The Tomb of Alexander the Great

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Podcast Transcript

By the age of 32, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the world which was known to him. 

This episode is not about any of that. This is about what happened after his death. 

After he died, his corpse became a political football, and his tomb became the centerpiece of the city in Egypt which bared his name, and within a century became the largest city on Earth. 

…and then at some point, his body and his tomb just disappeared from history. 

Learn more about the corpse and the tomb of Alexander the Great and what might have happened to it, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Alexander the III, Basileus of Macedon, Hegemon of the Hellenic League, Strategos Autokrator of Greece, Shahanshah of Persia, Pharaoh of Egypt, and Lord of Asia, died in Babylon in modern-day Iraq at the age of 32 on June 11, 323 BC. 

How he died exactly has been a subject of debate for well over 2,000 years. The written record, which was written well after his lifetime, says he suffered from chills, sweats, exhaustion, delirium, and he had terrible abdominal pains. 

The cause of death over the years has been speculated to be malaria, typhoid fever, alcohol poisoning, strychnine poisoning, and arsenic poisoning. He might have died from some naturally acquired disease, or he might have been assassinated. 

However, he died, it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this episode. The point is he died. 

When he died, no one was really ready for it. He was 32 and in the prime of his life. Moreover, he didn’t really have any plan for succession. 

He had an older half-brother named Philip III who had some support, but by all accounts, he had some sort of learning disability and wasn’t considered fit to run the sprawling empire that Alexander left behind.

Alexander had a wife named Roxana, who was from Bactria in Central Asia and was pregnant at the time of his death. No one knew what the sex of the child would be, so they couldn’t determine any succession plans at the time of his death. Also, because she wasn’t a Macedonian, that didn’t lend support to her or her child’s cause.

A few months after Alexander’s death Roxana had a son by the name of Alexander IV. However, it would be years before the baby Alexander would ever be in a position to rule. 

Moreover, Alexander didn’t leave anything which suggested what should be done with the empire.  According to legend, when asked who the empire should go to on his deathbed, he might have said “to the strongest”, but there is no way to know if that’s true. 

However, it really doesn’t matter if it was true because, for all practical purposes, that is exactly how it played out. 

The body of Alexander was embalmed but the record isn’t sure quite how. One theory is that the body might have been encased in honey. Another theory is that Egyptian embalmers were there who worked to preserve the body. Whatever was done, it worked as I’ll get to in a bit.

The body was placed in a gold sarcophagus which was hammered to fit his body.

One request that Alexander did make is that he wanted to be buried at Siwa in Egypt. Siwa was an oasis in the desert which was the location of the famed oracle of Amun-Ra that Alexander visited after his conquest of Egypt. After his visit, he believed himself to be the son of the god Zeus-Amun, which is sort of a hybrid of the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Amun. 

Traditionally, Macedonian kings were interred at the family burial site in Aegae (eye-guy), which is where his father Phillip II was buried.  

For the next few years, the high-ranking generals of Alexander’s army fought amongst themselves over who would control the empire or how it would be divided between them. 

After two years, in the year 321BC, the body of Alexander was sent to Macedonia so it could be laid to rest at Aegae.

However, it never got there. 

While the procession was passing through Syria, it was intercepted by one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy. The empire was being split up amongst Alexander’s Macedonian generals into four different kingdoms and Ptolemy was going to take Egypt. 

Taking possession of the body was actually a pretty big power move on Ptolemy’s part for two reasons. 

The first is that Egyptians were pretty big on pharaoh worship and building grandiose tombs for their dead pharaohs. Alexander was, by right of conquest, the Pharaoh of Egypt, and the Egyptian people and nobility, surprisingly, didn’t really seem to have a problem with a foreign ruler. 

Ptolemy wanted to make sure he was accepted as pharaoh and the rightful heir to Alexander, so having his body and building his tomb was a really big deal. 

Second, the Macedonians also had a big emphasis on royal legitimacy coming through burying your predecessor. 

So Ptolemy took Alexander and his gold sarcophagus back to the city of Memphis, which was Alexander’s center of operations in Egypt. Alexandria was still being built at this time, which is why it wasn’t taken there at first. 

Once in Egypt, Ptolemy establish the Ptolemic Dynasty which was the last dynasty of pharaohs in Egypt.  The most notable person that you probably might recognize from this dynasty is the last ruler, Queen Cleopatra. Cleopatra is actually a Macedonian name, not an Egyptian one, and I’ll be talking about her more in future episodes. 

The body of Alexander was eventually moved to the city of Alexandria by the son of Ptolemy, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. At first, we know that Alexander was moved to a communal mausoleum in Alexandria, and then at some point, a special mausoleum was built just for Alexander. It is probable that Alexander’s tomb was already under construction under Ptolemy I, and it just wasn’t completed until the reign of Ptolemy II. 

This building became the center of the cult of Alexander and by extension the entire Ptolemaic dynasty. 

I did a previous episode on Alexandria, and if you were an ancient visitor there are quite a few things you would want to see in Alexandria such as the lighthouse and the library. However, it was the tomb of Alexander which really gave the city its meaning. It would be the equivalent of how a cathedral was the cultural epicenter of a medieval town in Europe.

There are quite a few references in antiquity to the Tomb of Alexander by multiple sources, so it is one of the ancient structures we have high confidence actually existed. 

At some point around the year 80-90 BC, the gold sarcophagus where Alexander lay was melted down for coins and replaced with a glass sarcophagus. 

If that sounds like a downgrade, it wasn’t necessarily so.  A glass object of that size would have been extremely rare during that period and might have been valued as much as the gold was. However, you can’t make coins out of glass. 

We know that in the year 48 BC, Julius Caesar visited the Tomb of Alexander when he was in Alexandria. According to legend, he wept in front of a statue of Alexander when he was 32 because he hadn’t accomplished anything of significance at the age when Alexander died. 

After the defeat of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Augustus visited Alexander and put flowers on his tomb and a golden diadem on his head. He supposedly broke off part of Alexander’s nose when he tried to put the diadem on his head. 

A series of Roman Emperors were recorded as having visited his tomb including Caligula, who took his breastplate, Septimius Severus who closed the tomb, and Caracalla who supposedly took Alexander’s tunic, ring, and belt.

Starting with the beginning of the Christian era in Alexandria, the evidence trail becomes sketchy. 

In the year 400, the bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, visited Alexandria and reported that “his tomb even his own people know not”. 

So maybe by the year 400, it had already disappeared. 

However, there are other later reports which are to the contrary. In the 9th century, the Islamic historians Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam and Al-Masudi both wrote of visiting the Tomb of Alexander. 

A North African Chrisitan convert and geographer, known as Leo the African, wrote in the 16th century, “In the midst of the ruins of Alexandria, there still remains a small edifice, built like a chapel, worthy of notice on account of a remarkable tomb held in high honor by the Mahometans; in which sepulcher, they assert, is preserved the body of Alexander the Great … An immense crowd of strangers come thither, even from distant countries, for the sake of worshipping and doing homage to the tomb, on which they likewise frequently bestow considerable donations”.

As late as 1611, an English poet named George Sandys claimed to have seen the sepulcher, of Alexander.

After that, it just sort of disappeared from history. 

For several hundred years now people have been looking for the tomb of Alexander. The main problem is, it was never really recorded where exactly in the city it was. We know exactly where the lighthouse was. We know reasonably well sort of where the library was.

However, the tomb of Alexander is a total mystery. 

Over 140 different places in Alexandria have been identified as possible locations of the tomb. 

Not just that, but some researchers have claimed that the body of Alexander actually ended up in Aegae in Macedonia. Others claimed to have found the real tomb in Siwa. 

In my very amateur opinion, I find these claims to be pretty unpersuasive given the number of historical reports of people going to Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria and actually seeing and touching his physical corpse. 

If you ever visit the City of Alexandria, one of the things you’ll notice is that there aren’t a whole lot of ancient ruins. Isn’t like visiting Rome. Much of this has to do with the fact that Alexandria has sunk over the centuries. Because it is built on land in the Nile Delta, it sinks on average about 2.5 millimeters per year.  Plus, there was a tsunami that hit the city in the year 356. 

It has only been recently that archeologists have been able to get down to the Ptolemaic part of the city which is now 35 feet below the surface. There was a great National Geographic special which came out about 2 years ago on the search for the tomb. So far, they found a marble statue of Alexander, but no tomb. 

I will end with one other theory that I don’t necessarily subscribe to, but it is interesting enough to bring up. 

A British author named Andrew Chugg has written two books on the hypothesis that the final resting place of Alexander the Great is actually in…..Venice, Italy.

The cathedral in Venice is St. Mark’s Cathedral. It is named such because, in the 9th Century, Venetian traders supposedly went to Alexandria and stole the corpse of St. Mark and brought it back to Venice.

When they went into the church to take the remains, they found the remains of two people. Because they couldn’t tell which was St. Mark, they just stole both of them and brought them back to Italy. 

A renovation of the cathedral in the 19th century confirmed that there were in fact two bodies in the crypt which supposedly holds the remains of St. Mark.

Chugg’s theory is that one of those remains belongs to Alexander the Great. 

To date, no DNA or carbon-14 dating has been done on either of the remains. 

As of right now, no one really knows what happened to the Tomb of Alexander the Great. If it still even exists, it is probably sitting somewhere below the streets of modern-day Alexandria just waiting to be discovered. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Stephanie B over at PodcastRepublic. She writes:

I just listened to The cheese episode, loved it! My personal opinion cheese and chocolate makes everything better. I’m all caught up and I look forward to each new episode. I would love to hear one about chocolate.

Thank you, Stephanie! Believe it or not, I actually already have chocolate on my list of episode ideas, so if you keep listening, you might eventually hear that one someday. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.