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The Great Mystery


Written by T. Peter Limber

Alexander's Macedonian veterans?the hard men he had led to victory after victory, the nucleus of his forces?could not believe that their beloved young leader was dying. They demanded, with an insistence that verged on mutiny, to see him themselves.

All day long, grief-stricken soldiers shuffled past in an endless line as Alexander, barely alive, lay on his cot in Nebuchadrezzar's already-ancient palace in Babylon. A slight nod of his head, a movement of his hand or eyes, was all he could manage to acknowledge them, but "he greeted them all," wrote a chronicler.

For 12 years Alexander had personally led his men from rugged highland Macedonia, in the north of the Greek peninsula, first destroying rebellious Thebes, then crossing the Hellespont?today's Dardanelles?to begin his revenge on Persia. His troops fought their way across Anatolia, subjugating the great Persian Empire, defeating even the Bactrian armored cavalry, and winning onward, undefeated, as far as the Beas River in India. Alexander had been wounded many times, but nothing, it seemed, could overcome his boundless energy, his iron constitution, and his capacity for quick recovery. Yet now came this fever, which modern doctors believe was typhoid, "complicated by bowel perforation and ascending paralysis." His own doctors had tried every remedy they knew, but without success. During the last 10 days Alexander had grown steadily weaker.

Finally he assembled his closest companions, his eight chief officers, to hear his answer to the inevitable question: To whom would he leave what was now a Macedonian empire? His answer is still debated. Arrian quotes it as "Hoti to kratisto" ?which can mean "to the strongest," "to the best" or "to the most able." If Alexander meant "to the strongest of my generals," he was almost predicting the succession wars that followed. Yet he had already handed his royal ring to Perdiccas, his second-in-command, thus appointing him regent?and certainly Alexander's Bactrian wife, Roxane, was pregnant at the time.

A final ambiguity is that, instead of "Hoti to kratisto," the dying man?he was probably also suffering from pneumonia by them?may well have simply gasped the name "Cratero," referring to his most trusted general, Craterus, whom he had already appointed regent of Macedonia.

Alexander died at sunset on June 10, in the year we today know as 323 BC. He was 32 years old.

Alexander's eight senior generals agreed to divide his empire among them, each to govern his respective territory as a vassal of the ruling house of Macedonia. As to who would be king of Macedonia, and Alexander's heir, they also agreed that it could only be a blood relative of the conqueror's?which meant, regrettably, either Alexander's mentally handicapped half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, or Roxane's half-Macedonian child, if it should be male. (It was.) Perdiccas's regency did not much please those strong-minded leaders, but no other solution was even tolerable to them.

Aristander, Alexander's chief soothsayer, had said that the country in which Alexander was buried would have good fortune, a prediction that increased the rivalry developing among the generals. Alexander himself had made known his wish to be buried at the well-known temple of the supreme Egyptian god Ammon Ra in the remote oasis of Siwa, in the Egyptian-Libyan desert. Alexander had made a crucial visit to this oracular shrine in 331, when he had taken Egypt from the Persians. The temple priests, who said they had foreseen his arrival, had welcomed him as the son of Ammon?a designation that certified his divinity?and, apparently more important, they had given him the answer "that his soul desired" to a personal question, its content never divulged, that he had put to them when he spoke to them alone.

Mindful of Aristander's prediction, Perdiccas, whose long record of loyal service ran back to the days of Alexander's father, Philip II, defied Alexander's wish. Instead of Siwa, he ordered the body transported to Macedonia for burial at Aegae, in the company of Alexander's royal ancestors. While thus seeming to honor his dead king and his country, Perdiccas's true objective may well have been to settle this politically unstable moment by sending into Macedonia an army which he controlled, under the guise of an escort of honor. He knew that several Greek leaders and generals who opposed the authority conferred upon him had been meeting there.

None of this happened quickly, of course. The preparations for Alexander's entombment had to be appropriate not only for an incomparable military leader and emperor, but in fact for a "god." A funeral pyre in the old style was not for Alexander, whose body was, to his followers, both a sacred relic and a political token of the greatest importance. It was to be preserved. Diodorus Siculus, a Roman historian who wrote during the first century BC, gives the most detailed description. First, Egyptian and Chaldean embalmers worked their skills "to make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible." Then, further following Egyptian custom, the body, clothed and in armor, was sealed in beautifully formed, close-fitting, heavy sheets of beaten gold, which were shaped so that even the features of Alexander's face were recognizable. None of the ancient historians mentions the use of a stone sarcophagus, though the body had to be safely transported over more than 3000 kilometers (nearly 2000 mi) of rough terrain.

The funeral cart, or catafalque, that was to bear Alexander's body was beautifully designed, sculptured and decorated, a gold- and jewel-covered extravagance that surpassed anything known in history or legend. It took two years and many skilled craftsmen to prepare it, with cost no object. Sparkling brilliantly in the sunlight, the heavy, roofed funeral carriage was pulled by teams of 64 matched mules. An army of honor guards accompanied it, under the command of a distinguished Macedonian nobleman, one of Alexander's staff officers.

Departing from Babylon, the funeral cortege traveled north a short distance along the Euphrates River, then east toward the ancient Persian city of Opis, then northwest along the banks of the Tigris. Ahead of the procession, road-builders smoothed the way, and thousands of people traveled to gather all along the route to see the magnificent spectacle pass. The cortege proceeded slowly, probably no more than 15 kilometers (9 mi) a day. Its route then skirted the northern edge of the Syrian desert, and headed toward the coast at Alexandria ad Issum (now Iskenderun, Turkey), a city founded by Alexander in 333 to consolidate his victory over the Persians at nearby Issus.

At this point, the procession reached a crossroads of sorts. If it were to proceed to Macedonia, it would have to continue west along Turkey's southern coast, either overland or by ship. If Siwa were the destination, then it would either sail southwest across the Mediterranean to Paraetonium (now Marsa Matruh) on the Egyptian coast, or travel by land down the Palestinian coast to Gaza and then turn west. Travel by sea was easier, but if the intent were to allow the largest possible number of people to see the funeral procession pass, then a land route would be preferable.

Whatever the aim, it was another of Alexander's generals who determined the direction of the next leg of the long journey. Ptolemy, who had been made governor of Egypt, arrived with a sizable army to meet the funeral procession. In what biographer Mary Renault called "a reverent hijack," he forced it to take the overland route south toward Egypt. And though he may have appeared to be acting to fulfill Alexander's personal wish, Ptolemy had no intention of burying Alexander at Siwa. He wanted the body for his own capital of Alexandria in Egypt, the better to bring honor to his own domain. But as these events took place before a suitable mausoleum?prominently located in the center of the city?could be constructed in Alexandria, Ptolemy brought the body first to the old pharaonic capital of Memphis, where it was to remain for some years.

In Babylon, the reaction of Perdiccas was predictable: When he learned of Ptolemy's coup, he set out for Egypt with an army to punish the hijacker and recover the body. But on the way, some of his officers, bribed by Ptolemy, stabbed him to death. No other attempt was made by any of the other generals to remove Alexander's body from Egypt, and eventually it was transported to the site in Alexandria that Ptolemy had designated as the location of the future royal cemetery of the Ptolemaic line. Within a few years Ptolemy, like each of Alexander's successors, had declared himself king in his own right, and over the next three centuries Ptolemy's descendants succeeded each other. As each died he was buried in the royal cemetery in an opulent mausoleum, near the central tomb of Alexander. Local residents and travelers to Alexandria visited the site, and Alexander's tomb, especially, was treated as a shrine. But it was not to be left untouched.

One of the kings, Ptolemy?X Alexander I, who ruled from 107 to 88 BC, was an extremely unpopular monarch whose people revolted and forced him to flee into Syria. Organizing a mercenary army there, he reentered Egypt to regain his throne. But to help pay for these forces, he ordered the gold sheathing to be stripped from the body of Alexander the Great and melted down. The embalmed body itself was not otherwise harmed, and remained in its tomb, but public outrage was great.

Alexander's body had been, in A. B. Bosworth's phrase, "the talisman of the Ptolemaic house." As Rome's imperial power grew, its leaders too had not hesitated to invoke Alexander's name and legend for their own purposes, and their admiration of his greatest accomplishment: empire from the Danube to the Ganges. While most of this immense territory remained in the control of Alexander's successors and their descendants for three centuries or so, parts were gradually lost to belligerents to the east. The Romans had taken possession of some areas of western Asia Minor beginning in 133 BC, but their only eastward success came with the annexation of Armenia by the East Roman ruler, Mark Antony, who was subverted by, and finally married, the last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII. In 30 BC, facing defeat by the West Roman emperor, Octavian, the two lovers committed western history's most famous double suicide, Egypt became a Roman province, and Octavian entered Alexandria.

On his first tour the newly won capital, Octavian, who now carried the title of Augustus, visited the tomb of Alexander and left an imperial standard in tribute. Julius Caesar and, very probably, Marc Antony had paid homage there before him. Alexander's body must not have been covered, for Dio Cassius, in his 80-book history of Rome, reports that during his close inspection, Augustus touched or bumped the nose of the mummified corpse and broke off part of it. The tale, however, is somewhat hard to believe. It may have been after this that the coffin was said to have been covered by a kind of crystal?possibly fine, translucent alabaster?to protect it.

In subsequent times, successive Roman emperors likewise traveled to Alexandria, and a visit to the tomb to pay homage to the great conqueror and pagan god became virtually a sacred duty. Though Caligula, who ruled from AD 37 to 41, did not visit Egypt himself, his officers went to the tomb, and as they departed they removed a breast-plate from Alexander's armor. This was brought to Caligula, who wore it on ceremonial occasions. Finally, near the turn of the third century, Septimus Severus ordered the mausoleum of Alexander sealed to prevent further damage to the famous tomb and corpse. Even so, his son and successor, Caracalla, had it opened again for a look at the remains. In admiration and respect, Caracalla is said to have removed his own purple imperial robe from his shoulders and spread it over the body, and he also left many other precious gifts.

Reverence for the dead Alexander and the safekeeping of his remains might have survived the fourth century if he had been looked upon not as a god, but only as the great mortal leader he had been. By this time paganism was giving way to rising Christianity, which the East Roman emperor Theodosius I (379-395) finally declared the state religion in 392, banning public pagan rites throughout the empire. Alexandria was fast becoming a key Christian center, and though the many pagan temples and shrines in the city were not at first affected, zealots among both groups clashed with increasing frequency. The patriarch of Alexandria at the time was Theophilus, a hierarch of great faith, energy and anti-pagan passion. He enthusiastically directed the conversion of pagan institutions into churches, was instrumental in the destruction, in 391, of Alexandria's great Temple of Sarapis, a pagan shrine which dated back to early Ptolemaic times, and took other steps to speed the conversion of the city to an entirely Christian metropolis.

A number of historians hypothesize that that the anti-pagan forces had demolished the tomb of Alexander and destroyed his corpse by 397. There are no direct accounts, and the tomb of Alexander is not mentioned in any of the sources of the time, which are otherwise often quite detailed. Yet we may draw inferences from such documents as the writings of John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople from 398 to 404. Drawing a contrast with the veneration paid the sepulchers of the Christian martyrs, he challenges, "Where is now the tomb of Alexander? Show me! Tell me the day of his death!"

The tombs of the Ptolemies that had surrounded Alexander's were destroyed as well, for they too had been regarded as "gods." On the site, a large church was built dedicated to St. Athanasius, an earlier Alexandrian bishop; in 640, when the Muslim Arabs captured Alexandria, they converted the church into a mosque. In modern times, the building, in a ruinous condition, was demolished, and the Mosque of the Prophet Daniel was constructed in its place, which still stands today. Under it is a series of catacombs which are said to have been thoroughly and officially explored early in the 20th century, and which were probably even more thoroughly and quite unofficially explored over many earlier centuries. The monuments themselves having been pulled down, it is possible?but far from certain?that these catacombs include parts of the foundations of the Ptolemaic and Alexander tombs.

A more recent episode associated with the mysterious fate of Alexander's remains took place in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte's armies invaded Egypt through Alexandria. In the courtyard of the mosque that had once been the church of St. Athanasius, standing inside a small open building, was a handsome, heavy sarcophagus carved from a single block of rare, beautiful, dark green breccia. It was decorated, inside and out, with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although it was being used as a cistern for worshipers' ablutions before prayers, locals referred to it as "the tomb of Alexander." French troops removed it and transported it to the hold of a French hospital ship. It was said that they intended to bring it to Paris, where a monument to Napoleon would be built around it, thus associating the latter with Alexander the Great in much the same way rulers had done since Ptolemy first hijacked the funeral cortege in southern Turkey.

But in 1801, the British invaded Egypt and expelled the French. Antiquaries attached to the British forces knew about the so-called "Alexander sarcophagus" from travelers' writings. They searched for it specifically, removed it from the French ship, and today the sarcophagus is not in Paris, but in London, on display in the British Museum. At first, British scholars rationalized that the hieroglyphic text covering its inner and outer surfaces was attributable to Alexander's role as an Egyptian god, but the decipherment of hieroglyphics a few decades later?thanks to the Rosetta Stone, which had been carried off by the British at the same time as the sarcophagus?made it obvious that it had been carved for the last native Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo II, who had ruled from 360 to 343 BC. Historians and archeologists concluded that this sarcophagus had never contained the body of Alexander; that it came to be called "Alexander's tomb" is an example of the great flourishing of legend and false attribution about the conqueror that began even during his lifetime.

One branch of this thicket of association connects the breccia sarcophagus, Nectanebo II and Alexander himself. Alexander's mother, Queen Olympias, had been devoted to the rites of Orpheus and Dionysus, which sometimes featured the presence of large snakes that were believed to represent or embody the gods. It is known that Olympias kept one such snake in her chamber, and after Alexander's birth Olympias was said to have declared that her son had not been sired by his mortal father, King Philip, but by the Egyptian god Ammon, who had taken the form of the snake. For his part, Philip apparently believed this tale and considered his wife an adulteress.

Beginning shortly after Alexander's death, a more fantastic tale began to circulate. According to this story, when Nectanebo II, now said to be an adept of the magic arts, fled the Persian occupation of his country in 343 BC, he went not to southern Egypt but to Macedonia, there to beget an avenger of his country's defeat. Olympias gave him refuge in Philip's court, and, casting her horoscope, Nectanebo predicted that she would give birth to a son, a hero, fathered by Ammon. The pharaoh, who could indeed claim to represent Ammon, fulfilled his own prophesy by seducing the then childless Olympias, and the offspring of their union was none other than Alexander! This is, of course, largely pharaonic propaganda, designed after the fact to bolster the Egyptian spiritual claim to Alexander, for in reality it is not only well documented that Nectanebo never set foot in Macedonia, or anywhere else in Greece, but in 343, when he supposedly went there, Alexander was already 13 years old. Nonetheless, the story may have inspired the connection of the breccia sarcophagus of Nectanebo?II with the memory of Alexander.

There exists yet another "Alexander Sarcophagus," a magnificent, monumental work of marble discovered by accident in 1887, in what turned out to be a royal necropolis in Sidon, a city on the Mediterranean in what is today Lebanon. This extraordinary monument, still in nearly perfect condition and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, is the work of an unknown Greek master sculptor, carved in the classic Hellenic style from a pure white marble quarried in the Pentelic mountains northeast of Athens?the same material used to build the Parthenon and other famous works of the classical period. Around its perimeter are animated scenes of Alexander himself hunting, and battling the Persians. It has been estimated to date from the last quarter of the fourth century BC, and its intended purpose is unknown. Is it possible it was made to receive Alexander's remains? As a work of art, it is certainly worthy to have been used for this purpose.

But as tempting it is to make the connection, archeologists and historians have concluded that this sarcophagus was more than likely carved for the body of a king of Sidon, Abdalonymos, a few years after Alexander's death. Abdalonymos was a Phoenecian who ordered it made to commemorate his close friendship with Alexander, who had had him appointed ruler of the region. In fact, historians now believe that the use of any sarcophagus to carry Alexander's body on that long last trip was unlikely. As the remains were originally to be sent to Siwa, Alexander's body was prepared in the Egyptian manner by Egyptian embalmers. Also, the close-fitted gold sheathing surrounding the body was a style used for royalty, and designed to be seen, not hidden by stone, however beautifully carved.

Few figures in history have been studied more, written about more, or spoken of more than Alexander the Great, whether seriously by scholars, fantastically by unknown compilers of legends, or personally by tribesmen who, even today, claim descent from his Macedonian troops. Some still dream and hope that, somewhere in the catacombs under the Mosque of Prophet Daniel, his remains might yet be discovered. But extensive explorations and excavations have been made in Alexandria, under the mosque and elsewhere, and no trace has been found either of the royal Ptolemaic necropolis or of Alexander's tomb.

The story of what happened to Alexander's remains remains a mystery.


T. Peter Limber ([email protected]) specializes in Greek history. He is working on a historical novel about Alexander and the years after his death, to be called The Chronicle of Hexadoros.

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