Ah, beautiful and majestic Alexandria in Egypt. Perhaps foremost of all the cities that Alexander the Great named after himself during his conquests in the fourth century CE, this famous coastal port town was always a sort of East-meets-West of the ancient world, a Greek city on Egyptian soil, and to this day remains the largest city on the whole of the Mediterranean coastline in any county. After the Pyramids or the Sphinx, Alexandria’s ancient Lighthouse or its Library might spring to mind when we think of ancient or classical Egypt, especially of the Ptolemaic or Roman periods. And why not? Between the Great Library and the Mouseion of Alexandria, we get such luminaries as Euclid, Hipparchus, Eratosthenes, Hypatia, and no few other scholars, mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers. Countless books from across the world were housed in the Library’s archives, and even after its burning during the Julius Caesar’s civil war, it still functioned admirably for centuries. Even then (and potentially aiding such scholarship and library needs), the mere fact of Alexandria’s location at the westernmost edge of the Nile delta gave it a uniquely powerful position in terms of trade, making it a true melting pot of language, culture, science, education, religion, and so much else.
But for any meaningful relationship to Hermeticism, as a cite of its origination? We should look elsewhere; Alexandria, as it turns out, ain’t it.
Now, to be fair, a lot of people like talking about Hermeticism in an Alexandrian context, and given how important Alexandria was in general to the classical world and to various surviving philosophical and spiritual traditions coming from it, why not? Alexandria was one of the busiest places in all of classical Egypt, and the presence of its Library and schools were huge claims to its fame. As a result, we see the following in Gilles Quispel’s preface to Salaman’s Way of Hermes:
The texts of the Corpus are preserved in Greek, and appear to have been produced between the first and third centuries AD in Alexandria, Egypt. […]
It is now completely certain that there existed before and after the beginning of the Christian era in Alexandria a secret society, akin to a Masonic lodge. The members of this group called themselves ‘brethren,’ were initiated through a baptism of the Spirit, greeted each other with a sacred kiss, celebrated a sacred meal and read the Hermetic writings as edifying treatises for their spiritual progress.
Or in the text’s afterword:
It is now generally agreed that the language of these texts points to production between the first and third centuries AD in Alexandria, a city then ruled by Rome, but culturally a cosmopolitan mix of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish and other traditions. As Gilles Quispel points out in the Preface, these texts were central to the spiritual practice of Hermetic circles in late antique Alexandria.
Or, for a more extreme example, repeated mentions of Alexandria in stuff like from Freke and Gandy’s introduction to their The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs:
The early origins of the Hermetica are shrouded in mystery, but the evidence suggests it is a direct descendant of the ancient philosophy of the Egyptians. However, the handful of surviving works attributed to Hermes are not written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but in Greek, Latin and Coptic. They were collated in the city of Alexandria in Egypt during the second and third centuries CE. Here the Hermetic philosophy helped inspire some of the greatest intellectual achievements of the ancient world. Alexandria was a great centre of learning, surpassing even Athens. […]
In 1614 a scholar called Isaac Casaubon published a textual analysis of the Hermetica, which showed, quite correctly, that the grammar,
vocabulary, form and content of the Greek versions of these works dated them to no earlier than the second and third centuries CE. They were not written by an ancient Egyptian sage, he claimed, but by scholars in the city of Alexandria. Their philosophy was nothing more than an exotic blend of Greek, Christian and Jewish philosophy, mixed up with astrology and magic. […]
This suggests that the Hermetica may indeed contain the wisdom of the pharaohs, which scholars in second-century Alexandria reworked for a contemporary readership. […]
The Hermetica was undoubtedly written by Alexandrian scholars for a Greek-speaking readership. […]
In this new version, therefore, we have selected key extracts and combined them to bring out the essential wisdom and inherent poetry that they contain. In this endeavour we feel we are following in the footsteps of the scholars of Alexandria who collated these books from the ancient material that was then available, making them accessible to a contemporary readership. …
While Freke and Gandy make much of an Alexandrian origin (excluding the many other cities that existed in Egypt with their own centers of learning or spirituality), they’re far from alone in it. A.-J. Festugière (in Hermétisme et mystique païenne) calls Alexandria the “fatherland of Hermetism”, and Garth Fowden (in The Egyptian Hermes) likewise speaks of “that same Alexandrian philosophical milieu in which the Hermetists were home” and that “nearly all our best evidence for cultic syncretism, of whatever sort, comes from the more heavily Hellenized parts of Egypt, such as Alexandria and the Fayyum”.
However, Alexandria (which was even called “Alexandria-upon-Egypt” by the Romans) wasn’t even one of the larger properly-Egyptian cultural or religious centers, especially when we remember that basically all of Egypt all up and down the Nile was heavily urbanized. Alexandria was always first and foremost a Greek colony populated by Greeks for Greeks, after all; although it was founded on an ancient Egyptian fishing village (Rhakotis) and although it relied on a rich and diverse population of Greeks and Jews and Egyptians, Alexandria itself was not Egyptian in any sense except geographical. This led to some rather unflattering views of Egypt due to its insistence to exist anyway to some non-Egyptian minds, such as Dio Chrysostom who (according to Fowden) “regarded the whole of Egypt as a mere ‘appendage’ (προσθήκη) of the Greek metropolis, Alexandria”. To use a modern metaphor of my own country, it’d be like thinking that New York City is the only US city noteworthy on the East Coast, and may well be the crown jewel of the Northeastern Megalopolis, but Washington, DC is also there as is Boston and Philadelphia and Baltimore with distinct cultures, dialects, universities, religious populations, and so on, along with the whole rest of the US besides, on top of all the Native American territories that existed here long before any such cities existed due to colonialism.
In his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), Wouter Hanegraaff opens up his chapter 2 (“Heart of Darkness”) with a little vignette describing what Roman Imperial Egypt was like, and criticizes the view specifically that Hermeticism (or much of anything meaningfully Egyptian) arose from Alexandria, eventually making his way to Thebes to call that city instead the “ancient heartland of Egyptian religion”, and starting his historical inquiry into Hermeticism there. Later on, in sharply criticizing the notion of “Alexandrian Hermetic lodges” (specifically that of Quispel as noted earlier), he cites a paper by Christian Bull, Ancient Hermeticism and Esotericism, in which he highlights the primacy of Thebes (p. 116):
[…] This latter notion is in fact deeply problematic, since it is uncertain that Alexandria played any crucial role in ancient Hermetism. The fact is that we do not know the precise origins of Hermetism, other than that it was Egyptian, to judge from references both internal and external to the texts. Alexandria was of course a melting-pot of Greek and Egyptian culture, but by the time the Hermetica appeared (at least in the first half of the second century CE), the entirety of Egypt was to some degree Hellenized. In fact, the few geographical references in the Hermetica are to Hermopolis and Thebes, both in Upper Egypt. Moreover, papyrus Mimaut (PGM III) which contains the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving, was likely found in Thebes, together with several other magical papyri with clear relations to the Hermetica—the so-called “Thebes-cache”. We can therefore be fairly confident that Hermetica were read in this area, and quite possibly composed there. After all, Strabo informs us that the priests of Thebes were wont to attribute their astronomical and philosophical teachings to Hermes. Hermopolis was the second largest city in Egypt, after Alexandria, and we have papyri showing that the city council there made oaths to Hermes Trismegistus, possibly alluding to the Poimandres at one point. Also, a high priest of Thoth in Hermopolis, corresponding in the early fourth century CE with someone who is ‘all wise in the wisdom of the Greeks’, refers to his god as Hermes Trismegistus. Thus, other than the fact that Alexandrians like Didymus the Blind, Cyril of Alexandria, Asclepiades and Heraiscus had read Hermetica, there is nothing that militates for Alexandria as the point of origin for Hermetism, whereas several factors point toward Upper Egypt.
Likewise, as Bull says in his The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, p. 454:
Hermetic groups could potentially have been found in larger centers of priestly learning, especially Hermopolis Magna of course, which was moreover one of the largest cities in Egypt after Alexandria in the Roman period. Thebes is invoked in the Hermetica and was likely a center for Hermetic ritual activity, as evidenced by the Thebes-cache. Alexandria could potentially accommodate several Hermetic groups, although there is no reason to identify the city as the birthplace of a “Hermetic lodge” as several scholars have done. There is neither internal nor external evidence for such an Alexandrian “lodge,” a designation that is alien to the ancient world and carries Masonic connotations. It is of course entirely possible, even likely, that associations of the type we have described existed there, but there is no reason to assume that Alexandria was the birth-place of Hermetism.
To my mind, situating Thebes as the focal point of Hermeticism’s historical development makes much more sense, at least given all the evidence and extant texts we have (including from the rich caches of the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri), than just assuming Alexandria. In a way, asserting that Hermeticism arose from Alexandria is tantamount to perpetuating colonialist attitudes, because Alexandria was (properly considered) a Greek colony on Egyptian soil, and so was culturally and geopolitically Greek more than anything else. Thebes, on the other hand, in the words of Hanegraaff’s HSHI:
Finally, after turning another great bend in the river and heading south again, our traveler would reach Thebes, the extremely ancient Egyptian city Waset, referred to as Diospolis Magna by the Greeks and Romans but known as Luxor today. More than 3,000 years old at that time, the residence of the Pharaohs during the period of the New Kingdom (sixteenth-eleventh centuries bce) when Egypt was at the peak of its power, this city of the god Amun could be considered the heart of ancient Egypt. It is not surprising that in the centuries after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, Thebes had emerged as a center of resistance against Greek and Roman rule. Having arrived in Thebes, our traveler could still sail farther south along the Nile, but in a real sense he could not get more distant from Alexandria, the cosmopolitical center of Greek Hellenism. This was the ancient heartland of Egyptian religion, and it is here that we begin our search for the Hermetic tradition.
This isn’t to say that Alexandria wasn’t ever important for Hermeticism; after all, it was a major intellectual center, albeit a Greek one, and there were many people who studied or worked or traveled across Egypt who yet still lived in Alexandria from time to time. When we see reference to Hermetic groups from people like Clement of Alexandria or Cyril of Alexandria, we should take their word that there may well have been Hermeticists dwelling in their neighborhood, but not necessarily that they got started there; likewise, although Clement or Cyril may have read Hermetic texts in Alexandria, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were composed there (given how many texts from across the world were stored in or copies given to Alexandria’s libraries and schools). That said, while I’m at it, I should also make a note about two other cities important for the history of Hemeticism besides Thebes or Alexandria:
- Faiyum, a place in Middle Egypt known for the worship of Hermouthis, Sobek, Isis, and others. It’s here we find the famous Hymns of Isidoros, a series of Greek praises inscribed on the gates of a temple complex in the first century BCE. Among these hymns we see one dedicated to “Porromanrēs”, i.e. the Twelfth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III, who was famous not just for building such a temple but also for his various military campaigns, mining and trade expeditions, and various landscaping and engineering projects for the Faiyummic basin; as such, he was deified after his death and had a long-standing cult given to his veneration. Although there are other linguistic possibilities, Howard Jackson in his paper A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres suggsests that “Porromanrēs” was the ultimate origin for the Poimandrēs of CH I and CH XIII—a possibility that Hanegraaff in HSHI reiterates and enforces as a likely origination point for Hermetic spirituality (though reserving Thebes for its eventual development and strengthening).
- Akhmim, also known as Panopolis. This is the place from which the famous 3rd/4th century CE alchemist-gnostic Zosimos hailed, who gives us some rather interesting and detailed accounts not only of alchemical and magical practices of his day but also of particular teachings and texts of Hermēs Trismegistos that are otherwise no longer extant. What’s particularly interesting about Akhmim, beyond just a single but noteworthy alchemist coming from this place, is that “one of the most influential teachers in the formative period of Sufism and one of the first to discuss the concept of ma`rifa, usually translated as gnōsis” also came from here some centuries later: the 9th century CE Ḏū-l-Nūn al-Miṣrī. He was also considered an alchemist in his day, educated in ancient Egyptian language and pagan ritual, and even thought by some to be a heretical magician for some of the work he was thought to make possible. Between Zosimos and Ḏū-l-Nūn, there appears to have been some longstanding alchemy-centric Hermetic group(s) in Akhmim that survived from the classical period into at least the early Islamic period, potentially making for an influence in some Sufi lineages that survive today (at least that of Suhrawardiyya, founded by the 12th century CE Iranian mystic Šihāb al-Dīn Yahya ibn Ḥabaš al-Suhrawardī and who counts Ḏū-l-Nūn as one of his forebears).
Despite how highly-regarded Alexandria was at the far edge of (northern) Lower Egypt, Thebes and Faiyum and Akhmim are all much further south, including (of course) the ancient Hermopolis Magna, modern el-Ashmunein, itself an Egyptian center for the worship of Thōth. It shouldn’t be so strange to point out that there’s more than one city or cultural center in Egypt, and that many of them were somehow important in one way or another throughout the many millennia of Egypt’s existence that grew up from Egypt’s own native soil, native people, and native spiritualities. Yes, the metropolitan and cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria was naturally a melting-pot for much of the classical Mediterranean world—and I know that I myself have described Hermeticism in such a context before, following a popular consensus that doesn’t add up when all the evidence is factored in—but Hermeticism, as syncretic as it is as a Greco-Egyptian form of mysticism, just doesn’t seem to arise from that specific melting-pot. The most that we might be able to reasonably say regarding Alexandria in relation to Hermeticism is that plenty about Hermeticism was written there and disseminated by particularly noteworthy writers to the rest of the classical world, but that still doesn’t mean that the actual texts of Hermeticism were themselves written there. To that end, when we talk about the historical origins of Hermeticism, we really should stop referring only to Alexandria as if it were the only place in Egypt that mattered.
The “mere appendage to Alexandria”, it turns out, has much of its own to contribute that deserves much more credit and respect than many scholars have afforded it, even in our modern day. Even if we don’t know with precise specificity where Hermeticism might have first arisen or where some if its founders taught and studied, we have at least some decent notion of where it certainly grew up or grew big—and Alexandria ain’t it.