The Tomb of Alexander the Great - Part 1
One of the great mysteries of antiquity, is the final resting place of that mighty royal warrior, Alexander the Great. His biographer, Arrian, fails to mention the funeral preparations, but Diodorus Siculus takes up the challenge in his Library of History. Diodorus mentions that Alexander’s body was mummified in the Egyptian fashion (he had been, after all, the previous pharaoh of all Egypt) and placed in a solid gold anthropoid sarcophagus (similar to Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s), which was then placed in another golden casket and overlaid with a purple robe. This assemblage was then placed upon a great bier or wagon, which had suspension to mitigate rough terrain, measuring eight by twelve cubits and covered with a roof of ‘overlapping scales’. The project engineer for this great undertaking was called Arrhidaeus, and the result of his labours was said to have ‘surpassed all others in cost, and was famed for the excellence of its workmanship’.
This immense and ornate carriage apparently took Arrhidaeus two years to construct but eventually it departed, drawn by 64 mules, and set off from Persia on the long journey to Alexander’s final resting place. Such was the scale of the project, that the cortege had its own team of road-builders, to smooth the way. The final destination was said to be Egypt, and more specifically the Temple of Amun at Siwa, in the Western Desert. However, Ptolemy Soter, one of Alexander’s generals who would eventually found the Greco-Egyptian line of Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt, marched his army as far as Syria to meet the cortege. Ptolemy proposed to entomb Alexander’s sarcophagus in Alexandria, instead of Siwa. (But Pausanias says the final destination was Memphis). 1
Artist’s depiction of Alexander the Great’s funeral procession. Image source.
But is this really what happened all those years ago? It is claimed by others that Perdikkas, another of Alexander’s generals, was actually escorting Alexander’s cortege back to Aigai in Macedonia, the burial place of Alexander’s ancestors. Perdikkas had been named as regent for Alexander IV, the infant son of Alexander the Great, and so it is often assumed, as Aelian writes, that Ptolemy Soter forcibly appropriated the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great from general Perdikkas and took it to Alexandria for personal propaganda purposes. 2 Interestingly, Aelian also adds that the sarcophagus of Alexander was separated from the great wagon and ‘transported meanly’. Perdikkas recaptured the ornate wagon and thought he had regained the remains of Alexander, but they were still held by Ptolemy.
But would this strategy have suited Ptolemy’s plans, to take over all of Egypt and much of Alexander’s great empire? While denying the relics of Alexander to a rival claimant would be logical, surely the tomb of Alexander resting in Egypt would legitimise the claim to the throne of the infant Alexander IV, and not Ptolemy himself. Alexander IV was the legitimate heir to the Empire, and the only mitigating circumstance to deny his heritage was the fact that he was not pure Greek; being the son of Roxanne, Alexander’s Persian (Bactrian) wife. So what would Ptolemy have really done with Alexander’s sarcophagus, to maximise his claim to the throne of Egypt?
It is entirely possible that Ptolemy hid the sarcophagus in the Levant, Phoenicia, as a method of minimising the influence of the Alexandrian royal line. The many later reports to a tomb of Alexander in Alexandria may well be the result of a later tourist trade, similar to the one that flourished at the supposed site of Homeric Troy in northwestern Anatolia.
The problem here is that the tomb of Alexander the Great is completely missing from history. With the care and expense said to have been lavished upon it, Alexander’s final resting place would no doubt have been very famous, and yet we have no idea where this fabulous tomb was. Even the classical historians are confused, and so the location of this magnificent mausoleum must have been lost to history in a very early era. So where did the ornate sarcophagus of Alexander finally rest?
What may have happened is that Ptolemy Soter did not want the fame of Alexander the Great to eclipse his own rule of Egypt. Thus the sarcophagus could not be allowed to enter Egypt proper. But neither could Ptolemy destroy the mortal remains of such a famous and god-like character, and so they would have to be lain is some relatively secret location, where the legend of Alexander could be safely put to bed. Ptolemy is said to have met the cortege and appropriated the sarcophagus in Syria, a region that includes all of the Levantine coast. Ptolemy may well have interred the remains of Alexander in the Levant, and if so then it is entirely possible that we still have the outer sarcophagus that held Alexander's golden coffin.
Part Two – In search of the sarcophagus
The article ‘Tomb of Alexander’ is extracted with permission from Ralph Ellis’ book ‘K2, Quest of the Gods’.
By Ralph Ellis
1. Diodorus Siculus Library of History 18:28.
2. Aelian, Various Histories 12:64.