The discovery of the black sarcophagus beneath a modern Alexandria street is causing speculation in Egypt and beyond – with some even suggesting that this might be the long-lost tomb of Alexander the Great.
The speculation has only been intensified by the fact that those who discovered the sarcophagus also found the carved alabaster bust of a man’s head that was probably created to represent the tomb’s occupant.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has revealed that the 185cm (6ft) tall, 265cm (8ft 8in) long, and 165cm (5ft 5in) wide sarcophagus was discovered 5m (16ft 4in) underground by archaeologists inspecting a building site in Alexandria’s Sidi Gaber district.
Dr Ayman Ashmawy, head of the council’s Ancient Egyptian antiquities sector said that a layer of mortar between the lid and the rest of the sarcophagus showed it had not been opened since it was closed in antiquity.
Officials said the tomb was from the Ptolemaic period, which ended with the death of Cleopatra in 30BC and began in 323BC when Alexander the Great died and was eventually succeeded as ruler of Egypt by his Macedonian Greek general Ptolemy of Lagus, who became Ptolemy I Soter.
The possible dating of such a large tomb to the period around Alexander’s death has led to social media speculation that the sarcophagus might actually be the final resting place of the great general and empire builder.
If that is the case, the contents of the black sarcophagus would solve one of the most enduring mysteries of antiquity.
Despite his massive historical importance as the founder of one of the largest empires the world has seen, stretching from Greece to what is now modern-day Pakistan, Alexander’s final resting place has never been definitively pinpointed.
It was recorded that his dying wish was for his corpse to be thrown into the Euphrates River so it would disappear, allowing his followers to think he had gone to be at the side of Ammon, the god said to have fathered him.
But instead, according to one ancient account, Alexander’s generals spent two years designing and building a funeral cart grand enough to carry their dead leader’s mummified body to a tomb.
Then they began transporting it to what they intended to be Alexander’s final resting place, perhaps near where he was born in Macedonia.
In Syria, however, they were intercepted by Ptolemy, who seized the body, probably because he wanted to use it to shore up the legitimacy of his rule in Egypt.
Ptolemy is thought to have taken Alexander’s corpse to Memphis in Egypt.
The body, though, was later moved to Alexandria, either by Ptolemy or his son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
Ancient accounts suggest that Alexander was moved yet again by Ptolemy Philopator who ruled from about 222 to 205BC, and who wanted all his Egyptian ruler predecessors to be gathered together in one royal mausoleum in Alexandria.
It is said that after Cleopatra died in 30BC, the victorious Roman general Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus, visited the mausoleum to place flowers on the tomb and a gold crown upon Alexander’s mummified head.
But in the intervening millennia, the locations of the mausoleum, the first Alexandria tomb and the one at Memphis were all forgotten.
There have been at least 140 attempts to locate Alexander’s final tomb, and none of the claims to have found it have ever been universally accepted.
If, therefore, the most optimistic speculation turns out to be correct and the unusually large black granite sarcophagus is proved to be the tomb of Alexander the Great, it would probably be the archaeological find of the century.
But even if, as is probably more likely, the tomb has no connection to Alexander, it is still almost certain to be considered a very significant find in its own right.
This is because it now relatively rare to find an unopened sarcophagus in Alexandria.
The city’s land owners are required by law to arrange archaeological inspections before carrying out any building work, but sarcophagi are usually found opened, their contents already plundered by looters from either ancient or more modern times.
The discovery of the black sarcophagus therefore gives professional archaeologists the chance to use X-rays to look inside it without damaging the contents.
These may include not just the body, but also any clothes, jewels or other artefacts it was buried with.