Alexander - the greatest of them all

ALEXANDER the not-so-great, one US critic called the film.

He hellenised the Near and Middle East, bringing classical western civilisation to Egypt, the Levant, Iran, Central Asia and parts of India. But a glance at a map shows the political and demographic impact of Alexander’s conquests are now wholly undone. The remnants of the Middle East’s Christians are fleeing the last of their churches in Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan, vastly outnumbered and increasingly threatened in their own countries.

So, has his legacy finally disappeared? No, because the most important result of Alexander’s conquests was not his temporary exposure of the East to western ideals, but the reverse. He brought the Middle East into the orbit of Greece and then Rome for hundreds of years. As a result, western culture was infused with oriental mysticism through the force of Christianity. Though it permeated Persia and India to some extent too, Christianity was triumphant in the West because Palestine was part of the Roman, not the Persian, Empire at the crucial time. It was the Roman emperor Constantine who ensured its wholesale adoption in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

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The resultant fusion of classical western humanism with Middle-Eastern mysticism gave the West its enduring and characteristic strengths. Alexander would have been proud. After all, he himself attempted a similar fusion of his Greek and Persian subjects. Sadly, the project drew ridicule from his uncomprehending and intolerant followers, and died with him.

It was an idea before its time, but which would ultimately prove triumphant in the West. Indeed, so strong are the tenets of the rights of man, individual freedom, tolerance, compassion, limited government, the rule of law, and scientific inquiry, that they are rapidly gaining currency across the globe. The benefits are obvious - despite recent depressing headlines, the numbers in poverty, killed by warfare, or living in dictatorships are all at record lows.

By a strange irony, those very areas where Alexander campaigned now seem most resistant to this spreading enlightenment. The Middle East today is a quagmire of intolerance, despotism, poverty and corruption. But there are occasional exceptions, and 2005 arrives with a glimmer of hope for more. A second Alexandrine coming, so to speak?

Tom Miers is executive director of the Policy Institute, a Scottish think-tank