Alexander the Great is dead

I watched a television programme the other night about Alexander the Great’s tomb. He died at Babylon in 323 BC, but the body was kidnapped by General Ptolemy, who had acquired Africa when Alexander’s successors divided up the Empire. Ptolemy took the body to the Egyptian capital at the time, Memphis; but about thirty years later, his son and successor installed it in a grand new tomb in Alexandria.

The tomb in Alexandria was a major tourist attraction in the ancient world, and there are records of visits, particularly by Roman Emperors, until Emperor Septimus Severus had it closed to the public in about 200 AD. (In about 100 AD, the current King of Egypt, Ptolemy IX, stole Alexander’s gold coffin and replaced it with a glass one.) The last known imperial visit was that of Severus’ son, Caracalla, in 215 AD.

The following century saw a number of rebellions and wars over Alexandria which muct have resulted in widespread destruction. It’s possible that the Christian Patriach may have been referring to the tomb of Alexander in a speech in about 361 shortly before the devastating tsunami of 365, but by the end of that century, St. John Chrysostom was preaching that the location of tomb was no longer known (which suited him as it was venerated by pagans).

So, by 400 AD, the tomb was definitely lost, and has never been found again. The programme investigated a number of places, and tried to work out where in modern Alexandria the walled enclosure of the tomb might have been. Unfortunately millennia of conquest and natural disasters have left relatively little remaining from ancient times.

However, as I watched it, I realised that though the tomb might be lost, I knew where the body was. In 828, two Venetian merchants stole a corpse that was believed by Alexandrian Christians to be St. Mark the Apostle. They smuggled it out of Alexandria under a layer of pork, so that Muslim officials wouldn’t examine the package. A new basilica was built in Venice to house the relics.

The thing is, Mark’s body only enters history in the late 300s. It’s only a guess, but given that worship of Alexander was made illegal in 391, if you have one venerated corpse that’s going out of fashion, why not re-brand and re-launch? And there’s not the slightest bit of evidence that Mark was ever in Egypt. They simply made up that part.

Well, that was my idea. My revelation, if you will. I was pleased with it, and was going to write a cheerful blog about it. But on checking my facts today, as you do as a responsible blogger, I discover that I’ve been beaten to it by one Michael Chugg, who included the idea in a 2005 book, The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great. Bastard.

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