Searching for Alexander the Great
Is Alexander the Great buried in the city he designed and was named after him? Or are his final remains in Greece? Author and archaeologist Angus Browne is on the case
Above: The new library in Alexandria, Egypt
It is generally accepted that archaeology is beyond the reach of most donkeys yet one of the great modern archaeological discoveries was in fact made by a donkey. Not intentionally we imagine.
So the story goes, in 1900 a donkey was going about its business in Alexandria, Egypt, pulling its cart when, most probably to its owner’s amazement, it disappeared. It had fallen down a shaft that had opened beneath it and (so we imagine) found itself dazed and confused in the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, a series of underground tunnels that were used as cemeteries dating to the 1st century CE.
This tale neatly summarises two aspects of Alexandrine archaeology. The first is the role of chance. So much of the ancient past lies beneath the modern city that it’s not impossible that the modern traveller may also find themselves making a magnificent discovery. The second is the requirement for imagination. Given so much of the past has been covered by the modern, imagination is required to picture this city as it was rather than as it is.
And one of the great unmade discoveries still lies underground because somewhere beneath the modern city the ancient tomb of history’s greatest and most famous conqueror, Alexander the Great, waits to be discovered and, based upon the evidence of the donkey, today’s traveller has as much chance of finding it as the most alert and well-funded archaeologist.
The chance of making this discovery should excite even the most recalcitrant traveller and as a by-product of conducting their walking expedition, they would also experience one of the most fascinating cities of the ancient world.
The founding of Alexandria
Using their imagination, today’s explorer could picture the scene 2,300 years ago when a promising young Macedonian conqueror first set foot in a sleepy fishing village on the western edge of the Nile Delta. At the time Alexandria was known by its Egyptian name, Raqote. It provided a natural harbour and the seaside breezes offered relief from the searing heat of the desert but despite this the site doesn’t seem to have been utilised in any major way prior to Alexander’s arrival.
Alexander, however, saw the promise of the location immediately and, as was the way with this young charger, set about his task immediately. According to one of his biographers, Arrian, in a fit of Dream, Goal, Plan, Action that should be a case study for all business graduates;
‘It struck him that the position was admirable for founding a city there and that it would prosper. A longing for the work therefore seized him; he himself marked out where the city’s marketplace was to be built, how many temples there were to be and the Gods, some Greek and Isis the Egyptian, for whom they were to be erected, and where the wall was to be built round it’. (Arrian, Book III. 1. 5)
The best place to go and transport your mind back to this activity is the Qaitbay Fort, at the mouth of the East Harbour. This citadel was built around 1480 CE by Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaitbay and it provides a commanding view of the harbour and the modern city. Look to the south and imagine that none of the buildings or roads are there but rather the young Macedonian striding around the bare ground, placing the markers that would outline the city he could already visualise, his staff and troops struggling to keep up as they noted his wishes.
Standing at the top of Qaitbay Fort, enjoying the sea breeze blowing straight in off the Mediterranean, today’s traveller - if they’ve been particularly lax in their research - may also be surprised to discover that they are standing on the original foundations of the ancient world’s most famous lighthouse.
Above: Qaitbay Fort, Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was commissioned by Ptolemy I (Soter) and completed in about 280 BCE. It stood as the second tallest building in the world for centuries, second only to the Great Pyramid at Giza. Its height was somewhere between 103 and 118 metres, casting its light far out into the Mediterranean as it guided ships into the safety of the harbour. It is said that the sailors could make out the light from 100 miles out to sea.
The lighthouse was weakened by several earthquakes during the 10th, 14th and 15th centuries until it finally crumbled in the late 15th century. Much of the remains lie submerged on the harbour floor and didn’t come to light until maritime excavations in the mid 1990’s. Stones that remained on land were used to construct the fort so the modern traveller, standing on the roof, stands on stones originally quarried in the 3rd century BCE.
From this vantage point, gazing across the harbour to modern Alexandria, today’s traveller should also be aware that somewhere within their gaze lies the tomb of Alexander. Possibly it’s to the southeast, below the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern day version of one of Alexandria’s other most famous buildings, the ancient library. The tomb may also be a bit further west along the harbour foreshore, the ancient site of the Ptolemaic Royal Precinct.
At this point a couple of things may occur. The first is, how can we be certain that Alexander is buried in Alexandria? The second is, if he is, how is it that the tomb hasn’t been discovered?
This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Timeless Travels Magazine.
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