In 525BC, Cambyses II conquered Egypt for the Persian Empire and executed king Psammetichus of Egypt. Later, when Egypt rebelled, the Persians were ruthless in their suppression. According to one account, the defeated aristocracy were forced to watch as their sons were murdered and their daughters sold into slavery. So it is not surprising that when Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians, he was hailed as a liberator. At the temple of Zeus Ammon near the Siwa Oasis, he was deified as the son of Zeus and declared Pharoh of Egypt.
The Death of Alexander
The Pharoh never returned to his kingdom. In 323BC, Alexander died in Babylon. His generals immediately fell to squabbling over his empire. The province of Egypt fell to his companion Ptolemy Soter.
Alexander’s empire after his death, Ptolemy’s Egypt marked in blue
Traditionally, the kings of Macedonia buried their predecessors. In 321BC, as Alexander’s golden coffin was being moved from Babylon, Ptolemy hijacked it and took it to Memphis in Egypt. He then openly revolted against Alexander’s successor Perdiccas (who was acting as regent for Alexander’s infant son).
In the subsequent long war, Ptolemy sought to hold on to Egypt. To consolidate his power, he declared himself as Alexander’s successor and Pharoh of Egypt. His possession of Alexander’s body no doubt helped legitimize this claim. He then founded the cult of Alexander under official patronage. The purpose of the cult was to worship the deified Alexander and hence legitimize his successors, the Ptolemaic dynasty as God kings of Egypt.
Ptolemy I depicted in Greek and Egyptian styles
Around 280BC, Alexander’s body was moved from Memphis to Alexandria. It was put in a transparent coffin (believed to be glass or crystal) and displayed to further enhance the prestige of the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty.
The last of the Ptolemaic line was Cleopatra VII, who to finance her war against Rome is said to have taken gold from the tomb. She was defeated and chose to commit suicide. The victorious Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) reached Alexandria. He is said to have visited Alexander’s corpse but disdained seeing any of the Ptolemies saying that he had come to see a king, not dead bodies.
Augustus visits the tomb of Alexander
Roman emperors continued to be fascinated with Alexander. Seutonius’s gossipy biography describes Caligula having the tomb opened and looting Alexander’s breastplate which he wore to glorify himself in Rome. Septimus Severus sealed the tomb in 199AD and finally in 215AD the emperor Caracalla, another Alexander admirers and glory aspirant is said to have moved some items from the grave. This is the last definite record of the grave.
In the 3rd century Alexandria was ransacked during war. On 21 July 365AD, an earthquake and tsunami devastated it. Finally, in the 4th century, Christians started forcing Pagans to cease worshipping “false gods” and destroyed many ancient temples. The corpse of Alexander had been worshipped after death and may have become a target. When John Chrysostom visited Alexandria in 400 AD, he asked to see Alexander’s tomb and remarked, “his tomb even his own people know not”. Curiously, a number of Arab writers report seeing the corpse of Alexander between the 9th and 16th centuries. But this was just the beginning of the controversy.
The literary tradition is clear that the tomb was located at the crossroads of the major north-south and east-west arteries of Alexandria. But where that is has occupied archaeologists for decades. In 1960, the Polish Center of Archeology started excavating in the heart of downtown Alexandria and discovered splendid Roman artefacts, but no tomb.
Arabic tradition maintains the tomb to be at the Mosque of Nebi Daniel. Mohammed Abduk Aziz directed excavations there until Mosque officials fearing the effect of the digging on the building’s foundations obtained a moratorium on excavation.
Nebi Daniel Mosque
A more unusual theory is propounded by Andrew Chugg. In the 4th century as Christians triumphed over Pagans in Alexandria, there was reported only one mummy in the city, that of St. Mark the Evangelist, the founder of Christianity in Alexandria. This is suspiscious as a number of ancient Christian writers had already stated that the body had been burnt by Pagans.
When the city fell to Arab rule, Venetians smuggled it to their city and laid it in the Basilica of St. Mark. Chugg believes the body is in fact that of Alexander the Great whose identity was changed to protect it. However Church authorities have not yielded permission to disturb the saint’s bones, making it impossible to confirm this.
Basilica of St. Mark
Other attempts are more picturesque Stellio Komotsos, a Greek waiter in Alexandria became obsessed with discovering the tomb. When free from his work, he dug holes all over the city. Over the years, he is said to have amassed more maps, notes and documents than any scholar. Now he lives in retirement.
Another attempt, may well be called quixotic. In 1991, Liani and Manos Souvaltzi claimed to have discovered Alexander’s tomb in the Siwa oasis. According to the New York Times, Liani Souvaltzi claims to have “received mystical guidance in her search, in part from snakes” (or saints as she later claimed she was misquoted). Of Alexander, she believes “he wanted to be near his father Ammon” at whose oracle he was supposedly deified. She was immediately challenged by academics who pointed out that her ‘tomb’ was a temple erected in the Greco Roman period which was still standing by the mid 19th century when it was described by at least 3 scholars. Under sustained academic criticism, the Supreme Council of Antiquities distanced itself from the Souvaltzis.
Till date, the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt has recognized over 140 attempts to find Alexander’s tomb.