In Search of Alexander the Great

In Search of Alexander the Great

by Nermin Sami

Alexander the Great

Despite scientific progress in research and continuous excavations, the mystery of Alexander the Great's tomb still has not unraveled, and locating the burial of Alexander seems to have become an impossible mission for archaeologists.

The problem of locating the place where the body of one of the worlds most famous individuals was buried first came into focus when, in the 4th century AD, St. John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople (347-407), asked his people, "Tell me where is the Sema of Alexander?". His real purpose was to emphasize the futility of the world where even the greatest of men became lost in history. He was quite sure that no one would be able to answer this question, but in asking, it became clear that the tomb of Alexander had completely vanished. No one can claim to have seen this tomb after the end of the 4th century.

Time has made it difficult to distinguish the historical facts from the legends surrounding Alexander the Great's tomb. However, there are four theories concerning its location:

Asia: Two countries in Asia, Indonesia and Turkey, lay claim to his tomb mostly because they were a part of his extensive Empire. However, archaeologists have generally rejected this claim

and no historical evidence has ever been discovered to substantiate this possibility.

German geophysicists and two Egyptian student volunteers working excavations in search of the Tomb of Alexander the Great. The author, Nermin Sami, is second from the left.

Macedonia: Some believe that he may have been buried in Aigai, which was the capital city of the Macedonian Empire where some of his ancestors were laid to rest. Certainly, some modern historians have made a plausible and attractive case for this possibility, though no evidence exists to further these claims, other than ancient texts that indicates his funeral procession was probably, at some point headed in the direction of Aigai.

Alexandria: Many, if not most archaeologist are convinced that Alexander was buried in the city that he founded in Egypt on its northern Mediterranean coast, named for the great ruler. There is considerable ancient material about his funeral in Alexandria, after his body was taken there from Memphis. Other ancient texts refer to various important personalities, including Roman emperors and scholars, who visited his tomb in Alexandria.

The Siwa Oasis: The last theory concerns the story that Alexander the Great asked, while on his deathbed, to be buried at the Ammoneion in the Western Desert Oasis of Siwa, near the temple of the god Amun. This story is told by the historians, Diodoros, Curtius Rufs and Justin, who were not contemporaries of Alexander.

The covered site and sing of the Greek Mission in Siwa

Very soon after entering Egypt, tradition has Alexander traveling to this Oasis where his divine origins were declared as a son of Amun. Hence, it is believed that Alexander had, perhaps, a special place in his heart for this somewhat obscure site. Diodoros mentions that Alexander's funerary procession was at some point destined for the Ammoneion, but he, nor anyone else, actually claim that this burial took place. In fact, there is not absolutely clear evidence that he ever visited the Oasis.

A Greek Mission, headed by Liana Souvaltzi, a graduate of the University of Athens in Archaeology and Philology, excavated in the Siwa Oasis beginning in 1989. In 1995, the mission announced that they had uncovered an underground passage leading to Alexander the Great's final resting place, but this was highly discounted by other Egyptologists, and no word has come from Souvaltzi since about 1995. In fact, her work, examined by Greek authorities, was apparently so shabby that it resulted in tightened scrutiny of whom the Egyptian Government will allow to conduct excavations in Egypt.

The story of Alexander the Great's Death

According to the ancient texts from such sources as Strabo, Diodorus and Plutarch, Alexander the Great left Egypt in 331 traveling to Babylon (modern Iraq). There, he became ill, perhaps from malaria, though some sources tell of his poisoning, and on his way back to Macedonia, he died suddenly. On his deathbed he asked for his generals after which Alexander supposedly gave his ring to one named Perdikkas. Hence, the general was appointed regent of his huge empire until Alexander's queen, Roxane, gave birth to their child. This child was Alexander IV, who inherited his father's Empire, though apparently only briefly.

German Professor  Forkman on top of the Alabaster tomb in Alexandria

Philip Arrhidaeus was the general who had been chosen by the Macedonian army to be in charge of Alexander's funeral arrangement. Two years were required to prepare for Alexanders funeral convey, though its original destination seems to be a matter of speculation. Many scholars believe that indeed, his body was to be sent home to his ancestral burial grounds in Macedonia.

However, the years between 323 to 301 BC were troublesome, with endless conflicts among Alexander the Great's successors. Initially, Alexander IV and his mother were assassinated by Cassander who usurped the throne my marrying Thessaloniki, Alexander the Great's sister. In the ensuing conflict between Alexander's generals for succession, the body of the conqueror played a symbolic role which influenced the power struggles of these men.

The catafalque which bored the body of Alexander as was drawn and  imagined by Carl Otfried Muller.

Perdikkas, is thought to have at first sent the mummified remains of Alexander the Great on their way to Aigai, the old Macedonian capital, for burial. He had a magnificent funerary cart constructed for this purpose. The body was placed in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus which was then encased in a second gold casket and covered with a purple robe. Alexander's coffin was placed, together with his armor, in a gold carriage which had a vaulted roof supported by an Ionic peristyle. The decoration of the carriage was very rich and is described in great detail by Diodoros. An interesting reconstruction of the funerary cart has been developed by the modern archaeologist Stella Miller, who makes no claims as to its accuracy, so that scholars may visualize what Diodoros described.

However, Ptolemy Lagos, one of Alexanders generals, wished to secure the wealthy territory of Egypt for himself, and it had been prophesized by Aristander, Alexander's favorite soothsayer, that the country in which the the body of Alexander the Great was buried would be the most prosperous in the world . Hence, he wanted the body of the conqueror to be buried in Egypt.

Already in control of Egypt as the founder of Egypt's Greek Period, Ptolemy attacked the funerary procession carrying Alexander's body (other variations of this account differ, though with the same results).

Dr. Fakharani, a  modern archaeologist who has sought out the tomb of Alexander, speaks to  German journalists about his theories

Afterwards this procession was redirected to Memphis in Egypt, where Alexander was initially buried. These events are described by all ancient historians. In fact, Diodorus describes the tomb of Alexander in Memphis with great detail, telling us that it was built in a traditional Egyptian style.

Strabo and other ancient authors mention that Alexanders body was interred by Ptolemy II Philadelphos, the son of the first Ptolemy, in Alexandria after having been removed from its Memphis tomb. There, after an elaborate ceremony, the body was laid to rest in a Mausoleum called Soma or Sema, an ancient Greek word meaning dead Body. Soma was a part of Alexandria's Royal quarter. Achilles Tatius, an Alexandria historian who was born and lived in Alexandria in the 3rd century AD places its location in the center of the ancient city in a district name for the Soma monument. A number of ancient authors mention a district of Sema in Alexandria, including Achilles Tatius, Zenobius, Strabo, Lucian and others. There, the remains of Alexander the Great were laid in a golden sarcophagus within a grandiose building. The soma was enclosed by high walls and many believe that later it would also hold the Ptolemy Royal family tombs as well.

The tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, where his body probably lay in public display, was visited by important personalities, scholars, as well as common tourists. We hear that Alexander's body was originally laid to rest in a golden sarcophagus, but Strabo, who visited Alexander's tomb himself in the first century AD, tells us in his reports that king Ptolemy IX (116-107, 87-81 BC), one of the most infamous successors of Ptolemy I, replaced Alexander's sarcophagus with one made of glass. Supposedly, Ptolemy IX melted down the original gold sarcophagus in order to strike emergency gold coinage.

Dion Cassius, a historian who lived between 155-235 AD and who was also consul of Africa in the reign of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus, reported Augustuss earlier request to see the body of Alexander. As he bent over the body to kiss the great conqueror, Augustus accidentally broke Alexander's nose. When Augustus was asked if he wanted to visit the tombs of the Ptolemies, he refused, saying that, I came to see a king and not dead people .

Several other Roman emperors reportedly visited the tomb of Alexander in Alexandria. Even prior to Augustus, the tomb was visited by Julius Ceasar in 45 BC. Later, the Roman Emperor Caligula went to Alexandria to visit the Sema and left with Alexander's cuirass (armor breastplate).

Septimus Severus (early third century AD) eventually closed the tomb to the public out of concern for its safety because of the hoards of tourists who visited the site. He is even said to have placed in the Mausoleum many secret books, reportedly so none could read the books nor see the body.

The last reported imperial visit that we know from ancient accounts, according to Herodian, was made by Caracalla (3rd century AD), who believed that he was Alexander's reincarnation. This emperor dedicated a treasure of offerings to the body of Alexander, including his tunic, ring, belt and other jewelry.

It is mainly because of these historical accounts, including visits by the ancient authors themselves, that most scholars believe that Alexander was laid to rest in Alexandria.

The Capture of Alexandria by Bonaparte's army in 1798

In our search for the tomb of Alexander the Great, it should be noted that the ancient city of Alexandria has been sacked many times which, together with other calamities, led to its eventual and almost total decline. Caracalla sacked the city in 215, but apparently respected the Mausoleum of Alexander the Great. Others to do so in the third century included Claudius II (269), Aurelian (273) and Diocletian (296) resulting in a terrible repression against the population of Alexandria which destroyed nearly the whole of the city.

We must not forget about the natural disasters that contributed to the devastation of the ancient city, including plague and particularly an earthquake during the 4th century which resulted in much destruction, especially to the Royal palaces. It toppled the Pharos lighthouse and the Ptolemaic Royal quarter was deserted, and probably the Royal cemetery was affected as well.

There is no recorded of violent action against the tomb of Alexander the Great during the late Roman period, but some historical sources report considerable destruction in Alexandria during the reign of Emperor Theodosius (379-395) after Christianity became the state religion. Then, after the Arab conquest, the city lost much of its importance, as well as its population and in the 15th century, the Turks almost finished off the city. For five centuries afterwards we hear no more about Alexanders tomb and the Soma totally vanished.

In Search of Alexander the Great's Tomb

There were probably at least a few visitors throughout the ages who came to Alexandria in search of its founder's tomb. We know, for example, that in 1737, a Danish sea captain by the name of Norden visited the city and tried but failed to locate the tomb. James Bruce came in 1768, but his efforts were also in vain. At the end of the 18th century, Sestrini visited the city looking for the Macedonian tomb, but he was shown the Attarine mosque. In 1803, a Russian prelate from Kieve, the archimandrite Konstantios, attempted to find the tomb, but advises us that, "until the 15th century the location was known, but now even the tradition of the tomb has been lost". Of course, the tomb was almost certainly lost far earlier than the 15th century.

As our modern era overtook ancient times, while no one knew the true location of Alexander the Great's tomb, local tour guides in Egypt, doubtless due to the repeated requests of tourists, found it prudent to produce such a tomb. Two such buildings found favor amongst these natives, which were not chosen at random, but because of local traditions surrounding the actual tomb.

Mosque of Attarine

To the earliest of these visitors, they presented the old church of St. Athanasius, which would eventually become the mosque of Attarine. This was very convenient, for in its inner court stood a granite sarcophagus covered with hieroglyphs. In fact, so persuasive were the natives that at the beginning of the 19th century, there arose a dispute between the French and English about its possession. By now, apparently the sarcophagus had been removed from the mosque, and the natives informed the British army that it had been taken by Napoleons soldiers during their withdrawal from Egypt in 1801. However, British soldiers were able to find this coffin in the location of the French hospital. It was sent to the British museum in London, but there it was discovered to be a pharaonic sarcophagus of granite covered with hieroglyphs and after analysis of this hieroglyphic writing, it was found to have held originally the body of Pharaoh Nectanebo II. Nectanebo II was a late ruler of Egypt, and the sarcophagus was apparently reused by one or more Christian Bishops for their own burial..

Yet this did not completely settle the matter. Dr. Edward Daniel Clarke, who described the sarcophagus in detail, believed that the courtyard of the Attarine mosque, because of its numerous ancient columns, was in fact the Soma. Adding to the confusion, Pseudo-Callisthenes believed that Alexander was not the son of Philip, but was actually the son of Nectanebo, an Egyptian magician who worked at the Macedonian court.

The other building that was shown as the tomb of Alexander by the early guides was the Mosque of Nabi Danial, not far away from the Attarine Mosque.

This search for the tomb began in the ancient city center, which according to ancient sources, was the location of Soma. The city plan of Alexandria was like most ancient Greek cities and consisted of orthogonal streets focused along the seacoast. Dinocrates, the Greek architect who was charged with the task of building the city of Alexandria, choose to build the city using a Hippodomi plan.

The city plan takes the shape of a checkerboard, composed of two large main streets. One is vertical and the other is horizontal. The secondary city streets cut across these two main streets.

Hippodomi plan

One of the main streets was Canopic (ancient street L1), now believed to be Fouad Street along Horreya Street. The other main street crossing Conopic was Soma street (ancient street R5), now believed to be Nabj Daniel Street. Where these two main streets cross is thought to have been very near the city center, and thus near the location of Alexander the Great's mausoleum.

Unfortunately the topography of Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria is not that well known even today and so the ancient city center and much else is really a matter of some speculation.

Placing the site of Alexander's tomb at the mosque of Nabi Daniel has an interesting background. Arabs referred to Alexander as Nabi Eskanader, and especially during the 9th century, they apparently and erroneously confused these two individuals. A vast history, such as Egypt's can provide many confusing details. The mosque of Nabi Daniel was probably built on the location of an earlier shrine dedicated to Dzoul Karnein, who was known as the "Sire with the two horns".

Apparently, the legend of the Prophet Daniel, as told by two astronomers named Mohamed Ibn Kathir el Farghani and Abou Ma'shar, first appeared in the 9th century. This account, which deviates considerably from the biblical accounts of Daniel, proclaim that it was he who established Alexandria and was buried there in a golden sarcophagus inlaid with precious stones.

Coin struck with the head of Alexander the Great

Adding to the tradition was the epithet of Dzoul Darneim, "Sire with the two horns". On coins struck during the Greek Period, Alexander was often depicted wearing ram horns, and so local residents thought that he was buried beneath the mosque.

Further contributing to the confusion in 1850, Scilitzis, a Greek interpreter to the Russian consulate of Alexandria, claimed when he entered the crypt of the Nabi Danial Mosque while guiding some European travelers that he saw through a hole in wooden door a body with the head slightly raised lying in a crystal coffin. He reported a golden diadem on the head and that about the coffin, there were scattered papyri, scrolls and books. However, it was immediately obvious that Scilitzis had read the works of Dion Cassius and made up the whole story, for papyri and books in the humid climate of Alexandria could not have survived for such a long period of time.

In 1865, the Khedive Ismail order Mahmoud bey el Falaki to draw a map of the ancient city, which he completed in 1866. El Falakis map and his experience within the Mosque of Nabi Danial promoted the theory that Alexander the Greats Tomb was located in the city center not far from the Mosque of el Nabi Daniel.

Artist concept of the Crypt beneath the Nabi Danial Mosque

Artist concept of the Crypt beneath the Nabi Danial Mosque

Statue of Khedive  Ismail in Alexandria

Mahmoud Bey el Falaki, a noted Egyptian astronomer and engineer, visited the crypt under the Nabi Danial Mosque some ten years after Scilitzis, and reported entering a large room with an arched roof built on the ground level of the ancient city. From this paved room he records that inclined corridors branched out in four different directions. He stated that, "Because of their length and their bad state I could not survey them entirely. The rich quality of the stones used in the construction confirmed my belief that these subterranean passages must have led to the tomb of Alexander the Great".

El Falaki wished to pursue his investigations, but was not an archaeologist and he was forbidden to do so by his superiors. Various wild tales continued to be told however, about this crypt for many years to come.

Exploration continued through the end of the 19th century. We know that Schliemann waited some time for official permission to dig around the mosque of Nabi Danial for the tomb, and in 1893, Ioannides reports discovering a cemetery of the last Ptolemies while searching for the Tomb of Alexander.

Then in 1874, Neroutsos writes about finding large granite and marble columns while digging the foundations of two houses for Kattaoui Bey in front of the Nabi Danial Mosque. Botti confirmed this find, and also refers to an early Christian church near Kom el Dikka, called the Church of Alexander. Hogarth undertook several digs in the vicinity at the end of the 19th century, while Breccia, Thiersch, Adriani, Gaindor, Victor Guirguis and Wace all excavated there in the first half of the 20th century.

Making a survey in search of Alexander's tomb in the first World War French cemetery, located on the western side fo teh Latin cemetary

Now at this point, it is prudent to note that the Egyptian authorities were reluctant to allow much excavation in the vicinity of the Nabi Danial mosque. Not only was this a religious shrine, but prominent members of the ruling family were buried nearby. In Egypt and elsewhere, governments are reluctant to allow endless excavations which might damage important monuments. However, in 1953, after the demise of the monarchy, the government became less strict on such matters.

So, in 1960, the Polish were allowed to conduct the first methodical dig in the area of Kom el Dikka near the Nabi Danial Mosque. Their search for the Tomb of Alexander the Great lead the Polish expedition to discover the Roman amphitheatre at Kom el Dikka, remains of a late Roman bath, Cisterns and a Roman residential quarter. They also discovered a modest sculpture in marble of the head of Alexander, probably datable to the 2nd Century AD. Regrettably though, no remains of Soma turned up in their endeavor.

However, major investigative work was also carried out during the first half of the 20th century by the Italian archaeologist, Achille Adriani, who was the head of the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. He may have quietly unraveled the mystery of Alexander the Great's tomb, but unfortunately he died in 1982 before publishing his findings. A former student, Professor Bonacasa, spent the next 20 years reconstructing Adriani's notes and lectures and suggests in his resulting book that the tomb is indeed in Alexandria as long believed.

The Alabaster Tomb in Alexandria

Adriani, it seems, suggested that the location of the Soma was in the northeastern part of the ancient city, which actually lies much closer to the Royal Quarter. He began excavation in a Latin cemetery where, in 1964, he uncovered the remarkable remains of an ancient Thumulus tomb chamber made of Alabaster, which he apparently believed to be that of Alexander.

However, in 1964, el Fakharani, a professor in Graeco-Roman archaeology in the Department of Arts at Alexandria University published his own views concerning the location of Alexandria's tomb, specifically rebuking the alabaster tomb as belonging to Alexander the Great.

In fact, there evolved two schools of thought concerning this tomb. Some scholars believe it to be a Royal tomb, though not necessarily that of Alexander, due to its majestic and superb architecture and building materials, specifically the alabaster which was imported from Greece in blocks some one meter in thickness and three meters high. However, others believe, due to its location outside of the Royal quarter and with no royal tombs nearby, that it is actually the tomb of a non-royal, though very wealthy personage who lived in this quarter and sought to imitate the tomb of Alexander.

Entrance to the  Alabaster Tomb in Alexandria

After 40 years of researching, Professor Fakharani does suggested that this alabaster tomb is a part of the Royal cemetery due to its majestic rare architecture. It was roofed with a Tumulo (Etruscan dome), so its architecture is similar to the style of Macedonian chamber tombs. Also this tomb was not cut in rock like the other private tombs discovered in Alexandria.

Side wall of teh  Alabaster Tomb

In 1996 Professor Fakharani received permission from the Egyptian authorities to start excavation in the modern Latin Cemeteries in Shatbi, Alexandria. With Alexandria University support, including volunteer Egyptian students from the archaeology department and with cooperation from a German geophysicist team, his survey using ground penetrating technology discovered certain anomalies in the subsoil that point to the existence of cavities in the bedrock some six to ten meters in depth.

Excavations were begun on these sites and continued for two seasons, but in 2000, health problems forced Professor Fakharani to stop his work. However, Professor Fakharani invited the center DEtudes Alexandrines to complete his work, and apparently they were willing to do so. Working near the Alabaster Tomb in this cemetery (Terra Santa no. 2) which has been turned into a plant nursery and belongs to the Governorate and the Faculty of Agriculture, they are following the investigative work provided earlier by the team of German geophysicist. So far, they have opened three trenches in order to locate possible access to the underground chambers.

A water cistrern  found on the left side fo the Alabaster tomb

As a side note, we should also mention that today, there is a certain "gold rush" mentality surrounding the search for Alexander's tomb. Many strange stories come out of Alexandria regarding common residences with their own quests for his tomb.

So today, we still do not know the location of Alexander the Great's tomb, but work continues with some enticing possibilities for the near future. As a final note, it should be mentioned that the underwater excavations in the choppy waters off the coast of Alexandria are full of remains, including the Alexandria of Anthony and Cleopatra. Archaeologist Honor Frost even suggests that Alexander may have, in the end, found a watery refuge beneath the Mediterranean sea, buried there not by man but nature's might.