Series Final: Alexander’s Tomb (8/8)

The historical documentary series concludes. This instalment looks at the ongoing hunt for the tomb of Alexander the Great – conqueror and self- proclaimed pharaoh of Egypt. Gathering together old sources and new evidence, the search moves from the necropolis of ancient Egypt to the city that the king founded, Alexandria.

For centuries archaeologists have scoured Egypt for the missing tomb of Alexander the Great. The story begins in 332 BC, when the Macedonian general arrived in Egypt and expelled the occupying Persians. He was hailed as a liberator by the Egyptians and promptly set about claiming the throne for himself.

Alexander shrewdly paid homage to the kingdom’s religion by visiting the temple of Amun and declaring himself the son of the great god – who is usually depicted in the form of a ram. “That gives him the religious propaganda, the legitimacy that he needs to underwrite his empire,” says Dr Robert Steven Bianchi. In due course, Alexander was installed as pharaoh – yet he spent only six months in the land that he had conquered.

Eight years later, after he died of a fever in Babylon, Alexander’s body became the contested property of his two generals, Perdiccas and Ptolemy. “There’s a tradition that he who holds the body of Alexander holds Egypt and holds power,” explains Bianchi. Ptolemy seized Alexander’s body and buried it – most likely in Memphis, Egypt’s historic capital – before defeating Perdiccas in battle. By choosing the necropolis at Saqqara as the king’s resting place, Ptolemy simultaneously respected Egypt’s traditions and established himself as Alexander’s heir. “He was killing several birds with one stone,” says author Nick Saunders.

Statues of Greek philosophers found at Memphis would seem to mark the site of Alexander’s original tomb, yet it is known that the king’s body was moved around 30 years after his burial – to Alexandria, the city that he founded. Alexander’s tomb was a well-known pilgrimage site in the heart of the city until at least the third century AD. Then, with the onset of the Dark Ages, the tomb was lost. The bustling Alexandria of today contains few clues as to its location.

Nick Saunders is one of several archaeologists determined to find the general’s resting place. “There is no ‘x marks the spot’,” he says. “The whole city has changed.” However, using ancient sources, he proposes that a busy junction in the city centre could be the spot he is seeking. Andrew Chugg, meanwhile, maintains that a crossroads next to the one remaining section of city wall is a more likely site.

However, Egypt’s leading archaeologist, Zawi Hawass, believes a location near the city wall is more probable. A dig in 1907 uncovered a buried alabaster tomb that has all the hallmarks of a Greek burial place. “If you look at the style of this tomb, it’s unfinished and it was under the ground,” he says. “It’s completely Macedonian.”

While the site of the tomb remains hotly disputed, a new theory has emerged to challenge all previous assumptions. It suggests that Alexander’s body was smuggled away by a cult that revered his name during the religious turmoil of the Dark Ages. The theory is connected to the discovery of an incredible cemetery in the desert near the Bahariya oasis. Is it possible that the mysterious people who lived and worshipped at this oasis were the final protectors of the great Greek ruler?

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