The Mystery of the Granite Sarcophagus and Why It Matters

If the title of this article reads like something out of an old Doc Savage paperback or an old pulp radio serial, good that is by design. Because quite frankly the archaeological discoveries from last week are genuinely exciting. On July 11th, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced that archaeologists had unearthed a massive granite sarcophagus outside the city of Alexandria.  At approximately 73 inches tall, 104 inches long, 65 inches wide and with a weight of 30 tons, the Sarcophagus sounds gigantic.  For context, the most famous sarcophagus, the one belonging to Pharaoh Tutankhamen is significantly smaller, since the smallest of the four shrines built around it has been measured to be only about ten inches longer than this particular find at 114 inches and about 58 inches wide.  In short, this is quite literally a big find and it is the largest Sarcophagus ever found within the vicinity of Alexandria.  The location, especially, is important but we’ll pivot back to that in a bit.

The newly unearthed sarcophagus makes the perfect centerpiece for what has been a near constant stream of new discoveries in this year alone.  Back in February, a massive network of previously undiscovered tunnels were found just south of Cairo, and a temple in the Greco-Roman style was discovered at the famous Siwa Oasis.  Notably, all of these finds can be dated back to different dates within an era broadly referred to as the Ptolemaic Kingdom.  As a brief pronunciation guide, the P is silent.

Egyptian history is most commonly divided into historical eras called Kingdoms.  The first of such eras is The Old Kingdom, followed shortly thereafter by the Middle Kingdom and The New Kingdom (all of which have periods of upheaval and unrest between them).  The Ptolemaic Kingdom, which follows all three of the aforementioned, is regarded as an era of outsider rule and rapid social change.  The era’s namesake is Ptolemy I Soter or Ptolemy of Lagua.  Ptolemy was an ancient general of Macedonian descent.  Ptolemy was recorded as having been a good friend of the boy who would become Alexander the Great from a young age, seeing as he was only a few years older than the would-be conqueror.  Ptolemy served as a general and bodyguard to Alexander during his conquests, and is recorded as having served ably during the latter’s campaigns.  But if you know anything about Alexander the Great, you know that he lived fast and died young.

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A Bust of Ptolemy I Soter in the Louvre

As Alexander lay on his deathbed in Babylon, slowly expiring from either poison or a fever (depending on who you ask) his advisers asked the emperor who would be his successor or more specifically, who would his empire go to?  Alexander famously replied “To the strongest.”  There’s some scholarly debate as to Alexander’s meaning, with some historians arguing that he said “to the strongest, Krateros,” in reference to a particular general but the given man wasn’t actually present for Alexander’s death.  But Alexander’s words proved surprisingly prophetic as his empire collapsed and the pieces were picked up by his four most powerful generals.  These four men eventually became known as the Diadochi, from the Latin word for successors and Ptolemy was one of them.  While the territories of Greece, Macedonia, Thrace and Persia were divided between the other three members of the Diadochi, Ptolemy returned to Egypt.  Once installed in the Hellenic city of Alexandria, he established himself as the first in a long line of Ptolemaic Pharaohs and began to rule over his new kingdom.

While the Ptolemaic Kingdom saw Egypt return to its place of power on the world stage, it was also an era wherein the region began to lose many of its important cultural signifiers.  Alexander’s conquest had opened the door to external influences especially from the Greeks.  This had a number of important effects on the region as the Grecian language, culture and pantheon spread throughout Egypt.  Ptolemy even referred to himself as either Pharaoh or Basileus (the Greek word for king) depending on his the audience.  And of course, one of the booming metropolises of the era was Ptolemy’s capital at Alexandria.

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The Kingdoms of the Diadochi – Wikipedia

Alexandria was built in 332 BCE (Before Common Era) and rapidly became the heart of Hellenic Egypt, (though it’s worth mentioning there’s evidence to suggest that another town called Rhacotis existed on the same site previously).  During the Ptolemaic Kingdom, the city housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos.  The famous Library would be constructed much later.

Which brings us back to the Black Sarcophagus and the mystery of who lies within.  Since I began writing this piece, the Department of Antiquities has announced that it will open the coffin (and perhaps, by the time this is published it will have done so) and after they did so, a fascinating narrative has begun to form.  What if, as several archaeologists and reporters have suggested, this Black Sarcophagus is the tomb of Alexander the Great?  That’s certainly a headline grabbing sentiment.  I learned about it myself from National Geographic and in a way, this engaging narrative makes sense.  The actual location of Alexander’s Tomb has never been ascertained and in some senses, Ptolemy was the closest of Alexander’s generals.  There’s some evidence to suggest that he might have been the man’s half-brother though much of the authentic history is muddled with ancient writings that are meant to glorify the Ptolemaic Dynasty.  Regardless, of the four members of the Diadochi, Ptolemy feels the most appropriate as the caretaker of the dead Alexander.  One of their number, Cassander (the man who would return to Greece) even killed Alexander’s son and presumed heir.  So it makes a certain amount of sense for Ptolemy to bring his Emperor and friend to a final resting place in a city that he’d built and named after himself.  It’s a very fitting narrative all things accounted for.

But let’s be clear.  There’s a reason this piece is titled like something out of the pages of  Weird Tales.  The odds of this sarcophagus actually containing the late Alexander are slim and unfortunately the other artifact in the room isn’t helping matters.  Buried with the Sarcophagus is a massive marble bust whose face has eroded beyond recognition.  So there’s no help there unfortunately.   Other theories suggest that while the coffin itself might be ancient, the occupant is not.  The implication is that the sarcophagus was acquired from a different city, like Memphis and used for someone recently deceased.  This wasn’t uncommon in Egyptian history.

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An eroded bust, possibly of the tomb’s occupant.  Photo is property of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

The tomb that ultimately became the final resting place of Tutankhamen was initially intended for someone else.  Still other theories point to facts like the tomb being located outside of the ancient borders of Alexandria and the potential that the tomb is older than the Ptolemaic period. But the question of what’s in the proverbial box should not affect the actual importance that this discovery should have.  Unspoiled tombs are a rarity in modern Egypt and in many ways they’re some of the last remaining links to a history that stretches back to nearly the dawn of mankind.  They’re a perfectly preserved piece of that history for the world to marvel at.  And I happen to think that’s pretty cool, regardless of whether the coffin serves the final resting place of some unnamed aristocrat or the Boy King of Macedonia himself.

Update:  On the same day as this piece’s publishing, the Sarcophagus was opened and the results are in.  Whoever’s in there, none of them are Alexander.  But that’s interesting in it’s own right.  I say none of them because three separate skeletons were removed from the coffin, which gives credence to the “older than it’s inhabitants,” theory mentioned just above.  That said, we have scant few details regarding the men found in the coffin.  We can assume that they were probably soldiers, and maybe even officers if they were afforded a burial at all.  Lastly, we know that one of the three suffered and arrow wound to the head, but that’s about the extent of what the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has revealed.  The Ministry also released a statement that the skeletons would be thoroughly studied to do determine as much as possible about their origins and history.

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