Ancient messages on crumbling stone tablets found near a desert tomb tell archaeologists they may finally have found the burial place of Alexander the Great, Egyptian authorities announced Tuesday.
If true, the discovery solves one of the most enduring riddles of ancient history: the burial site of the famed Greek general who, before he was 32, carved out an empire that included most of the Middle East parts of Asia.
Three stone tablets bearing Greek writing were found near the ancient Siwa Oasis, about 50 miles from Egypt’s border with Libya. One of the tablets apparently was inscribed by one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy I, telling how he brought his king - revered as the son of the god Amun - to Siwa, the site of the tomb:
“Alexander, Amun-ra,” it reads. “For the sake of the honorable Alexander, I present these sacrifices according to the orders of the god, (and) carried the corpse here - and it was so light, as much as a small shield - when I was commander in Egypt.”
The Greek archaeological team that found the tomb is due back in Cairo, Egypt, soon, when a decision will be made about excavating the burial chamber, Egyptian officials said.
The tomb’s entrance, apparently damaged in an earthquake, is flanked by two stone lions. A 21-foot-long corridor leads into antechambers, and finally to a 12-foot-square burial vault.
A second tablet says the shrine was built for Alexander as “the first and the unique among all, he who drunk the poison.” That statement, if accurate, may shed light on Alexander’s death, said by one source to have come after a long banquet and drinking bout. Other accounts blame a disease, with high fever, for the king’s death. The king was 32 years old when he died in June 323 B.C., in Babylon.
The third tablet mentions 30,000 soldiers stationed at Siwa to guard the tomb.
But Fawzi Fakhrani, professor of Greco-Roman history at Alexandria University, said discovery of the tomb does not prove Alexander was actually buried there. “When he died in Babylon he was mummified until they decided where he should be buried.”
A tomb may have been built at Siwa, Fakhrani said, but “Ptolemy feared if he buried Alexander at Siwa, some general might have tried to lay hold of the body. … So therefore he buried him in (the ancient capital) Memphis” and then the remains were later moved to Alexandria.
No tomb that might be Alexander’s has ever been found in the ancient port city named after the dead king.
The tomb near Siwa was found recently by a Greek team led by archaeologist Leana Souvaltze. The site is about 50 miles from the Libyan border, where the team has been exploring for the past four years. The buried structure is huge, 130 feet long by 65 feet wide, built of large stones.
Richard Fazzini, chairman of the department of Egyptian Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, added that if the tomb was as large as reported, “no matter whose tomb it is, it’s going to be an interesting find. It must be somebody important.”
The location of Alexander’s tomb has been such a riddle because ancient records suggest he was buried in Alexandria. But there’s also a coffin, an elaborately carved stone sarcophagus, in the Museum of Antiquities in Istanbul, Turkey, that is recorded as being Alexander’s. It was found at Sidon in 1887, said Guy Van Beek, curator of Near Eastern and Mediterranean Archeology, at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.