have solved the mystery of why Greek inscriptions were found at the 4,000-year-old Sumerian temple of Girsu in Iraq
The city of Girsu is believed to have been inhabited from 5000 BCE, becoming a sacred city to the Sumerians and the spiritual home of their warrior god, Ningirsu.
After excavations began in the 19th century, it appeared that a Greek structure may have been built on the site but the only evidence was a mysterious tablet.
In both Greek and Aramaic the tablet read: ‘Adad-nadin-aḫḫe’ meaning ‘giver of the two brothers’.
What puzzled researchers was that the temple had been abandoned in 1750 BCE, more than 1,000 years before Alexander the Great had even been born.
British Museum archaeologist Dr Sebastien Rey now believes that the Greeks had founded their own temple on the ancient site, potentially to declare the divinity of Alexander.
Researchers believe the temple may have been used to worship Zeus, who Alexander the Great claimed as a father and a combined figure of Hercules and Sumerian warrior god Ningirsu
The temple was abandoned in 1750 BCE, 1,000 years before the birth of Alexander the Great, suggesting these ancient civilizations had a deep and accurate understanding of their history
‘It is truly mind-blowing. Our discoveries place the later temple in Alexander’s lifetime,’ said Dr Rey.
‘We found offerings, the kinds of offerings that would be given after a battle, figures of soldiers and cavalrymen.
‘There is a chance, we will never know for certain, that he might have come here, when he returned to Babylon, just before he died,’ Dr Rey told The Telegraph.
The discovery of the silver coin alongside an altar with offerings usually found in Greek temples implies the site was being used as a place of worship by Alexander’s forces.
The offerings included terracotta cavalrymen which were very similar to the ‘Companion Cavalry’ which formed the personal bodyguard of the young conqueror.
The researchers say this could mean that whoever made the offerings was very close to Alexander, or that these were possibly made by the conqueror himself.
Offerings like this terracotta horse suggest that the worshipers may have been in Alexander the Great’s bodyguard of ‘Companion Cavalry’ or even included Alexander himself
The discoveries also shed light on the meaning of the cryptic Greek inscription found at the site which referred to the ‘giver of the two brothers’.
Alexander the Great had an immense personal interest in the figure of Hercules and had declared himself the Son of Zeus while in Egypt, making him the brother of the mythical hero.
Alexander may have asked the Sumerian people who most resembled Hercules within their culture and been directed to the temple of Ningirsu the warrior God.
Dr Rey believes that the temple was dedicated to Zeus and the two brothers, a combined figure of Hercules and Ningursu, and Alexander the Great.
‘This site honours Zeus and two divine sons. The sons are Heracles and Alexander. That is what these discoveries suggest,’ says Dr Rey.
This theory also suggests that ancient cultures had a deep understanding of their history and a long cultural memory, knowing the exact location of the temple and its use over a millennium after it was abandoned.
Much of the site was damaged by earlier excavations but by using drones and remote sensing technology researchers identified a larger, hidden complex
The city of Girsu was part of Sumer, one of the world’s most ancient civilizations that built the first cities and created the first codes of law.
While the site of the city had been badly damaged by 20th-century conflict and destructive excavations by French archaeologists in the 19th-century, remote sensing technology suggested a larger, hidden complex.
In the Autumn of 2022, a team of researchers found walls and administrative records of a huge palace and the sanctuary where the Greek temple was later constructed.
The team working at the site believe the temple was originally used for feasts, animal sacrifices and other processions dedicated to Ningirsu.
At the time of the discovery, Dr Rey said other scientists accused him of ‘making it up’ and wasting money due to the belief that the site had already been excavated fully.
However, the discovery ultimately led to a joint initiative to save endangered heritage sites led by the British Museum, Getty and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) of Iraq.
Alexander III of Macedon was born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia in July 356 BC.
He died of a fever in Babylon in June 323 BC.
Alexander led an army across the Persian territories of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt claiming the land as he went.
Alexander III of Macedon was born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia in July 356 BC
His greatest victory was at the Battle of Gaugamela, now northern Iraq, in 331 BC, and during his trek across these Persian territories, he was said to never have suffered a defeat.
This led him to be known as Alexander the Great.
Following this battle in Gaugamela, Alexander led his army a further 11,000 miles (17,700km), founded over 70 cities and created an empire that stretched across three continents.
This covered from Greece in the west, to Egypt in the south, Danube in the north, and Indian Punjab to the East.
Alexander was buried in Egypt, but it is thought his body was moved to prevent looting.
His fellow royals were traditionally interred in a cemetery near Vergina, far to the west.
The lavishly-furnished tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, was discovered during the 1970s.