On the 11th June 323 BC, Alexander the Great passed away. Following his death in Babylon,
his body became a continuing source of war, intrigue and mystery. His body and his tomb
were lost; yet the legend lives on and historians are still trying to uncover clues to their
whereabouts. But how did this all come about? Why did all records of Alexander’s tomb
abruptly cease? In this two-part documentary, we shall unravel the history surrounding Alexander’s
tomb and attempt to answer this question. This is the story behind Alexander’s body
and his tomb. Almost immediately after Alexander’s death,
chaos erupted, as the Macedonians quickly began arguing over the fate of the empire,
leaving his body unattended for many days in the Babylonian heat. Legend has it that
upon returning to the corpse, to everyone’s amazement, they found it in pristine condition
– untouched by decay. Perdiccas, the highest-ranking commander in Babylon, then had Alexander’s
body embalmed and placed in a golden coffin. For the next two years Alexander’s body
remained in Babylon, as Perdiccas and his followers oversaw the construction of a funeral
carriage unlike any other the world had seen. The carriage was designed to resemble a great
temple: it had beautiful Ionic columns encircled by paintings depicting Alexander and his army
and was covered with gold. It was to be pulled by 64 mules, each bearing a golden crown and
bell. Upon its completion, Perdiccas ordered that
Alexander’s body to be escorted home to Aegae in Macedonia – the traditional resting
place of the Macedonian Kings. Yet the plan went horribly wrong.
The governor of Egypt Ptolemy was aware of the great wealth and potential of his domain
and soon grew ambitious, eager to get rid of Perdiccas’ control. He believed he might
achieve this by taking possession of Alexander’s body, as it was a superhuman talisman representing
authority and legitimacy in this new post-Alexander world. Whoever controlled the body held great
sway. Ptolemy was not deterred by Perdiccas’ precautions to keep the body, but he needed
a daring plan. In 321 BC, Alexander’s elaborate funeral
cart left Babylon for Macedonia. Yet as the procession was making its way through Syria,
Ptolemy made his move, bribing the escort, seizing the body and diverting it to Egypt,
where he had it housed in Memphis – the traditional Egyptian capital.
Perdiccas was furious, as his authority as regent had been severely tarnished. It was
the opposite for Ptolemy, as Alexander’s soldiers came from far and wide to swell the
ranks of his army. Perdiccas immediately marched on Egypt with
his army – his main aim to regain control of the body and restore his authority. In
the ensuing war, covered in our documentary which you can see here, Ptolemy emerged victorious
and Perdiccas was murdered. Alexander’s body was now securely in Ptolemy’s possession.
He quickly began proclaiming the link between himself and Alexander, becoming the first
of the Diadochi to put Alexander’s image on his coinage, and emphasising that he was
a favourite of Alexander in his account on the conquest of Asia.
Ptolemy also cultivated a local legend of Alexander. Rather than being the son of Philip
of Macedon, Egyptian tales soon became widespread that Alexander was the son of the last Egyptian
pharaoh Nectanebo II. In 343 BC, the Persians had deposed Nectanebo, who had then died in
exile. His pre-made sarcophagus in Memphis had therefore remained empty. It is likely
Ptolemy had first placed Alexander in this empty coffin and it was from here that this
fabulous story took root. A pharaoh of Egypt could only be legitimate if he was related
to his predecessor, so this tale helped portray Alexander as Nectanebo’s rightful heir.
It also established a connection between the Macedonian and Egyptian dynasties – a connection
that only helped Ptolemy’s cause. At the same time, Ptolemy began spreading
the rumour that he was in fact an illegitimate son of Philip II and thus the half-brother
of Alexander. Both stories spread rapidly and helped Ptolemy secure his rule in Egypt
– thanks in good measure to his clever use of Alexander’s body.
Following the climactic battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Ptolemy had Alexander’s body moved
to the centre of his new capital at Alexandria and placed in a new, elaborate tomb. The city
had been founded by Alexander back in 331 BC but had only recently been completed. Immediately,
Ptolemy set about promoting Alexander adulation. Not only did he have Alexander publicly honoured
as the founder of Alexandria, but he also introduced a state cult of Alexander throughout
Egypt. His statues were erected far and wide while processions and festivals centred around
the great conqueror also appeared. In 283 BC, Ptolemy I passed away. For the
next 150 years Ptolemy’s descendants would rule Egypt, and the memory of the great king
was crucial for their dynasty. Almost immediately after his father’s death,
Ptolemy II Philadelphus, had him deified and worshipped alongside Alexander. The message
was clear: in both life and death these two kings were inseparable. Philadelphus also
created a new religious festival in honour of his father: the Ptolemaia. Hosted every
four years this festival attracted many thousands of visitors not only from Egypt, but all around
the Greek World. Fortunately for us, a description of the Ptolemaia
staged in 275-274 BC survives. Dubbed, ‘the Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus’,
It was an EXTREMELY lavish parade through the centre of Alexandria. Soldiers, animals,
gems, gold and images of Gods – especially Dionysios - all featured, emphasising the
unbounded wealth, splendour and power of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Alexander was central to the procession. First, his statue appeared on top of a great float
accompanied by another statue of the now-deified Ptolemy I - both wearing gold diadems of ivy
leaves. Following this came a golden statue of Alexander in a chariot, towed by four elephants
and surrounded by statues of the Gods. This procession reminded the onlookers not only
that Alexandria was the home of Alexander’s body but also of the inseparable link between
it and the Ptolemies. Desiring to further emphasise this link Ptolemy
IV ‘Philopator’, placed Alexander’s body in a new royal burial complex in c. 215
BC. It soon became known as the ‘Soma’ or the body – named after its main exhibit.
This new mausoleum was almost certainly visually majestic – perhaps inspired by the famed
tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. The complex may also have been circular, in its turn possibly
inspiring the great tombs of the Roman emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Inside the enclosure,
Alexander’s body was placed in an underground chamber along with remains of the Ptolemies,
once again emphasising the closest possible link between the Ptolemies and Alexander.
The Soma soon became an iconic feature of Alexandria. From far and wide, visitors would
journey to Alexander’s city and see his marvellous tomb. It was a place of pagan pilgrimage.
Still, no dynasty can last forever and by the beginning of the First Century BC, the
Ptolemaic dynasty had become a shadow of its former power. So great was its turmoil that
in 89 BC King Ptolemy X had done the unthinkable: in desperate need of money to pay his mercenaries,
he melted down Alexander’s golden sarcophagus, replacing it with one made of glass. Regardless,
Ptolemaic power continued to dwindle and within 70 years, a new power would be ruling Alexandria.
A power that also had a keen interest in Alexander’s tomb – but for very different reasons: Rome.
The second video on the story behind Alexander’s tomb and his body will we released soon, so
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