Alexander the Great and his three strange wishes

Masood Ashraf, USA
A depiction of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus

The idea of death and dying is a well-established concept that has captivated human minds for centuries – civilisations across time have desperately attempted to understand or rationalise it. Among these groups were the ancient Hebrews, Egyptians and Chinese all of whom had various beliefs about death. 

Throughout time, minds were baffled at ways to find immortality and attempted ways to bring materialistic riches to the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians in the BC era induced many bodies to become preserved in mummified states, thinking the preservation of the body would ensure the safekeeping of the physical self and the soul for the world after. Organs were safely stored in canopic jars to conserve the viscera in futile pursuits to protect them from dying and losing their physical purpose. Intricate gold necklaces, embezzled gemmed stones and baroque items intended for kings and queens were placed next to coffins. Extraordinary and uniquely considerable measures were taken “to create pathways” between this world and the Hereafter where the Egyptians could bring their life and their worldly possessions to the new life after, evidently all in vain. Death is a concept that is inevitable and inflexible; much to the contradiction of what most ancient civilisations believed was possible. 

One of the most notable figures in history, Alexander the Great, was an iconic figure who historically is known for creating an incredibly large empire that stretched from Macedonia to Egypt and other places. Not only did he manage to conquer thousands of cities in the ancient world, but is also known for spreading scientific thought throughout his empire ranging from science to mathematics. 

Many rulers from the ancient world often surrounded themselves with the highest and most valuable of items and expected to be buried with ornate materialistic items to highlight their importance and divinity. Alexander the Great too earned much wealth, and like most leaders was expected to be buried with vast relics of his travels and journey to draw attention to his victorious achievements and greatness. However, in his final days, the great leader who ruled over the ancient world requested three wishes he asked to be fulfilled upon his demise. 

The wishes instructed to his generals were:

1. That only his physicians carry his dead body

2. That the path leading to his grave be ornate with precious metals and gems

3. That both his hands be open and kept dangling out of his coffin. 

When the generals asked Alexander the Great about these strange requests, the ruler replied that he wanted to show that by making physicians carry his dead body, people understood that no doctor could beat death. He desired the pathway to his grave to be ornate with treasures to show people that although he spent most of his life chasing the riches of the world, he had to leave them all behind. And thirdly, he wanted both his hands open and out of the coffin to show he would be leaving this world empty-handed, just as he was born. 

In essence, it is important to understand that the main idea of these requests from this great conqueror was that although he had achieved an incredible amount of success on Earth, he was subject to mortal life and his worldly achievements would do him no good in the life after death. 

It is the nature of humans to be greedy and uncontended with material possessions. The Holy Prophetsa is reported to have said:

“If the son of Adam had a valley full of gold, he would want to have two valleys. Nothing fills his mouth but the dust of the grave, yet Allah will relent to whoever repents to Him” (Bukhari). Humans are rarely content with the wealth they have and strive to seek more after having received what should be enough. However, it is important to understand that Allah the Almighty is the Forgiver of sins and can overlook greedy actions through repenting and prayers. 

Allah instructs us to be giving rather than being greedy and has encouraged us to live contently with what we have been given. The Holy Quran says:

“And spend out of that with which We have provided you before death comes upon one of you and he says, ‘My Lord! if only Thou wouldst grant me respite for a little while, then I would give alms and be among the righteous” (Surah al-Munafiqun, Ch.63: V.11). The Holy Quran continues to say “And Allah will not grant respite to a soul when its appointed time has come; and Allah is Well-Aware of what you do.” (Ibid, V.12)

Ultimately it is important to understand that the only real value that will transfer to the Hereafter is in the form of good deeds and our efforts to attain righteousness – taqwa. No coins, gems, bills, stacks of gold or elixir of life can bargain with death. Only the weight of good things done in this life will have value in the Hereafter. However, it is the nature of human beings to want to attain more in worldly means. Competitiveness and materialistic value often are prioritised as what is considered a success in this life, and shadow the true need for humility and humbleness. The Holy Quran says, “Mutual rivalry in [seeking worldly] increase, diverts you [from God], till you reach the graves.” (Surah al-Takathur, Ch.102: V.2-3) 

Man chases wealth and immortality all his life, but when death arrives, in distress, he begs for another chance to go back and do things differently than he had. This is the nature of man. Only those who understand the true meaning behind life and what will matter in the end are content with passing on to the next life in peace. 

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