July 27, 2006


Alexander’s Tomb: The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror. By Nicholas J. Saunders. Basic Books. $26.

     Alexander III of Macedon, known to one and all as Alexander the Great, conquered pretty much everything he laid eyes on, which included pretty much all of the known world in his general vicinity – and some distance beyond.  He then died at the age of 32 – and undertook, after death, a series of further odysseys as his body was buried, moved, reburied, moved again, and eventually lost altogether.

     Where is it now?  No one knows – but that is not really the point of British anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders’ book, despite the work’s title.  Saunders is more interested in a discursive look at numerous things Alexandrian or inspired by Alexander than he is in chronicling the search for the conqueror’s tomb.  Not everything here is equally interesting, but some elements are fascinating.  The oft-told tale of the depravities of the Roman emperor Caligula, who styled himself a second Alexander, gains little from being told yet again; nor do the Alexandrian ambitions of Napoleon lend more than a veneer of relevance to the tale of his defeat in the Battle of the Nile.

     But the likely destruction of one of Alexander’s tombs by Christians in the year 391 C.E., and the possible smuggling away of the conqueror’s body before the tomb’s defilement, is a fascinating tale, as is the whole interrelationship between early Christianity and the worship or near-worship of Alexander, who styled himself a god.  The wearing of Alexander amulets by early Christians is a little-known story that is worth telling, and is told well here.  And it is intriguing to contemplate that the carving of Mount Rushmore was anticipated by those who wanted to carve Mount Athos in Greece into Alexander’s likeness – a project that the conqueror himself decided not to pursue.  Also fascinating is the tale of Cassander, a man whom Alexander treated with contempt – who was eventually responsible for arranging the death by stoning of Alexander’s mother; the murders of Alexander’s wife and child; the killing of Alexander’s Persian mistress and her child by the conqueror; and perhaps the murder of Alexander’s sister, too.  Here is a virtually unknown historical figure whose infamous acts – albeit not out of keeping with the barbarism of the Wars of the Successors after Alexander’s death – essentially wiped out the Alexandrian bloodline.

     Archeologists from ancient times until now have searched for Alexander’s final resting place; so have Egyptian pharaohs and Christian emperors.  No one has found it, and some theories of its location border on the outlandish (which does not mean they cannot be true) – for example, the possibility that Alexander’s mummified remains were mistaken for those of St. Mark and are now buried beneath St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

     Because Saunders’ book is so wide-ranging, and offers no solution to the obsessive quest that its title heralds, it is a work more for armchair historians than for armchair detectives.  The writing is breezy, though sometimes name-heavy.  What is a bit surprising is that Saunders gives short shrift to the notion that there does exist a well-known tomb of Alexander, at least metaphorically speaking: the city of Alexandria, producer of great scholars, major New Testament manuscripts, one of the wonders of the ancient world (the Pharos or lighthouse), and to this day perhaps the greatest bastion of toleration and informed inquiry in the Middle East.  Alexander is known to have been buried in his namesake city not once but twice.  Perhaps that is where his spirit remains.

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