Ancient Greece

Searching Alexander the Great’s Tomb

The tomb of Alexander the Great, archaeology's 'Holy Grail,' has eluded and challenged many generations' efforts to discover it.

where is tomb of alexander the great

The tale of Alexander the Great, who passed away in 323 BCE at just 32, is as intriguing in death as in life. Not much forethought seems to have been given by him regarding the fate of his vast empire or his final resting place. His body, however, found its way into the hands of the Ptolemies in Egypt, where it was interred in a magnificent tomb within Alexandria, transforming into a celebrated city landmark for numerous generations. Yet, as time marched on, the exact whereabouts of this tomb slipped into the realms of mystery, igniting a fervent quest among countless individuals aiming to unearth its location.

The enigma surrounding the disappearance of Alexander’s tomb, alongside the destiny of the legendary figure it housed, remains a captivating puzzle. Theories abound, but conclusive evidence eludes historians and archaeologists alike. This ongoing search underscores the enduring allure of Alexander the Great’s legacy and the human fascination with uncovering lost chapters of history.

Alexander the Great’s Death

After Alexander the Great’s untimely demise, the vacuum of power he left behind led to a frenzied scramble among his closest confidantes for control over his sprawling empire. This power struggle soon devolved into protracted civil wars, fragmenting the empire into separate kingdoms each ruled by one of Alexander’s former allies. A key figure in this historical drama was Ptolemy Soter, who, despite his relatively low profile at Alexander’s court—a trusted friend but not a major power broker—rose to prominence in the chaotic aftermath of the conqueror’s death.

Ptolemy was astutely positioned in the ensuing power dynamics and was awarded control over Egypt in the settlement that followed. There, he laid the foundations of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which would endure until the ill-fated romance between Cleopatra and Mark Antony nearly three centuries later, marking the end of Hellenistic rule in Egypt.

The specifics of Alexander’s final wishes for his burial remain shrouded in mystery, with no clear directives recorded. The task of deciding his final resting place fell to Perdiccas, Alexander’s successor, who initially opted to return Alexander’s body to Macedon, his ancestral homeland. However, in a bold move in 321 BCE, as the funeral procession made its way from Babylon, Ptolemy’s forces intercepted it in Syria. Demonstrating both audacity and strategic foresight, Ptolemy diverted Alexander’s remains to Egypt, a decision that not only secured a prestigious relic for his new realm but also symbolized the shifting power dynamics in the post-Alexander era. This act of appropriation by Ptolemy underscored the intense rivalry and political maneuvering that characterized the period following Alexander’s death.

Memphite Tomb Mystery

When Ptolemy commandeered Alexander the Great’s body, his ruling seat was Memphis, not yet Alexandria, which was under construction. Consequently, Alexander was laid to rest in a provisional tomb near the city. This interim resting place was chosen with strategic and symbolic foresight, reflecting Ptolemy’s acumen in leveraging Alexander’s legacy to bolster his own rule.

In the 19th century, near the Serapeum of Saqqara, archaeologists uncovered a temple dedicated to Pharaoh Nectanebo II, the last native pharaoh of Egypt, who disappeared following the Persian invasion in 340 BCE. Scholars like Andrew Chugg have posited that this temple might have served as Alexander’s initial burial site in Memphis. Given its relatively recent construction by the time of Alexander’s death, the temple would have stood as a significant non-Persian monument, making it an apt choice for Ptolemy to inter Alexander. The presence of an unutilized sarcophagus intended for Nectanebo II further suggests that Ptolemy had found an almost ready-made royal burial site, symbolically significant and conveniently located near his power base for Alexander’s temporary entombment.

The finding of statues from the era of Ptolemy I in proximity to this temple provides tangible evidence of royal interest in the site during that period. Adding a layer of intrigue, there’s an apocryphal tale suggesting that Nectanebo II, having fled to Macedon, was actually Alexander’s biological father. Although modern historians dismiss this as a fabrication—Alexander’s birth predating Nectanebo’s flight from Egypt—the story could have gained traction due to Alexander’s association with Nectanebo’s tomb. This blend of historical fact and myth illustrates how the circumstances surrounding Alexander’s burial were intertwined with the political and cultural narratives of the time, further immortalizing his legend and the early days of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Mosaic Portrait of Alexander Great

Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, renowned military strategist, conquered vast territories from Greece to India, spreading Hellenistic culture throughout the ancient world.

The Soma Mystery

After a period in Memphis, Alexander’s remains were transported to Alexandria by Ptolemy II, marking the beginning of another chapter in the posthumous journey of the Macedonian ruler. In Alexandria, Alexander was initially placed in what is described as a lost second tomb, details of which remain elusive, hinting at its existence but offering little else. The saga of Alexander’s final resting place culminated with Ptolemy IV, who erected the Soma, a grand mausoleum that not only served as Alexander’s third and final tomb but also as the resting place for members of the Ptolemaic royal family.

Augustus during his visit to Alexander's tomb
Augustus during his visit to Alexander’s tomb, painted by Sébastien Bourdon in 1643

The Soma was strategically located at the intersection of Alexandria’s main thoroughfares, symbolizing its central importance in both a literal and metaphorical sense. It evolved into a significant cult center dedicated to the deified Alexander, playing a pivotal role throughout the three centuries of Ptolemaic dominion. However, as the fortunes of the Ptolemaic dynasty waned, the once-sacred mausoleum was desecrated by the very descendants of Alexander’s initial successors, plundered for its gold and valuables to sustain a dynasty in decline.

The historical narrative surrounding the Soma is further enriched by accounts of visits from notable figures such as Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, and later, Cleopatra, who allegedly appropriated many of its treasures to finance her military campaigns with Mark Antony. Following his victory, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), the Roman leader, also paid his respects at the tomb, demonstrating its enduring significance as a site of homage to Alexander the Great. Octavian’s reported disinterest in the Ptolemaic kings, expressing a desire to “see a king, not corpses,” underscores the singular reverence held for Alexander, distinguishing him from his successors and highlighting the lasting legacy of his rule and persona. This interplay of reverence, political intrigue, and the eventual decline captures the complex legacy of Alexander’s final resting place and its role in the broader historical and cultural tapestry of the ancient world.

Tomb Disappearance

The disappearance of the Soma, despite its status as a prominent landmark and a magnet for visitors from across the ancient world, is a historical mystery that has puzzled scholars for centuries. Its fame and significance make the loss from historical records all the more intriguing.

The final documented visit to Alexander’s tomb was by the Roman emperor Caracalla in 215 CE. Known for his admiration of Alexander, Caracalla’s visit was marked by the removal of certain burial goods, albeit with the addition of his own offerings as a gesture of respect. After Caracalla’s visit, references to the tomb and Alexander’s remains become sporadic and indirect, signaling the beginning of its fade from recorded history.

Libanius, writing just before 390 CE, provides one of the last mentions of Alexander’s mummy being displayed, a testimony to the tomb’s lingering presence in the collective memory of the time. However, this period coincides with significant religious and political shifts within the Roman Empire, notably the Theodosian Decrees enacted between 389 and 391 CE by Emperor Theodosius I. These decrees, aimed at consolidating the Christian faith within the empire, led to the closure of pagan temples and the suppression of non-Christian forms of worship.

Given its role as a center for the cult of the deified Alexander, the Soma likely fell victim to these sweeping reforms. Saint Cyril of Alexandria’s accounts of the stripping of treasures from the cult centers of Alexander under Theodosius’ orders, though not mentioning the tomb explicitly, suggest the beginning of the end for the Soma’s visibility and perhaps its physical integrity. By the early 5th century, Saint John Chrysostom noted that both the location of Alexander’s body and the tomb itself had become obscured, marking the transition of the Soma from a celebrated monument to a lost relic of the ancient world.

This gradual erasure from historical consciousness can be attributed to a combination of religious transformation, political changes, and possibly natural degradation or human intervention. The precise circumstances of the tomb’s disappearance remain one of history’s enduring enigmas, encapsulating the transition from the ancient pagan world to the Christianized Roman Empire and reflecting the impermanence of even the most monumental legacies.

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Tomb-Hunting Challenges

The quest to locate Alexander the Great’s tomb is fraught with considerable obstacles, complicating efforts for historians, archaeologists, and enthusiasts alike. The city of Alexandria, with its continuous habitation since ancient times, presents a significant challenge. The urban sprawl and dense population of modern Alexandria mean that large-scale excavations in search of the tomb are practically infeasible. This reality complicates any effort to uncover the past, as the layers of history are deeply interwoven with the present-day city’s fabric.

Moreover, the possibility that the tomb may have been destroyed over the centuries is a concern that cannot be easily dismissed. The uninterrupted occupation of Alexandria suggests that any structures not deemed significant at various points in history could have been repurposed, demolished, or built over, potentially erasing physical traces of Alexander’s final resting place. Additionally, factors such as land subsidence and the rising sea levels pose natural threats that may have led to the flooding and subsequent damage or obliteration of many ancient areas of the city, including potentially the tomb itself.

Another layer of complexity is added by the historical practice of relocating bodies long after burial. This practice, not uncommon in Egypt’s rich history of royal burials, opens the possibility that Alexander’s remains were moved from the Soma to an entirely different location. Such a move could have been motivated by religious, political, or preservation concerns, further distancing the legendary conqueror from his once-grand mausoleum.

Given these challenges, the search for Alexander’s tomb—and indeed, for Alexander himself—takes on multiple dimensions. Some researchers focus on locating the Soma, aiming to uncover the architectural and historical context of the tomb. Others might prioritize finding Alexander’s remains, which could have been relocated, focusing on the symbolic and cultural significance of the Macedonian ruler’s final resting place. This divergence in focus underscores the multifaceted nature of the search, where archaeological ambition intersects with historical mystery and cultural legacy.

Thus, the “search for Alexander’s tomb” encompasses a range of pursuits, from the architectural to the archaeological, to the purely symbolic. Each approach reflects a different aspect of the intrigue that Alexander the Great’s legacy continues to inspire, demonstrating the enduring allure of one of history’s most legendary figures and the complexities involved in uncovering the tangible remnants of his story.

Alexandria Searches

Identifying the original crossroads of ancient Alexandria within the contemporary city marks a crucial, albeit challenging, starting point in the quest for Alexander the Great’s tomb. The modern city’s layout has significantly diverged from its ancient configuration, with settlement patterns evolving over centuries. Research and excavations, notably those conducted under Mahmoud Bey in 1895, have offered valuable insights into Alexandria’s ancient urban plan, suggesting that the historical crossroads might be located near the intersection of today’s El-Horeya and Nebi Daniel roads.

This hypothesis gains further credence from local traditions, which have long maintained that Alexander’s tomb lies in proximity to this area. Despite the absence of concrete evidence beyond the 4th century, and the varied and sometimes inconsistent accounts by later writers regarding the tomb’s existence, it is plausible that these local memories and traditions have preserved a rough idea of its location. Over time, various sites within Alexandria have been purported to be the final resting place of Alexander, reflecting a blend of historical memory and speculative association.

The Nebi Daniel Mosque is among the locations that have been linked to Alexander’s tomb. Positioned near the crucial Horeya-Nebi Daniel intersection, the mosque has historically claimed to sit directly above Alexander’s tomb. Notably, Heinrich Schliemann, renowned for his archaeological work on Troy, sought permission in 1850 to excavate the site in hopes of resolving the mystery, although his efforts were unsuccessful. Modern scholars, including Professor Faouzi Fakharani, have critically evaluated the mosque’s claims and, while rejecting its identification as the precise location of the Soma, acknowledge that such claims likely stem from a deep-seated historical memory indicating the general vicinity of the tomb.

This ongoing dialogue between historical research, local tradition, and archaeological investigation underscores the complex challenge of locating Alexander’s tomb. The case of the Nebi Daniel Mosque illustrates the intertwining of historical memory with tangible efforts to connect present-day landmarks with the past, reflecting both the enduring fascination with Alexander the Great and the intricate puzzle his lost tomb represents.

The Attarine Mosque

The Attarine Mosque, situated merely 300 meters from the Nebi Daniel Mosque in Alexandria, represents another historical contender for the location of Alexander the Great’s tomb. The mosque’s claim to this distinction was compelling enough to draw the attention of the French archaeologists accompanying Napoleon in 1795. Although their excavation efforts did not yield Alexander’s tomb, they uncovered an ancient sarcophagus being used within the mosque as a ritual bath. Lacking the ability to decipher hieroglyphs at the time, the French dismissed the find as merely an Egyptian artifact of curiosity, yet they opted to remove it from Egypt. Following the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt, the British came into possession of this sarcophagus and eventually succeeded in translating the hieroglyphs inscribed upon it.

Remarkably, the sarcophagus was identified as belonging to Nectanebo II, the last native Egyptian pharaoh, who has been speculated by some to have a familial connection to Alexander the Great. The association of Nectanebo II’s sarcophagus with the site traditionally linked to Alexander’s burial, especially within the historically and geographically relevant context of Alexandria, transcends mere coincidence. This connection suggests a profound historical significance and hints at the possibility that local traditions and claims may indeed have a basis in fact, even if the Attarine Mosque itself was not the location of the Soma, Alexander’s final resting place.

The fact that the Attarine Mosque once housed a sarcophagus directly connected to the era and cultural milieu of Alexander the Great, combined with its proximity to the estimated location of the ancient Soma, provides intriguing circumstantial evidence. These details underscore the complexity of Alexandria’s historical landscape and the enduring mystery surrounding the final resting place of one of history’s most iconic figures.

Siwa

Alexander the Great’s final resting place remains a mystery, sparking curiosity and extensive searches. While Alexandria has been a focal point for these searches, some speculate that his remains might be located elsewhere, such as the Siwa Oasis. This location is historically significant as Alexander was proclaimed the son of Zeus-Ammon by the oracle there. However, there’s no strong evidence or historical documentation supporting the existence of a tomb in Siwa for Alexander. Recent claims, including a 2021 announcement by a local tourism board director, have been met with skepticism, viewed more as attempts to boost tourism than genuine archaeological findings. Similarly, the high-profile claims made by Greek amateur archaeologist Liana Souvaltzi, which suggested a discovery in Siwa, were later debunked. These claims were about a monument already known and described by scholars, not Alexander’s tomb. Despite the sensationalism surrounding these claims, experts and Egyptologists have largely dismissed them, underscoring the absence of credible evidence for Alexander’s burial in Siwa.

Aigai

The quest for Alexander the Great’s final resting place has led some to consider his homeland, Macedon, as a potential location. Given historical accounts that his funeral procession left Babylon for Macedon in 321 BCE, it’s plausible to speculate whether he was intended to be buried there or if preparations for a tomb were made but never utilized.

In 1977, an intriguing discovery at Aigai (now Vergina) in Macedon fueled such speculation. Artifacts from Alexander’s era found at the site hinted at the possibility that Alexander might have been brought back to his homeland. However, the tomb, initially thought to be Alexander’s, was conclusively identified as belonging to his father, Philip II. This discovery, significant in its own right, confirmed the tomb as Philip’s, with no evidence suggesting that any preparations were made for Alexander’s burial at this site.

The discovery of the Kasta Tomb at Amphipolis in 2012 generated similar excitement, yet again, the findings did not align with Alexander. The human remains and artifacts discovered did not correspond to him or his era, diminishing hopes that this site might be his final resting place.

Despite these explorations in Macedon, the consensus leans towards Egypt as a more likely location for Alexander’s remains, though doubts and questions persist. The mystery of Alexander’s final resting place remains unsolved, inviting further research and speculation.

Alexander as Evangelist?

Archaeologist Andrew Chugg has introduced a controversial theory suggesting that the body of Alexander the Great is actually in Venice, mistakenly revered as that of St. Mark the Evangelist. Despite initial skepticism due to the seemingly far-fetched nature of this claim, Chugg’s evidence presents an intriguing argument.

St. Mark, known for authoring the Gospel of Mark, was martyred in Alexandria in the 60s CE. For several centuries, Christian tradition held that his body had been completely destroyed by fire. This narrative was challenged by a document from the 4th century, which was later exposed as a 6th-century forgery. Nevertheless, St. Jerome’s writings from 392 CE assert that St. Mark’s body was indeed in Alexandria at that time.

This timeline coincides curiously with historical events surrounding Alexander the Great’s remains. Alexander’s body was last accounted for in Alexandria no later than 390 CE, a period during which the Theodosian Decrees mandated the closure of pagan sites and their conversion to Christian use. Shortly thereafter, in 392 CE, the body of St. Mark “reappeared” in Alexandria, precisely when and where Alexander’s body vanished. The proposed location of St. Mark’s tomb, near the modern St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral and close to the Horeya-Nebi Daniel intersection, falls within the speculated vicinity of Alexander’s final resting place.

Chugg’s hypothesis draws attention to the remarkable coincidence of the disappearance of Alexander’s body and the sudden emergence of St. Mark’s remains in the same area, challenging long-standing historical and religious beliefs. This theory not only reopens the debate on the whereabouts of Alexander the Great’s remains but also suggests a fascinating intertwining of history and religious tradition.

San Marco Basilica Theory

Andrew Chugg’s hypothesis posits a strategic rebranding of Alexander the Great’s tomb and remains as those of St. Mark to evade the religious and political repercussions instigated by the Theodosian decrees. According to Chugg, this historical sleight of hand facilitated the preservation of Alexander’s remains by disguising them under the guise of St. Mark’s, thereby circumventing the decree’s enforcement against pagan symbols and sites. This theory is further bolstered by the historical account of Venetian merchants illicitly transporting these remains from Alexandria to Venice in 892, concealed within a shipment of pork, a substance considered unclean by Islamic law, thus avoiding inspection and seizure by Muslim authorities in Alexandria. Upon their arrival in Venice, a church, which would later evolve into the renowned Basilica di San Marco, was erected to enshrine them.

The fragment of stone relief discovered in the Basilica di San Marco
The fragment of stone relief discovered in the Basilica di San Marco. Source: Andrew Chugg at Ancient Origins

The discovery of a stone relief carving during renovations of the Venetian Basilica in the 1960s adds a compelling layer to Chugg’s argument. The carving, identifiable by its Eastern Mediterranean stone and Macedonian-Greek artistic motifs—including a depiction of a shield adorned with the star of Alexander’s royal house and a sarissa spear, signature to Alexander’s military—suggests a direct connection to Alexander the Great. Further analysis revealed that the relief was part of a sarcophagus casing, distinct in its dimensions from any sarcophagi found within the Basilica or any known Macedonian relics.

Crucially, Chugg identified that the dimensions of this relief perfectly matched the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, Alexander’s purported ancestor, suggesting that this piece might have originally encased Alexander’s own sarcophagus. This discovery implies that the Venetians, during their clandestine operation to seize the relics of St. Mark, may have inadvertently or knowingly taken a fragment of Alexander’s tomb.

Chugg’s theory thus presents a fascinating narrative that intertwines the fate of Alexander’s remains with the religious transformations of the era, suggesting that what is venerated in Venice as the tomb of St. Mark might indeed be the final resting place of Alexander the Great, cleverly concealed within the heart of Christian Europe. This hypothesis challenges traditional historical narratives and invites a reevaluation of the intertwined histories of these two figures, bridging the gap between pagan antiquity and Christian tradition.

Tomb and Body Reconstruction

Andrew Chugg’s investigation into the whereabouts of Alexander the Great’s tomb presents a compelling narrative that intriguingly merges historical events, religious transitions, and archaeological discoveries. According to Chugg, Alexander’s initial burial place was in a sarcophagus originally belonging to Nectanebo II, located in Memphis, Egypt. This sarcophagus, along with Alexander’s remains, was subsequently relocated to the Soma in Alexandria, a site speculated to be near the El-Horeya and Nebi-Daniel roads intersection. To protect the tomb, the Ptolemies reportedly encased the sarcophagus in a durable outer shell, ensuring its preservation through the centuries.

Map of Alexandria with possible location of Alexander’s Tomb.

The narrative takes a dramatic turn with the implementation of the Theodosian Decrees in the late 4th century, compelling the transformation of Alexander’s resting place into a Christian monument purportedly to house the relics of St. Mark. This shift coincided with both the disappearance of Alexander’s body and the emergence of St. Mark’s remains in the same locale, suggesting a deliberate rebranding effort to protect the site from religious persecution.

Centuries later, Venetian merchants, under the impression they were retrieving the body of St. Mark, allegedly exhumed the sarcophagus and transported it, along with a piece of its casing, to Venice. The remains were then enshrined in the Basilica di San Marco, celebrated as those of the Christian saint. Meanwhile, the emptied sarcophagus, stripped of its original context, reportedly found a new home in the Attarine Mosque in Alexandria, where it was remembered as part of Alexander’s burial ensemble.

Chugg’s theory posits that while the tomb’s location beneath Alexandria’s streets aligns with local tradition and archaeological consensus, Alexander’s body has not resided there for over a millennium. Instead, it may rest within the Basilica di San Marco, misidentified as St. Mark. Resolving this hypothesis could involve a detailed examination of the relics in Venice, a proposition met with understandable hesitance from religious and civic authorities due to the potential implications of such a discovery.

This theory, while speculative, invites a re-examination of historical and archaeological evidence and challenges established narratives regarding one of history’s most legendary figures. It highlights the complexities of ancient history, the intertwining of cultures, and the enduring mystery surrounding the final resting place of Alexander the Great.

young writer Olivia on Greco-civilization
Olivia Reyes
Dr. Olivia Reyes specializes in Medieval European Literature. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Formerly a high school teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor. In her free time, Sophie enjoys playing the violin and composing music.

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