The tomb of Alexander the Great. (V. Manfredi)

In his new essay, Italian writer and archaeologist Valerio Manfredi looks back at the post-mortem destiny of the most fascinating of conquerors: Alexander the Great. Always fascinated by the Macedonian sovereign to whom he had already dedicated a romantic trilogy in the 1990s, Manfredi here sets out to present the journey through the centuries of the remains and the tomb of Alexander. Beyond the story of the simple vicissitudes of this relic, The tomb of Alexander the Great, is a means of evoking the fascination that will have engendered the legacy of the one who first wanted to be a universal monarch.

The death of Alexander and its stakes

To fully understand the significance of Valerio Manfredi's essay, it is necessary to briefly review the circumstances and issues surrounding the death of Alexander the Great. Beyond death, the conqueror will indeed weigh with all his weight on the destiny of the immense empire he has built.

In early summer -324 BC Alexander III of Macedon returned to his capital of Babylon. His last expedition, which took him to India, did not prove to be a flamboyant success, as were his campaigns against the Persians. Alexander, who failed to be killed several times, turned back under pressure from his troops on the verge of mutiny. His retreat through the wilderness of Gedrosia (present-day Balochistan) claimed the lives of many of its best veterans.

In Babylon, the king finds a complex situation. He faces the corruption of his liege men, as well as the growing rejection by his Greek and Macedonian companions of his plans for civilizational syncretism. When he intends to widely open the ranks of his army to the Persians to replace his Macedonian soldiers, he faces a veritable mutiny.

The following year saw Alexander relieve these tensions as best he could and prepare a new expedition to Arabia. Ancient sources (Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus) tell us about the accumulation of bad omen in the month of June -323 BC. The politically weakened sovereign seeks an escape from carnal pleasures. A series of orgies will cost him his life. Within ten days, he fell victim to a mysterious fever that overwhelmed his body, exhausted by 15 years of accumulation of deprivation and various traumas.

To the question asked by Perdicas " Who are you leaving your kingdom to? "Alexander would have replied before exhaling" to the best " (or " to the strongest According to the translation). An ambiguous response commensurate with his personality, where cold rationality and devastating fury mingled. Initially, his main generals agree to maintain the unity of the empire, until his very young son: Alexander IV is able to reign. In fact, those that we will soon call the diadochs are already preparing the carving up of Alexander's legacy. None of them really believe it is possible to maintain the cohesion of such a vast and disparate whole. On the other hand, none of them, even the most brilliant (Ptolemy) displays a universalist ambition comparable to the son of Philip of Macedon.

However, in the competition ahead, Alexander’s body and the mausoleum that will host him are of crucial importance. They are the physical manifestation of a royal legitimacy, which borders on the religious, since the conqueror is in the process of being deified (let's not forget that he was recognized as the son of Zeus Amon in the oasis of Siouah in Egypt). Whoever manages to collect Alexander's remains would thereby hold a significant symbolic source of power.

Once the conflict of succession begins, the Egyptian-embalmed remains of the conqueror become the object of a merciless struggle. Following adventures, of which the author admits that it is very difficult to get a precise idea, it is Ptolemy the ruler of Egypt who seizes it. These will be the lagids (the dynasty founded by Ptolemy, who died with Cleopatra VII) who will have the honor of watching over the tomb of Alexander, destined to become one of the symbols of Hellenistic civilization.

From veneration to oblivion, destiny of a body

Alexander’s sepulcher was the most visited and most revered funerary monument in the world for seven long centuries. He will ultimately be eclipsed only by the tomb of another man, also become God: Jesus of Nazareth.

The heart of Valerio Manfredi's essay (6 chapters) is devoted to the description, location and importance of the Alexandrian mausoleum. It is clear that while it can be said with certainty that the " soma "(Term designating both the remains and its tomb) was placed in Alexandria, a city born from the will of the Macedonian conqueror, it is very difficult to locate it with more accuracy. In this regard, the author emphasizes the confusion and fragmentary nature of ancient sources.

Yet these describe to us a monument of rare magnificence and a tomb worthy of eclipsing anything that had been achieved before. Within the range of ideological tools intended to establish the legitimacy of the Ptolts, it represents the continuity between the son of Zeus Amon and the successors of Ptolemy. The soma is the object of a cult which only grows as the epic of Alexander becomes the central myth of an entire civilization. The most famous figures, especially Romans, visit it, whether they are Julius Caesar, Octavian / Augustus (who, it is said, broke the nose of the mummified body) or Hadrian. However, what did this tomb look like? To a Macedonian tumulus, to a pyramid? Here again the sources do not allow us to get a precise idea.

It appears that at the beginning of the 4th century AD, the " soma "Gradually sinks into oblivion. The Roman East was in full Christianization and the cult of Alexander gave way to Christianity, which in a century would become the official religion of the empire. The city of Alexandria, the cultural center of the Greco-Roman civilization, is undergoing profound upheavals. Pagan monuments or identified as such are subject to destruction or conversion into churches. Alexander's Tomb is certainly no exception, yet it seems to have withstood the cataclysms that had plagued the city so far (whether it was the great siege under Aurelian's reign or the tsunami of 365).

Within a few years from AD 391, the symbols of the pagan civilization of Alexandria were all cut down. What then becomes of Alexander's body? Here again, the sources are insufficient to provide a clear answer. Was it destroyed or hidden? No one can say that. What is certain is that his legend will continue to live on for centuries to come.

Whether in Christian or Muslim Alexandria, we find traces of many legends attesting to the presence of "somy »Hidden in a church or mosque. On the other hand, like the Jews, Muslims profess a certain admiration for Alexander the Great as a " nabi " (a prophet). This only fuels a perpetual rediscovery of his lost tomb which will not leave the field of the marvelous for that of science until the 19e century.

With the rise of Egyptology following Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt and the work of Champollion, Westerners approach Egypt and its heritage from the angle of rationalized knowledge. It doesn't take long for archaeologists and tomb hunters to search for the " soma ". For almost two centuries it has been announced on several occasions that the mystery of Alexander’s tomb has finally been lifted. Some have located it in underground necropolises, others in the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Nectanebo II, it has even been argued that the " soma Was ultimately stranded in the Siouah oasis, in Venice (where it would have been mistaken for the remains of St Mark) or in Macedonia. But as the author points out, none of these theories seem to win the support of the scientific community. The fate of Alexander's tomb remains a mystery ...

Our opinion

Narrated like a novel and giving pride of place to the narrative processes of police investigations, The tomb of Alexander the Great, is a pleasant reading, comparable in that to the other works of Manfredi. Chapter after chapter, the Italian author plunges us into a fascinating plot from which, it must be admitted, it is difficult to unhook.

That said, the academic interest of this essay should not be overlooked, which although intended for the general public, shows seriousness in the analysis and confrontation of ancient sources. Archaeologist and professor at the University of Milan, Manfredi knows how to be humble in the face of the confused and contradictory picture that the authors of antiquity have bequeathed to us. His essay is also a tribute to the work accumulated over two centuries by scientists of all nations who have devoted their time to the Alexandrian myth.

The conclusion of the book will be no less frustrating with its drought. The fate of the tomb and the body of Alexander the Great is uncertain. It appears that even the appearance of this famous tomb, in its time one of the most famous monuments in the world, cannot be specified.

But from this conclusion it must be remembered that beyond this frustration with the absence of relics, what really matters is the conqueror's cultural heritage. An unsurpassable reference for 23 centuries, Alexander continues to maintain, through the mystery of his post-mortem destiny, the myth of a man who became god. The chimerical quest for his remains echoes this desire for access to the universal, to the divine, which has always animated men.

V MANFREDI, The tomb of Alexander the Great, the enigma, JC Lattès, Paris, 2010.

Video: What happened to Alexanders tomb? PART II (January 2022).