Where is the Tomb of Alexander the Great?
The year is 323 BCE, and Alexander the Great of Macedon is just 32 years old and at the height of his powers. While resting in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, he falls very ill after a bout of heavy celebratory drinking. After about 11 days of undiagnosed weakness and a loss of consciousness, Alexander dies. It was an ignoble death for such a renowned and battle-hardened leader.
Alexander’s remains were not allowed to rest. After securing his body in a gold sarcophagus and coffin, his generals and friends organized a colossal procession to take Alexander’s body back home to be buried in Macedon. About ten days in, they were ambushed. It was not, however, a hostile raiding party but one of their own, a general in Alexander’s army named Ptolemy, who would go on to rule Egypt as Ptolemy I Soter.
Ptolemy kidnapped Alexander’s body, took it back with him to Egypt, and buried it somewhere in the city of Memphis. His son Ptolemy II Philadelphus moved it to the city named after him, Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. The tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage, with famous Romans such as Pompey, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Hadrian, and Caligula, making a point to visit while visiting the city.
And there, the tomb stayed for centuries until it seemed to have disappeared. The last time it was mentioned in antiquity was by the Greek rhetorician Libanius in 390 CE.
Scholars cannot explain why historical texts fail to trace the location of Alexander the Great’s tomb; nonetheless, archaeologists and historians have given us several theories, and some of the more noteworthy are presented here.
- Alexandria is slowly sinking into the Mediterranean Sea at a rate of up to 0.25 centimeters each year. Perhaps, thanks to this subsidence, the tomb sank further underground and was then rapidly buried and then built over to support the city’s growing population.
- In 391 CE, Emperor Theodosius proclaimed that Christianity was the only legal religion. All symbols of paganism became an abomination. Therefore, it is possible that a mob of righteous and rampaging Christians, aghast at the adoration of Alexander’s tomb, destroyed it in a fit of feverous rage. There is precedence for this theory because Alexandria’s temple of Serapis (the Serapeum) was destroyed in 391 CE, likely by a Christian mob.
- Another intriguing possibility is that Alexander’s body, mistaken for that of Christian martyr Saint Mark, was snatched from its tomb and secreted across the Mediterranean Sea to Venice, where it was buried within the Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica). If true, this would be one of the greatest cases of mistaken identity on record!
There have been over 140 officially sanctioned excavations to find the tomb, none of which have succeeded. With technological advances such as ground-penetrating radar, who is to say that the next excavation won’t strike it lucky, solving one of the world’s most fascinating archaeological mysteries?