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The Tomb of Alexander
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Just published: 'Alexander the Great in India: A Reconstruction of Cleitarchus', click here for details.

Previously published: The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great, click here for details. Also recently published Alexander's Lovers, Andrew Chugg's previous book for more details here.

Death in Babylon

In the Spring of 323BC Alexander the Great ruled an empire stretching from the racing River Danube in Europe to the ice-bound peaks of the Himalayas in northern India. At this time he came to visit his capital, the metropolis of Babylon astride the River Euphrates (Figure 1). Around the middle of May he led a small flotilla though the marshes to the west of the city in order to plan improvements to the canal system, which diverted the river's annual spate around the urbanised districts. The weather was already stiflingly hot and clouds of mosquitoes were a constant source of irritation.

Figure 1. Babylon

Back in Babylon in the final week of May, Alexander oversaw the final preparations for an expedition to circumnavigate Arabia with a fleet of a thousand ships. At a banquet on the 30th he commemorated the safe completion of the voyage of his admiral Nearchus from India at the beginning of the previous year. At a late night party hosted by his companion Medius on the 31st May, Alexander collapsed when struck by sharp pains in his spine and limb-joints. He was carried to the bathroom in the royal apartments, where he slept beside the pool, since he was already feverish. Over the next week the king experienced recurrent bouts of fever throughout the nights, but accompanied by marked remissions during daylight hours, enabling the plans for the imminent expedition to continue to progress. However, the episodes of fever steadily became more intense and the respites grew ever shorter. By the 5th of June, the fever, though still more intense at night, persisted throughout daylight hours. On the 7th June there was a rapid deterioration in Alexander's condition. For the first time it was clear that his life was in danger. His senior officers were commanded to gather in the courtyard of the palace, whilst those of lesser rank were ordered to wait outside its gates. By the 9th June rumours were flying among the troops that the king had already expired. They thronged to the palace, where Alexander's companions were forced to allow them to process past his sickbed (Figure 2). He greeted them with his eyes, for he had already lost his voice. Perhaps he could still manage a hoarse whisper, for he is said to have requested that his body should be taken to the god Ammon in Egypt. He handed his signet ring to Perdiccas, his cavalry commander and Bodyguard. His companions asked him, "To whom do you leave your kingdom?" and he replied, "To the strongest," adding that he foresaw great funeral games. When, finally, Perdiccas asked him at what times he wished his divine honours to be paid to him, he responded, "When you are happy." These were the last words of the king.

Figure 2. Alexander's deathbed

A group of the companions kept an overnight vigil in the temple of the bull god of the city, but the shrine's oracle refused their suggestion that Alexander himself could be brought within its sacred walls. The next day, that is towards evening on the 10th June 323BC according to the Julian calendar, Alexander was pronounced dead. The news probably leaked out slowly, but was generally known by the next day, resulting in wailing and lamentation throughout the city. People went about in a daze of sorrow, but already a vicious dispute was brewing between the cavalry and infantry contingents of the army. There was even some fighting in the palace. Meanwhile Alexander's body remained curiously fresh and lifelike in the steamy heat for at least several more days, which may indicate a profound terminal coma.

The symptoms and circumstances were highly consistent with falciparum malaria, which would have been contracted through mosquito bites in the marshes. Although a rumour of poisoning emerged months later, an intermittent fever escalating over nearly two weeks and terminating in coma is highly inconsistent with any credible poisoning scenario. However, a certain diagnosis is not possible without testing of Alexander's remains.

Funeral Games

The cavalry led by Perdiccas forced the infantry under Meleager to sue for terms within a week by cutting off supplies to the city. The settlement entailed the acceptance of the imbecilic Philip Arrhidaeus, the infantry's candidate, as king, but with the proviso that the yet unborn child of Roxane, Alexander's wife, should also reign as joint-king, if a boy. Perdiccas was appointed Regent of the Empire and he immediately contrived the execution of the leaders of the infantry revolt by having them trampled by war elephants at a parade. The Macedonian army held an assembly at which they rejected Alexander's plans for further conquests and sundry expensive temple building projects. They also seem to have agreed that Alexander's corpse should be conveyed to Egypt in accordance with his expressed wish.

In the ensuing months Perdiccas strengthened his grip on power, but Ptolemy, his main surviving rival at Babylon, departed to take over the governorship of Egypt. Perdiccas was probably in contact with Olympias, Alexander's mother. She is likely to have deplored the plan to send her son's body to Egypt and may have insisted that it should be returned to her. Perdiccas needed her support and was anyway nervous of putting Alexander's corpse into the hands of Ptolemy. He may have arranged an augury by his seer, Aristander, to the effect that the nation which kept Alexander's corpse would never be conquered. This seems to have swayed the Macedonian Assembly to agree that the body should be sent to Olympias in Macedon for burial at Aegae, in the cemetery of the Macedonian kings.

Whilst Perdiccas and the army left Babylon to campaign in Asia Minor, an officer called Arrhidaeus was left in charge of the construction of a catafalque to carry Alexander's corpse to its distant tomb. It was over a year before the magnificent funeral carriage was ready (Figure 3). It set off towards Syria in the second half of 322BC. However, by pre-arrangement with Ptolemy, Arrhidaeus led the procession south towards Egypt when it reached the vicinity of Damascus, instead of north towards Macedon. Perdiccas received the news a week or so later and he immediately sent a contingent of cavalry under his lieutenants Attalus and Polemon in hot pursuit. They may have overtaken the sluggish catafalque, but Ptolemy had come north with an army to escort it, so the Regent's men were repulsed.

Figure 3. Alexander's catafalque

The furious Perdiccas attacked Egypt with the Grand Army in the Spring of 321BC. However, he failed twice to force the crossing of the Nile with tremendous losses among his own troops. Many were swept away by the river and eaten by crocodiles. The Regent's own officers assassinated Perdiccas with their spears and offered the Regency to Ptolemy, who politely refused. Nevertheless he re-supplied the Grand Army and sent it back north with a couple of his appointees in joint command (one of whom was Arrhidaeus). Ptolemy himself turned his attention to arranging the entombment of Alexander at Memphis, then still the capital of Egypt.

The Memphite Tomb of Alexander

The nature and location of the tomb of Alexander created by Ptolemy at Memphis has been one of several new aspects of this story researched in detail by Andrew Chugg (See article in "Greece and Rome"). This new research reveals a serious candidate for the specific location of the Memphite tomb for the first time.

It now appears likely that Ptolemy adapted a vacant tomb that had been prepared by and for the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo II. However, this Pharaoh had fled south to Ethiopia, when Egypt had been invaded by the Persians in 343BC, so he never had the opportunity to occupy his tomb. The site of the prospective tomb was a chapel within the temple complex of the Serapeum in the cemetery area of ancient Memphis at Saqqara. It lay at the end of a mile-long avenue of sphinxes. The Serapeum complex was rediscovered by Auguste Mariette in 1850-1851 by excavating the sands away from the sphinxes one by one. Guarding the entrance to the chapel of Nectanebo II, Mariette discovered an incongruous semicircle of life-size Greek statues of poets and philosophers, which appear to date to the time of Ptolemy (Figure 4). Some of them can be identified, including Pindar, whose house and descendants Alexander had saved at Thebes, Homer, who was Alexander's favourite poet, and Plato, who had been the mentor of Alexander's tutor, Aristotle. Could these statues have been erected to honour Alexander's tomb?

Figure 4. The semicircle of statues at the Serapeum in Memphis

Independently, Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 discovered an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in a chapel in the courtyard of the Attarine Mosque in Alexandria (Figure 5). The local people asserted that this was the tomb of Alexander the Great. When Napoleon's army was defeated by the British in 1801, Edward Daniel Clarke shipped the sarcophagus to the British Museum in London and wrote a book about it, recounting the known history of Alexander's tomb. When hieroglyphics were deciphered by Champollion in 1822, it was realised that this sarcophagus was inscribed as the royal sarcophagus of Nectanebo. Originally it was thought to be that of Nectanebo I, but this was eventually corrected to Nectanebo II. At the time this was believed to rule out a connection with Alexander, but we can now see that this is perfectly consistent with the view that Ptolemy took over Nectanebo's intended tomb at Saqqara. Furthermore, it is known that Alexander's tomb was moved from Memphis to Alexandria by Ptolemy's son, Philadelphus, which explains why the sarcophagus turned up in the great Egyptian port city founded by Alexander.

Figure 5. The sarcophagus made for Nectanebo II

The Capital of Memory

The exact date at which Philadelphus transferred Alexander's tomb to the new capital, Alexandria, which had been founded by Alexander in 331BC, is unknown, but it was most probably shortly after Ptolemy died in 282BC. No details of the tomb constructed by Philadelphus have come down to us, but there is a faint possibility that the magnificent antechamber of a Ptolemaic tumulus tomb found in pieces in the Latin Cemeteries of modern Alexandria in 1907 is a part of it. This first Alexandrian tomb was replaced by a magnificent mausoleum at the centre of Alexandria in about 215BC by the grandson of Philadelphus, Ptolemy Philopator. It was Philopator's mausoleum, standing within a huge sacred enclosure, known as the Soma, which was to become the most famous and most sacred shrine of the ancient world, for in Egypt and the Roman Empire Alexander was worshipped as a god.

In 89BC one of the later Ptolemies melted down the solid gold coffin, that Diodorus describes as having been crammed with the richest aromatic spices and fitted to the body like a mummy case. This Ptolemy used the gold to pay his troops and substituted a glass coffin for the one he destroyed, but it did him no good, for he was drowned in a sea-fight with rebel forces within the year.

Shrine of the Caesars

In 48BC Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria having pursued his enemy Pompey thither in the aftermath of his victory at Pharsalus. He was made a present of Pompey's head by the young Pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII, but Caesar deposed and slew him in favour of his sister, Queen Cleopatra. Caesar also took the opportunity to conduct a pilgrimage to the tomb of his hero, Alexander, in the tomb chamber carved into the rock beneath the Soma mausoleum.

After a spectacular reign, Cleopatra was ultimately defeated and deposed by Octavian (the future emperor Augustus Caesar) in 30BC. His arrival in Alexandria was the occasion of the most famous visit to Alexander's tomb. Octavian had the sarcophagus brought up out of the burial chamber. He crowned the mummy and strewed it with flowers, but accidentally broke off a piece of its nose.

Figure 6. Caesar (Augustus?) views Alexander's corpse


A succession of Roman emperors paid homage to Alexander's corpse in the following centuries. Gaius Caligula probably saw it, when, aged seven, he accompanied his father, Germanicus, on a visit to Alexandria in AD19. When he became emperor, he commanded that Alexander's cuirass be brought from the tomb for use as a prop in his play-acting. Vespasian and Titus must have seen the tomb in AD69, whilst Hadrian and Antinous visited the city in AD130. However, the next explicitly recorded visit is that of Septimius Severus in AD200. This authoritarian emperor was horrified by the ease of access and commanded that the chamber be sealed.

The last known imperial visit was that of Severus' son, Caracalla, in AD215. He left his ring and belt in tribute to Alexander and departed to organise the treacherous and gory annihilation of most of the young men of Alexandria.

Vanished from History

Towards the middle of the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire entered a period of crisis and near collapse. At first Alexandria was little affected by these troubles, but in AD262 the local legions supported a rebellion by the governor of Egypt, whom they declared to be their emperor. The insurrection was brutally repressed. There was probably fighting in and around Alexandria and parts of the city were ruined. Less than a decade later, a local magnate by the name of Firmus supported Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in an attempt to break the eastern provinces away from the rest of the empire. Once again the rebellion was quashed. This time the rebels were besieged in the palaces along the eastern shore of the great harbour. The emperor Aurelian virtually razed this area, then known as the Bruchion, to the ground. The century ended badly for Alexandria, when yet another Egyptian rebel emperor was defeated and killed by Diocletian in AD298. Once again Alexandria was sacked by the imperial army. Some have believed that Alexander's tomb was destroyed in one of these upheavals, but there is now compelling evidence that it survived into the 4th century AD.

Ammianus Marcellinus relates an incident which took place in about AD361. The Patriarch (Christian Archbishop) Georgius is said to have posed a rhetorical question to the Alexandrian mob concerning a tall and splendid temple of the Genius of Alexandria: "How long shall this tomb stand?" he enquired. By "Genius" Ammianus meant the tutelary deity of the city and this could well mean Alexander. Certainly, Alexander is the only figure to whom this expression might apply whose tomb also lay within the city. A few years later in AD365, Alexandria was struck by a phenomenal earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami, which is reported to have wrought havoc in coastal regions and port cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Alexandria is reported to have been particularly hard hit with ships being lifted onto the roofs of surviving buildings. This is the most probable occasion of the destruction of the Soma Mausoleum.

A quarter of a century later, in a newly recognised reference, Libanius of Antioch mentioned in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander's corpse was on display in Alexandria. This would fit with the tomb chamber having eventually been excavated from beneath the rubble of the ruins. It also provides an occasion upon which the corpse might have been removed and separated from the sarcophagus, which would explain why the latter was found in a vacant state by Napoleon's expedition. A year or so later, Theodosius issued a series of decrees outlawing the worship of pagan gods, among whom Alexander was to the fore. In Alexandria, the Christians rioted and destroyed the Serapeum, the leading pagan temple. This is the point where the continued worship of the founder's corpse would have become unconscionable to the Alexandrian authorities. This is the time that Alexander's remains finally disappear from history.

At the very end of the 4th century or early in the 5th, John Chrysostom was able to assert in a sermon that Alexander's tomb was then "unknown to his own people", that is to say, to the pagans of Alexandria. A few decades later Theodoret listed Alexander among famous men whose tombs were unknown.

The Mysteries of the Mosques

There are a couple of references to a mosque or tomb of Alexander in Arab texts of the 9th and 10th centuries, but these are likely references to the empty sarcophagus and the building that housed it. This was probably the Attarine Mosque, in which the sarcophagus was found in 1798, or at least an antecedent religious building on the same site, since the mosque seen by Napoleon (Figure 7) was rebuilt from older architectural elements in the 11th century. A crucial connection is provided by the Braun & Hogenberg map of about 1575, which depicts a building with a minaret and a small chapel at the location of the Attarine Mosque (Figure 8). It is significant that the mosque is shown at the exact centre of the map and the chapel is labelled "Domus Alexandri Magni", Latin for "House of Alexander the Great". Following his visits to Alexandria in around 1517, Leo Africanus stated that Alexander's tomb then existed "in a small house in the form of a chapel". All this tends to confirm that it was the empty sarcophagus in its chapel that was recognised as Alexander's tomb throughout the medieval period.

Figure 7. The chapel of the sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Attarine Mosque

Figure 8. The "House of Alexander the Great" at the centre of the Braun & Hogenberg map

After the British transported the sarcophagus to England in 1802-3, the Attarine Mosque seems to have decayed rapidly and a few decades later it had disappeared altogether. However, a new mosque dedicated to Nabi Daniel (i.e. the prophet Daniel) was constructed by Mohammed Ali in about 1823 a few hundred metres further east at the foot of the mound of Kom el-Dikka (Figure 9). Seemingly for want of any alternative focus for tourist interest in Alexander's tomb, in about 1850 one of the local guides, Ambroise Schilizzi, invented a story that he had seen Alexander's body in a glass sarcophagus concealed within a secret chamber behind a worm-eaten door beneath this mosque. Some of the details of the tale betray its fictional nature. For example, Schilizzi said he saw papyri lying around the sarcophagus, which is an allusion to a hint by Dio Cassius that the emperor Septimius Severus sealed up some books of Egyptian magic lore in the tomb. However, the preservation of papyri is impossible beneath Alexandria, because of the high water table and capillary action (rising damp).

Figure 9. The Nabi Daniel Mosque in about 1837

The Location of the Soma

In his article in the American Journal of Ancient History, Andrew Chugg has proposed a new location for Alexander's tomb in ancient Alexandria. Zenobius stated that the Soma Mausoleum lay at the centre of the ancient city, whilst Achilles Tatius mentioned a district named after Alexander where two grandly colonnaded streets intersected at right angles. This crossroads lay within an enclosure at the heart of the city. Similarly, Strabo and Diodorus, who were both eyewitnesses, described Alexander's tomb as lying within a huge and magnificent walled enclosure and Strabo added that this enclosure was adjacent to the palaces.

Referring to the map of Alexandria made by Napoleon's expedition in 1798 (Figure 10), it can be seen that the medieval walls of the city still largely survived as a double circuit (inner and outer walls) at that time. These walls encompassed an area less than a third the size of the ancient city in the time of Cleopatra. In the west, the walls hugged the ancient coastline, as might be expected of a great port city. However, it the east the walls protruded to surround a vast area a long way back from the shore and spreading equally either side of the line of the ancient high street, Canopic Way. When Mahmoud Bey's street plan of the ancient city (Figure 11) is superimposed on the medieval walls, it can be seen that the site of the ancient principal crossroads lies just within the eastern Rosetta Gate of the medieval city. Furthermore, the eastern sector of the medieval walls surrounds this crossroads on three (and a bit) sides. Pococke, who visited Alexandria in 1737, observed that the outer wall of the medieval double circuit appeared to be ancient in construction. In addition, a water-coloured engraving drawn in about 1792 by Luigi Mayer shows that the outer portal of the Rosetta Gate itself was ancient in form, having pillars with Corinthian capitals and a statue niche just to one side (Figure 12). Andrew has therefore proposed that the eastern sector of the medieval walls incorporated the walls of three sides of the Soma enclosure and that Alexander's Mausoleum must have been located close to Mahmoud Bey's central crossroads.

Figure 10. Map of Alexandria by Napoleon's engineers

Figure 11. Mahmoud Bey's reconstruction of the ancient street plan

Figure 12. The Rosetta Gate in 1792

One small section of the medieval walls, part of a tower at the NE corner of their eastern sector, survives today in the Shallalat Gardens of modern Alexandria. But the Rosetta Gate and most of the rest was largely destroyed in the 1820's when Galice Bey remodelled the old walls into a more modern defensive circuit on behalf of the Viceroy, Mohammed Ali. In the 1880's most of the remaining walls were swept away in a phenomenal expansion of the modern city across the ancient ruin field.

A Candidate for the Corpse

In his article in History Today and also in more detail in his book, The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great , Andrew Chugg has made a new suggestion regarding the current whereabouts of Alexander's corpse.

Only one existing ancient, mummified corpse is known to have appeared in central Alexandria at the end of the 4th century AD, just when Christianity triumphed over the pagan religions in the city, and Alexander's body mysteriously disappeared. This was the set of human remains which was said by the Alexandrian church to be the corpse of St Mark the Evangelist, the founder of Christianity in Alexandria. However, several ancient Christian writers (Dorotheus, Eutychius and the Chronicon Paschale) stated that St Mark's body was burnt by the pagans. There is an apocryphal document known as the "Acts of St Mark", which seems to have been anonymously composed in 4th century Alexandria and which claims that a miraculous storm had scared away the pagans and enabled the Christians to snatch the corpse from the flames. However, this reads like an invention to try to authenticate a fabricated tomb.

It happens that this same corpse was subsequently taken from Alexandria, seemingly with the co-operation of local clergy, after the city had fallen under Arab rule. In AD828 two merchant-captains smuggled the richly perfumed mummy past the Alexandrian port officials and sailed back with it to their native city of Venice. For centuries it lay in a tomb in the crypt beneath the church built to house it by the Venetians, the Basilica of St Mark (Figure 13). However, the remains were transferred to a marble sarcophagus beneath the high altar in 1811 to protect them from the ever-increasing risk of damage through flooding of St Mark's square.

Figure 13. The Basilica of St Mark in Venice

Scientific testing should readily reveal the secret of the origins of these remains. Radiocarbon dating should establish whether they are old enough to be the body of Alexander. Facial reconstruction should be possible using the skull and the bones could be inspected to seek signs of Alexander's many wounds, particularly the arrow wound to his chest, which is said to have lodged in the breast bone. The end of this story is still unknown and cannot yet be told. We will keep our visitors updated on our News page.

 Copyright (c) 2005 Andrew Chugg

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