When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE at the young age of 32, he appeared to have given little thought to what might happen to his empire or his body after his death. It was the Ptolemies of Egypt who acquired his body and built him a tomb in Alexandria that became a landmark of the city for centuries. However, the conqueror’s tomb mysteriously vanished from the historical record and the quest to rediscover it has possessed countless people ever since.
So what happened to Alexander’s tomb, and what happened to the man who was buried inside?
The Death of Alexander the Great
Following Alexander’s death, his powerful friends scrambled over the scraps of his empire. Eventually, they would tear it apart through decades of civil conflict and forge their own kingdoms. One of those friends, and the most relevant to our story, was Ptolemy Soter. Ptolemy was a relatively minor figure at court during Alexander’s life — a long-term friend but not a man who wielded much power. In the settlement forged after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy was granted control of Egypt where he planted his own Ptolemaic Dynasty that would stand until Cleopatra’s fatal alliance with Mark Anthony almost 300 years later.
Alexander’s wishes for his own burial are unclear. His successor Perdiccas eventually chose to send him back to Macedon but he never arrived. His funeral train departed Babylon in 321 BCE but Ptolemy’s forces appropriated the body in Syria and redirected it to Egypt.
Alexander’s Forgotten Memphite Tomb
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When Ptolemy stole Alexander’s body, he was ruling from the city of Memphis. Alexandria was still being constructed so Alexander was placed inside a temporary tomb near the city.
Near the Serapeum of Saqqara, 19th-century archaeologists found a temple of the Pharaoh Nectanebo II. Nectanebo was the last native pharaoh of Egypt who vanished after the Persian invasion in 340 BCE. Archaeologists such as Andrew Chugg have proposed that this temple of Nectanebo at Saqqara was Alexander’s original Memphite tomb. The temple would only have been a few decades old when Ptolemy was searching for a burial place, and it was probably the most recent major non-Persian monument in Egypt, and therefore an ideal place to lay Alexander to rest. Throw in an unused royal sarcophagus for Nectanebo II, and Ptolemy had a perfectly prepared royal burial right next door to his seat of power that was perfect for Alexander’s temporary internment.
The discovery of statues dating from Ptolemy I’s reign in the vicinity of this temple confirms that some royal attention was paid to this site at this time. Interestingly, an apocryphal ancient story claimed that Nectanebo fled to Macedon and was Alexander’s true father. Modern historians acknowledge this story as nonsense, Alexander was almost certainly already born before Nectanebo fled Egypt, but the story might have emerged because of Alexander’s burial in the former’s tomb.
After several years in Memphis, Alexander was moved to Alexandria by Ptolemy II. There was a lost second tomb in the city but we know nothing about it other than the fact it existed. It was Ptolemy IV who finally completed Alexander’s third and most famous tomb called the Soma.
The Soma was a mausoleum built to house both Alexander and the Ptolemaic royal family. Ancient sources tell us that it stood at the crossroads between the city’s main north-south and east-west road. The tomb served as a cult center of the deified Alexander through the three centuries of Ptolemaic rule. Later, as the power of the Ptolemies declined, they pillaged the tomb for gold and treasures that could be melted down or sold to meet their needs.
Julius Caesar visited the tomb in 48 BCE. Later, Cleopatra stripped the tomb of many of its remaining treasures to raise money for her and Mark Anthony’s doomed war effort against Octavian. After his victory, Octavian himself visited the tomb to pay tribute to Alexander. When asked if he wished to see the bodies of the Ptolemaic kings as well, Octavian replied, “I came to see a king, not corpses.”
The Vanishing Tomb
The Soma was a landmark of the city and its fame drew visitors from far and wide. That only makes its disappearance more peculiar.
The last recorded visit to the tomb was in 215 CE when the Roman emperor Caracalla visited during his time in Egypt. Caracalla ordered some of the burial goods to be removed but supposedly added some of his own gifts to the burial as compensation. After this, the tomb and Alexander’s body are only referenced off-handedly.
The writer Libanius offers out final mentions of Alexander’s mummy still being on display just before 390 CE. The timeline of this final mention aligns with the Theodosian Decrees between 389 and 391, where Emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of pagan temples across the empire. The tomb, being a cult center for the deified king, must have run afoul of these laws. Saint Cyril of Alexander mentions that the cult centers of Alexander were stripped of their treasures on Theodosius’ orders, although the tomb is not directly mentioned. Then, by the early 400s CE, Saint John Chrysostom wrote that the locations of the body and tomb of Alexander had been lost.
The Trouble with Tomb-Hunting
The hunt for the tomb poses many challenges. The fact that Alexandria is a bustling inhabited city is one, meaning that it is virtually impossible to excavate most of the area. The continual inhabitation of Alexandria also raises the possibility that the tomb has simply been destroyed and that there is nothing left to be found. Land subsidence and changing sea levels have also flooded many old areas of the city and may have damaged the tomb.
There is also the question of whether Alexander will be found with his famous tomb. It is common for bodies to be moved long after their internment – Egypt itself has no shortage of examples in its other royal burials — and there is a chance that Alexander was taken out of the Soma and reburied somewhere else. While some archaeologists insist on searching for the Soma itself, the search for Alexander may yet be a different quest. Therefore, the ‘search for Alexander’s tomb’ can mean quite different things to different people.
Searching in Alexandria
The obvious starting point is to find the old crossroads of Alexandria somewhere in the modern city. The current layout does not correspond to the old layout, with settlement patterns in Alexandria shifting significantly over time. Excavations under the authority of Mahmoud Bey in 1895 provided some insight into the old layout and placed the crossroads somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of the modern El-Horeya and Nebi Daniel roads.
This conclusion is strongly supported by local traditions that assert that the tomb was somewhere nearby. While no reliable evidence of the actual tomb exists past the 4th century, several later writers claimed that the tomb of Alexander still existed in the city, although none of them described any tomb consistent with the ancient sources. More likely, local memory preserved the approximate location of Alexander’s tomb and, over time, various places claimed to be atop the site or passed themselves off as the genuine tomb.
The Nebi Daniel Mosque is one such claimant. Sitting barely 100 meters from the Horeya-Nebi Daniel intersection, the mosque has long claimed to be atop Alexander’s tomb. In 1850, Heinrich Schliemann, who would earn fame for his work on the site of Troy, unsuccessfully sought permission to excavate there to settle the matter once and for all. Modern scholars such as Professor Faouzi Fakharani have studied the mosque and rejected its literal claims to being the site of the lost Soma, but its claims probably reflect a genuine historical memory of the tomb’s existence somewhere nearby.
The Attarine Mosque
Just 300 meters away from the Nebi Daniel Mosque stands the Attarine Mosque, another historic claimant for the site of Alexander’s burial. These claims were compelling enough to attract the interest of Napoleon’s French archaeologists in 1795.
The French did not locate the tomb or Alexander there, but they did find an old sarcophagus, repurposed by the mosque as a ritual bath. However, without the knowledge to read hieroglyphs, they dismissed it as little more than an old Egyptian curiosity, but naturally, they took it anyway. The British acquired the sarcophagus after defeating Napoleon in Egypt and eventually deciphered the hieroglyphs.
The sarcophagus was that of Nectanebo II.
Mere coincidence seems an insufficient explanation for how the Attarine Mosque correctly linked this sarcophagus, out of the thousands in Egypt, with Alexander’s burial, and to do so in approximately the correct location in the city.
The Attarine Mosque was not the Soma. However, its ownership of the sarcophagus and proximity to modern estimates of its location are encouraging signs.
Still, Alexander himself has not appeared. While some continue to search in Alexandria, others wonder whether his remains are elsewhere.
One alternative has been the Siwa Oasis where Alexander was declared the son of Zeus-Ammon by the god’s oracle. None of our sources suggest a Siwa tomb and there is no compelling evidence for one. Claims of its discovery speak more of tourist trapping than archaeological progress, such as the recent claim of its discovery in 2021 that was made by the director of the local tourism board. Sensational claims of its discovery there by the Greek amateur archaeologist Liana Souvaltzi — which turned out to be a later monument that scholars had already described multiple times — brought much media attention to the idea of a Siwa tomb, but these claims have been roundly rejected by Egyptologists.
Another location that deserves some attention is Alexander’s homeland of Macedon. It appears that Macedon was the intended destination when Alexander’s funeral train departed Babylon in 321 BCE so it is not unreasonable to wonder if he somehow ended up there, or at least that there was a tomb prepared for him that was never used.
One suggested candidate was discovered at the ancient site of Aigai (modern-day Vergina) in 1977. Artifacts dating to the period of Alexander’s life fuelled speculation that the conqueror had gone home after all. To the credit of these speculators, the tomb turned out to be the closest possible thing to Alexander’s tomb without being the real thing: that of his father Philip II. Archaeologists have since concluded that the tomb is virtually certain to be Philip’s and there is no evidence whatsoever of any burial for Alexander being prepared there, let alone used. A similar flurry of excitement attended the discovery of the Kasta Tomb at Amphipolis in 2012, but none of the human remains matched those of Alexander nor did the artifacts support any identification with his burial.
It would appear that Egypt is still the best place to search for Alexander’s remains… or is it?
Alexander the Evangelist?
Archaeologist Andrew Chugg has spent the last few years presenting a radical theory: Alexander is in Venice under the false impression that his body is that of St Mark the Evangelist.
This proposal sounds absurd on its face, but his evidence is surprisingly compelling.
St Mark is credited with writing the Gospel of Mark and was martyred in Alexandria in the 60s CE. For the first 350 years after his death, Christian sources maintained that his body had been burned and destroyed. One 4th-century text that contradicted this was later found to be a 6th-century forgery. However, in 392 the writings of St Jerome tell us that the body of St Mark was in Alexandria.
Somehow, Mark’s body miraculously appeared the year after the Theodosian decrees and just after Alexander’s body disappeared. A curious coincidence perhaps, but a city is a big place.
However, the site of St Mark’s supposed tomb is around the modern St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral — just 200 meters north of the Horeya-Nebi Daniel intersection and well within the approximate area for finding Alexander’s tomb.
So Alexander’s body was last seen no later than 390, just as the Theodosian Decrees compelled pagan sites to close to rebrand themselves as Christian. Then, by 392, Mark’s body appeared in the same location in the city, in spite of centuries of tradition asserting its destruction.
Alexander in the Basilica di San Marco?
Chugg proposed that Alexander’s tomb and remains were rebranded as those of St Mark to avoid persecution during the Theodosian decrees. It was these remains that Venetian merchants famously stole in 892 by smuggling them out of Alexandria in a shipment of pork. They were taken to Venice where a church was built to house them on the site of the modern Basilica di San Marco.
The timing and location of the two bodies’ appearance and disappearance are compelling enough, but during work on the Venetian Basilica in the 1960s, a curious piece of a stone relief carving was discovered. The type of stone was from the Eastern Mediterranean, and the artwork upon it was clearly Macedonian-Greek, depicting a shield with the star of Alexander’s royal house and a distinctive sarissa spear wielded by Alexander’s armies.
Recent studies of the relief concluded that it was part of the casing of a sarcophagus. However, its size did not match any sarcophagi in the Basilica, nor any known Macedonian artifacts. Chugg noticed that it did match one specific sarcophagus, down to a matter of millimeters: that of Nectanebo II.
Chugg argues that this casing is proof that the tomb the Venetians stole from was actually that of Alexander the Great, and they took this chunk from the tomb at the same time they stole the body of the supposed saint.
A Reconstruction of the Tomb and Body of Alexander the Great
Upon reviewing the evidence, Chugg’s seemingly-outlandish theory is surprisingly persuasive and ties together many of the threads that have puzzled those searching for Alexander’s tomb.
According to Chugg’s theory, Alexander was interred in the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II in Memphis when he was first brought to Egypt. Both man and sarcophagus were later moved to the Soma, whose ruins lie somewhere beneath the city around the intersection of the El-Horeya and Nebi-Daniel roads. The Ptolemies also constructed a suitable casing for his sarcophagus that would keep it safe for over a thousand years.
The tomb lay there for over 700 years until the Theodosian Decrees forced it to be rebranded as a Christian monument of St Mark to escape persecution from the authorities. Alexander’s body vanished at the same time and place that Mark’s appeared, and in spite of the next Mark story, local memory of Alexander’s tomb being in the area also survived.
Centuries later, the Venetians stole the body, believing it was that of their patron saint, and took with them a chunk of the sarcophagus’ Ptolemaic casing. In Venice, the remains were venerated as the legitimate relics of St Mark. Back in Alexandria, the now-empty sarcophagus ended up in the Attarine Mosque where it was correctly remembered to be part of Alexander’s burial.
In all likelihood then, Alexander’s famous tomb still lies beneath the streets near where local traditions and archaeological study have placed it. However, Alexander’s body probably hasn’t called it home for more than a thousand years. The famous conqueror is quite likely lying inside the Basilica di San Marco, mistaken for a saint. It would only take a re-examination of the remains to make or break this theory, but given the reluctance of the Catholic Church and the city of Venice to expose the blunder, hopes of settling the debate are not likely to be fulfilled any time soon.