Magazine article History Today

Alexander's Final Resting Place: Andrew Chugg Pinpoints the Emperor's Long-Lost Tomb

Magazine article History Today

Alexander's Final Resting Place: Andrew Chugg Pinpoints the Emperor's Long-Lost Tomb

Article excerpt

The 120-foot Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was ostensibly a representation of the sun god Helios. It is now believed to have been modelled on the features of Alexander the Great, whose conquests had irrevocably altered the course of history mere decades before its creation. The image of the Colossus towering over the harbour of Rhodes provides an apt metaphor for the way Alexander's achievements loom over the history of the ancient world. Partly for reasons of his historical importance and partly for the romance of his glamorous career, the hunt lot Alexander's mysteriously vanished tomb has come to be regarded as the archaeologist's analogue for the Arthurian quest for the Sangrail. At its crudest there are elements of the excitement and drama of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I myself got some sense of this from the violent reverberations of a dilapidated taxi during a 90mph ride along the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria in my search for his tomb. On arrival among the recently rain-drenched streets of the great port city, it transpired that the wiper blades of our vehicle existed for ornamental purposes only. As the traffic dodging around us disappeared behind a veil of fine spray, I too began to feel a certain affinity with the perilous life of Indiana Jones.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century a succession of more or less dubious characters have been associated with the hunt for Alexander's tomb, and in the process have lent a faint air of disrepute to the enterprise. In around 1850 a part-time tourist guide called Ambrose Schilizzi introduced a persistent red-herring into tire mystery by claiming actually to have seen Alexander's corpse at the end of a passage beneath the Nabi Daniel mosque in central Alexandria. Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy and Mycenae, was taken in by this tale and sought permission to excavate beneath the mosque, but was thwarted by the local religious authorities. However, Evaristo Breccia, the Director of the Greco-Roman Museum of Alexandria, conducted thorough investigations beneath the mosque between 1925-31 and found nothing of interest.

Another famous hoax was perpetrated in 1893 by a M. Joannides, who claimed to have found the tombs of both Alexander and Cleopatra in the Chatby necropolis in the north-east district of the ancient city. More recently, in the 1960s, Stelios Komoutsos, a Greek waiter in Alexandria, used his tips to invest in the finance of a fruitless series of arbitrary excavations in the streets of the modern city. More recently still, in the mid-1990s, Liana Souvaltzis claimed to have found Alexander's tomb at the Siwa oasis in the desert to the south-west of Alexandria; but her evidence collapsed when subjected to serious scrutiny and the Egyptian authorities withdrew her licence.

Only one twentieth-century theory concerning the tomb retains any serious academic credibility and even this is highly tenuous. In 1907 Breccia discovered what appears to be the alabaster antechamber of a Macedonian-style tumulus tomb in pieces in the modern Latin Cemeteries, which lie within the western districts of the ancient city. Achille Adriani subsequently reconstructed the chamber and proposed that this 'Alabaster Tomb' might have been part of Alexander's sepulchre. However, there is no evidence specifically connecting it with Alexander and, despite recent re-excavation, no more of the structure has been found.

A plethora of ancient accounts survive concerning Alexander's tomb, which enable us to reconstruct its story with reasonable confidence. Following Alexander's death in Babylon in June 323 BC steps were taken to preserve the corpse and a team of artists and engineers spent around eighteen months preparing a magnificent catafalque. A cavalcade escorting the catafalque set out late in 322 BC, supposedly heading for Aegae, the ancient burial place of Macedonian royalty. However, according to several sources, Alexander had asked for his body to be taken to Ammon in Egypt, and Arrhidaeus, the commander of the escort, conspired with Ptolemy, then governor of Egypt, to bring this about. …

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