The Elusive Tomb of Alexander the Great

By the age of 32, Alexander the Great had conquered an empire that stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan, making him the sovereign of one of the largest empires in the ancient world. Despite his success and fame, it’s impossible to pay respects to him today, as the location of his final resting place is a mystery.

But based on ancient writings, legends and recent discoveries, are there any clues as to where Alexander the Great is buried?

The great Macedonian general died in Babylon in 323 B.C., and his empire collapsed shortly afterward as his generals and officials fought for control. One of his generals, Ptolemy, got control of Alexander the Great’s body and brought it to Memphis, Egypt, in 321 B.C., Chris Naunton(opens in new tab), an Egyptologist who is director of the U.K.-based Robert Anderson Research Charitable Trust, wrote in his book “Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt” (Thames & Hudson, 2018).

Historical records suggest that Alexander the Great’s body was likely kept in Memphis (an ancient city located near Cairo) until a tomb was built in Alexandria and his body was moved to the tomb. It’s not clear when this happened, but it may have taken as long as a few decades, Naunton wrote. Historical records indicate that in the late third century B.C., another tomb for Alexander, known as the “Sema” or “Soma,” was built in Alexandria, and this seems to have been the last tomb that Alexander was placed in, Naunton wrote.

It’s not clear where, exactly, this final tomb is located. “The location of the tomb could now be underwater — [the ancient Greek historian] Strabo indicates that it was in the ‘palaces district,’ part of which is certainly underwater now. But it could have been further inland — the sources don’t allow us to be certain about this,” says Naunton.

Andrew Erskine, a classics professor at The University of Edinburgh in the U.K., also noted this uncertainty. “The ancient sources tell us that [the] tomb of Alexander was alongside that of the Ptolemies in the palace complex at Alexandria, but where exactly is not clear,” says Erskine.

Naunton said that there is a good chance that Alexander the Great’s tomb will not be found. “It probably hasn’t survived to any great extent — centuries of man-made and natural destruction, and the presence of the modern city which completely covers the ancient one now, has probably ensured that,” Naunton said. Even if remains of the tomb are found, it may not be possible to identify the tomb as that of Alexander the Great, he added. Historical texts provide little information on what the tomb looked like, and an inscription on the tomb may be necessary to identify it, Naunton said.

Although the location of his final tomb is unknown, there are two surviving locations where Alexander the Great’s body may have been placed for a time. One is in a tomb in eastern Alexandria known as the “alabaster tomb.” There is no inscription on it, but it is sizable; it’s possible that it could have been the tomb that Alexander was kept in after his body was first moved to Alexandria, Naunton said. It appears to date to around the third century B.C. and some parts of its design are similar to other ancient tombs in Macedonia.

Additionally, there is a sarcophagus that was constructed for Nectanebo II, a pharaoh who was forced to flee Egypt around 343 B.C. when the Persians invaded. There is a long-standing legend that it held Alexander’s body for a time, possibly after it was first brought to Memphis from Babylon. It is now in the British Museum in London.

In an article published in fall 2020 in the Egyptology magazine Kmt, Andrew Chugg, an independent researcher, made an argument for why this sarcophagus temporarily held Alexander’s body. He noted the ancient story where Nectanebo II made his way to Macedonia and impregnated Alexander’s mother, making him the father of Alexander the Great. While this story is likely fictional, it shows a connection between Nectanebo II and Alexander, Chugg wrote.

Additionally, Chugg has identified a block with a star shield (a symbol associated with Alexander), which is now in the St Apollonia stone museum in Venice, Italy, that he believes was part of the sarcophagus. “I have shown that it is an exact fit to the long side of the Nectanebo II sarcophagus,” says Chugg, noting that “the chance of this fit happening by accident is only about 1%.”

Some scholars believe that the final tomb will be found. Chugg has identified a few areas in Alexandria that hold promise. Zahi Hawass, a former Egyptian antiquities minister, said that he thinks the tomb is located in an area now known as the Latin cemetery at El-Shatby, in Alexandria, and that Alexander the Great’s burial could be found in the future.