A guide to travelling in Alexander the Great’s footsteps. First published in National Geographic’sJourneys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips.
As well as travel writing Peter also personally leads a number of our escorted cultural tours in Turkey each year.
For more than 2,000 years Alexander the Great has excited the imagination of people around the globe. Barely out of his teens he invaded Asia with some 45,000 men to conquer the vast and rich Persian empire. He didn’t stop there, but continued on an epic 22,000 mile journey, Troy to Alexandria, Samarkand to Babylon. By the time he died, aged just 32, he had gone beyond the limits of the known world, carving out an empire stretching from Greece to Afghanistan, Israel to India.
Today you can find his legacy still resonating across three continents – Europe, Asia, and Africa. Head to Egypt, venture out into the desert to the oasis of Siwah, a great circle of vivid green in a sea of parched yellow, and you’ll find a crumbling temple where the oracle declared Alexander the son of Zeus. Trek into southern Iran, and you will discover Persepolis, the ruined ceremonial capital of the Persian kings, burnt to the ground by Alexander.
The ultimate travel destination for those enthralled by Alexander must be Turkey. Following in his footsteps from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, you’ll savour a magical combination of landscapes, food, and ancient wonders. Archaeological adventures await at every turn.
The Alexander sarcophagus. Step inside Istanbul’s archaeological museum, and marvel at one of the finest pieces of craftmanship from the ancient world. It’s not Alexander’s personal coffin but belonged instead to a subordinate. On the sides of his tomb you’ll find Alexander, carved in lustrous white marble, galloping at a hunt and rearing up on his horse Bucephalas.
Walk the marbled streets of Ephesus. Explore the capital of the Roman province of Asia, now one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world. A century of excavations by Austrian archaeologists has revealed so much to see: from private villas to opulent baths, a theatre for 28,000 and an extraordinary library.
Sail the Lycian Shore. Gaze at Turkey’s turquoise coast as you cruise aboard a traditional Turkish gulet. Beneath soaring pine clad mountains you’ll relax in splendour while reflecting on Alexander’s navy and ancient pirates. Moor up and go ashore at Phaselis where Alexander was crowned with golden wreaths.
The temple of Apollo at Didyma. Walking beneath soaring columns and down dark vaulted corridors to the innermost holy of holies, you can still feel the might and influence wielded by the old gods.
The views from Termessus. Hike into the mountains and you’ll find this rocky eyrie, an ancient city in the clouds, one of the few places to say no to Alexander and survive.
When to travel: Spring and Autumn. Mid April to early June, and September to October are the best times to avoid the intense summer heat and crowds.
How long do you need: At least a week to see a few highlights. Two to three weeks will allow you to cover a significant amount of terrain, visit a great many sites, and gain an appreciation of the sheer physical and logistical difficulties faced by Alexander.
Planning your travel adventure: There are many tour companies that use Alexander the Great as a headline for trips that have very little to do with where he went and what he did, so scrutinise their itineraries. If you’re travelling independently, buy the best Turkey maps you can before jetting off. Large scale maps are often difficult to find in Turkey, especially outside the main cities.
Inside information: If you head into the interior away from the coast, be wary of Turkey’s renowned kangal dogs. They protect flocks of sheep and goats from wolves and have a well earned reputation for ferocity. Carry a walking stick and some stones for protection.
Pothos.org – All about Alexander the Great – includes a travel guide picking out some of the best places you can visit, from Vergina in Greece to the Siwah oasis in Egypt.
Find out about our Alexander the Great tour in Turkey.