The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great

Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit- www.alexanderstomb.com

Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit- www.alexanderstomb.com

Alexander the Great conquered the known world, but died unexpectedly in Babylon in 323 BCE at 32 years old.  His death left his empire in disarray, and his generals scrambled to save pieces of it  even as Alexander’s funeral preparations drug on for two years.  At one point, one of these generals, Ptolemy, took control of both Egypt and the great general’s body.  According to Roman historian Curtius Rufus, “Alexander’s body was taken to Memphis by Ptolemy, into whose power Egypt had fallen, and transferred from there a few years later to Alexandria, where every mark of respect continues to be paid to his memory and his name.  This was a big deal as Macedonia tradition was that the heir to the throne asserted their claim by burying their predecessor.  The priests at the temple of Ptah embalmed Alexander’s body, but did not want it to stay in Memphis.  Legend says they said he would not rest wherever he was laid.  Plutarch said representatives were sent to the oracle at the serapeum, and it said Alexander should lay in his name sake city of Alexandria.  It was moved to the Soma, a walled enclosure in the royal district where the Ptolomaic kings were laid.  Carved into the rock underneath was a beautiful tomb where Alexander lay in state in a crystal coffin.

Alexander’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world, and was visited by several Roman emperors.  The future Emperor Augustus visited the tomb after his victory over Cleopatra and Marc Antony.  He brought flowers and a golden diadem, and according to Dio Cassius a piece of his nose broke off when Augustus touched it.  The priests spun it as a blessing from Alexander to his new heir, but who really knows?  According to Suetonius, Caligula took the cuirass of Alexander from the tomb and wore it about on dress up occasions.  The last emperor to visit was Caracalla in 215 CE.  The last mention of the tomb was in early 4th century CE in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander’s body was still on display in Alexandria.  Soon after Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  This edict included Alexander, who had been deified and was worshiped as a god king.  Soon after, all trace of Alexander’s body and tomb disappears.  He is listed by Theodoret in the early 5th century CE as being among the famous whose tombs were unknown.

What happened to such a famous landmark?  Historians believe the Soma was destroyed in 365 CE when a tsunami hit the Alexandria and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.  There are reports of ships being sent into the roofs of buildings, so it would not be out of the realm of possibility that this kind of natural disaster could have destroyed the Soma.  However, there are reports later than this of the body being on display, so it would make sense that it had been moved when the Soma was destroyed.  There are also references to a mosque or tomb of Alexander from Arab texts in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.  A map of Alexandria drawn in 1575 shows a building with a minaret and chapel and is labelled “Domus Alexandri Magni”, Latin for “House of Alexander the Great”.  When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he saw an empty sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Attarine Mosque, which was located where the 1575 map shows “House of Alexander the Great”.  But where is the body?  Stories from local guides say the body is hidden in a secret chamber in the new mosque built to honor Nabi Daniel or the prophet Daniel.  However, there is another theory.

Historian Andrew Chugg put forth a theory that the body of Alexander the Great isn’t in Egypt at all.  He theorized the disappearance of the mummy corresponded with the wave of Christianity through Egypt.  Theodosius’ edict did apply to Alexander as he was worshiped as a deified king.  About this time another mummy appeared in Alexandria- that of St. Mark the Evangelist.  This is curious ancient Christian writers such as Dorotheus, Eutychius and the Chronicon Paschale report St. Mark’s body as being burnt by pagans.  However, there is an apocryphal document which states a “miraculous storm” came up and allowed Christians to save St. Mark’s body from the fire.  Guess when this anonymous document was found in Alexandria?  In the 4th century CE, right around the time Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  What a coincidence.

The story gets stranger from there.  The mummy stayed in Alexandria until it fell under Arab rule.  In 828 CE, two Venetian merchants smuggled the mummy out in a basket.  They supposedly kept the Alexandrian port officials from inspecting the basket too closely by covering the body with perfume and pork.  It was spirited back to Venice, where it was installed in the Basilica of St. Mark with much pomp and circumstance.

Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit- www.alexanderstomb.com

Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit- www.alexanderstomb.com

So does the body of Alexander the Great rest in Venice masquerading as a saint?  No one knows.  In 2008, a large block of sculpture was found embedded in the foundations of the Basilica near the tomb of the saint.  It has been identified as a funerary relief from a high status tomb of the 3rd century BCE.  The stone bears a life sized shield with the starburst emblem of Alexander’s family and a single edged sword called a kopis.  No one has any concrete theories on how it got there.  An easy way to settle this would be to test the remains, but the Roman Catholic Church has not granted permission for this.  So the mummy remains shrouded in mystery.

ER