The location of Cleopatra’s Tomb

Some headlines in the press announced the upcoming discovery of Cleopatra’s tomb in Taposiris Magna in Egypt. A good moment to debate the true location of that grave.

Despite extensive searches, the final resting place of the famed Cleopatra remains a mystery to this day. However, we do have reliable hints, yet they do not point to the place that is currently being searched.

The Death of Cleopatra

Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies and daughter of Ptolemy XII, ascended to the throne of Egypt in 51 BC under the guardianship of the Roman senate. After the death of her lover Caesar in 44 BC (with whom she had a son), she seduced Mark Antony, the new Master of the East. However, in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian, the future Augustus, defeated Antony who, believing Cleopatra to be dead, committed suicide. Cleopatra, having first tried to seduce the victor, also killed herself in 30 BC. According to historical accounts, she was buried alongside Mark Antony in a tomb in Alexandria, Egypt.

There have been many theories about its possible location, including the recent suggestion that it could be hidden in the temple of Taposiris Magna, located about 48 kilometers west of Alexandria.

Other theories – that are much more convincing, as shall be shown – indicate that the tomb would be rather located in the royal district in the middle of Alexandria.

Was there a tomb?

The first question to be answered is whether there was ever a tomb built for Cleopatra.

In his “Parallel Lives” (LXXXV.2), Plutarch vividly describes the death of Cleopatra and mentions a tomb that was built for her. However, this account was written 100 years after her death, so it is difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Despite this, Plutarch likely had access to reliable sources and may have even seen the tomb himself when he visited Alexandria.

According to Plutarch, the tomb for Cleopatra was already prepared before her death, which was in keeping with traditional Egyptian customs. The Ptolemaic rulers were known for following these customs, which included mummification, the creation of funerary goods, and the construction of tombs. The Ptolemies also introduced Greek elements to their burial practices, which resulted in elaborate tombs that were reminiscent of Greek mausoleums.

It is unclear from Plutarch’s and the later Cassius Dio’s texts if Cleopatra’s suicide took place within the palace or inside her tomb. Yet, Plutarch gives at least a description of the tomb building, that lets us suppose that he speaks of a Greek style tomb: “She fled for refuge into her tomb and let fall the drop-doors, which were made strong with bolts and bars.” He subsequently adds that the dying Antony was carried to that building.

Cleopatra and companions raise Mark Antony xthrough a window into the queen's tomb, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1819

“Cleopatra, however, would not open the doors, but showed herself at a window, from which she let down ropes and cords. To these Antony was fastened, and she drew him up herself, with the aid of the two women whom alone she had admitted with her into the tomb.”

The height of the tomb structure seems not to have been too big, as later a Roman enters the tomb with a ladder through said window and takes Cleopatra captive. One thing is clear: The tomb appears to be above ground, has a fortified style and at least one window. Inside are stairs and room(s).

The style of the building and its location

The Ptolemaic dynasty of Cleopatra was a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 BC. Therefore, their burial traditions were influenced by both Greek and Egyptian customs.

Their power was derived from Alexander the Great. Alexander had received the royal investiture as Pharaoh and then founded Alexandria. After his death in 322 BC, he was buried in Memphis for some time and then brought to Alexandria by Ptolemy for re-burial in the Soma necropolis, which also became the burial place for his successors, the Ptolemies.

Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II (285-246 BC) and then the entire dynasty of the Ptolemies developed the city, constructing temples, theaters, and colossal palaces. Alexandria eventually extended five kilometers along the coast with a width of 1½ kilometers. It was surrounded by powerful fortifications and was based on an irregular quadrilateral plan. To the east was the Portus Magnus, alongside which were the palaces of the Ptolemies, the Emporium, and the Caesarium, the temple that Cleopatra had built in Caesar’s honor. On an island in the harbor, Antirhodos, connected to the land Anthony built the Timonion, a royal palace to which he withdrew after the defeat of Actium.

In the middle of the city, the Ptolemies built the Soma, a necropolis in Greek style for their dynasty, where Alexander was also laid to rest. The Macedonian’s grave was evidently of immense importance to the rulers, and almost every Roman emperor paid a visit to it.

Today, the Pharos lighthouse, the famous library, and the palaces of the Ptolemies have vanished. Yet, there remain indications of where the Royal Necropolis was located.

The Soma

The 2nd-century AD sophist Zenobius states that Ptolemy IV Philopator (c. 238-205 BC), the grandson of Philadelphus, built a burial complex for himself, his mother Berenice, and his ancestors Soter, Philadelphus, and Evergetis, to where he transferred their bodies, as well as the body of Alexander. It is this burial complex built around 215 BC that will go down in history as the Sema or Soma (the spelling is debated). It is the magnificent burial place of the Ptolemies.

It is there that Alexander the Great lay, and it is also there that Cleopatra would have had her tomb built. It was the place where everyone from her family was destined to rest.

Telling is a story recounted by Suetonius directly after his account of Cleopatra’s death: Octavian Augustus, after the suicides of Cleopatra and Antony, enters Alexandria and orders to be taken to the tomb of Alexander the Great. He honors the body, puts a golden crown on his head, and showers the body with flowers. The servants then ask Augustus if he would like to see the tombs of the Ptolemies, the last dynasty of Egyptian rulers. Augustus replies, “I came to see a king, not a row of corpses!”

What we learn from this account is that in the place Augustus visits, not only Alexander is buried, but also all other Ptolemies, including Cleopatra logically.

The location of the Soma

Strabo, Greek historian of the 1st century BC, states that “The Soma, as it is called, is a part of the royal palaces. This was the enclosure which contained the burial-places of the kings and that of Alexander” (Geography, 17.1.8:35). Zenobius says that the Soma was built by Philopator in the middle of the city.


Many parts of ancient Alexandria are now located underwater, but it’s unlikely that the necropolis was submerged. Since the Soma was said to be in the middle of the town and given Zenobius’ account, the Soma must have been located relatively close to the intersection of the two main streets of Alexandria.

Plan of Ptolemaic Alexandria with the two intersecting main streets. In this map, one main street is called “Soma”, after Alexander´s burial site, and this is even given a precise location. The map, is controversial, though the precise location of the Soma may not be too far from this (Marlowe, 1971:226)

Submerged royal quarters in East Port, Alexandria (Kahlil and Mustafa). Palaces, temples and royal harbors where located in east section of the main Port (ancient Magnus Portus), and to the east of Soma Street (red line indicates the location of today´s Soma/Naby Daniel Street).

The basic layout of Canopic Way and Soma Street is preserved today. The Canopic Way corresponds roughly to the current El Horreya Avenue, and Soma Street to El Nabi Daniel Street. The entire area, including the mausoleum of Alexander, was most likely destroyed by the great earthquake of 365 AD, which was followed by a major tsunami.

This event should not be underestimated.

A 4th century text of Ammianus Marcellinus reports that an earthquake-generated tsunami hit Alexandria on 21 July 365. The tsunami wiped out the entire old city and its palaces, destroying it with recorded death casualties around 50,000 people in Alexandria and the surrounding regions. It flooded most of the coastal regions of the Nile Delta and inundated inlands for tens of kilometers. Wave height has been estimated to have been between 15 and 30 m. In some instances sediments of up to 25 m in thickness were left behind.

The date of this Tsunami coincides with the last known record of the Alexander grave and later only Saint Mark’s veneration is reported on in the district that held before the Soma.

The candidates for the Soma location

Kom El Dikka

For many decades it has been proposed, especially on the base of Mahmoud Beky El Falaki´s excavations and writings commissioned in midst 19th century by the ottoman governor of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, that the Soma was located close to the two main streets, in a place known today as Kom El Dikka.

For almost fifty years, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, extensive and systematic excavations were carried out in Kom El Dikka by Polish archaeologists from Warsaw University. They were certainly motivated by the old belief that this place was the location of Alexander’s grave. However, they only found a residential quarter, a small Roman amphitheater, and columns (the site can be visited today).

The Nabi Daniel Mosque

Another location for the Soma was proposed at the Nabi Daniel Mosque in Alexandria.


An ancient Arabic legend, mentioned by two astronomers from the court of 9th-century Baghdad, Al-Farghani and Abu Mashar (Zougheb, 1910:177), reports that the prophet Daniel from the Bible was forced to flee from persecution in Syria. In a dream, an old man appeared to him and ordered him to go to war against the infidels and conquer all of Asia. He obeyed and after a victorious campaign, he founded Alexandria and was finally buried there in a golden coffin inlaid with precious stones. Later, this coffin was plundered and replaced by a stone one.

The similarities between the legend and the life of Alexander the Great are striking. Alexander conquered Asia, founded Alexandria, and was originally buried there in a magnificent golden coffin, which was later replaced with a glass one.

According to Mohamed El Falaki’s Mémoire (1872), the people of Alexandria believed that prophet Daniel was buried in a place called “Kom El Démas,” which is located next to Kom El Dikka, including the area of the Nabi Daniel Mosque to the west. This mosque was named after Daniel, and its importance was so great that Soma Street ended up being named after the shrine, and it remains so to this day as Nabi Daniel Street.

Although El Falaki was not an archaeologist, he made extensive excavations throughout the city. He, later followed by Néroutsos-Bey, identified Nabi Daniel Street with ancient Soma street, i.e., the street adjacent to Alexander´s burial site (Zogheb, 1910:162).

“In contrast to Strabo, a persistent Arab tradition linked a site in the center of the modern city with the tomb of Alexander. Early travelers related that the tomb was pointed out in the center of the town, and a tradition developed that the site of the tomb was in the Rue Nabi Daniel [sic]…” (Fraser, 1972:16) so-called Kom El Démas, where he found several graves from all periods of Alexandria´s history (El Falaki, 1872:50).”

El Falaki surveyed the area under the mosque and left an intriguing account on what he found: «When I visited the crypts of that building, I entered in a large vaulted chamber built over the soil of the ancient town. From that chamber four vaulted corridors departed in four different directions, which I was unable to walk through completely because of their great length and bad state. The richness of the masonry employed in its construction, among other evidence, have convinced me that those corridors led to the splendid tomb of Alexander the Great. At this time I had already decided to go forward with my investigations, when unfortunately, a higher order forced me to wall up everything.» (El Falaki quoted by Zogheb16, 1910:172)

Today it is sometimes taken for granted that the crypt under the mosque is nothing but an ancient roman water cistern (Chugg, 2002:21 and 2003:93). Yet, if the Soma was indeed destroyed by earthquake and tsunami, it may be that its foundations were built into new structures. More research could be helpful, even if investigations into the Mosque have until today not brought much results.

St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral

The northeastern quarter of the city, bordered by the Canopic Way to the south and Soma/Nabi Daniel Street to the west, has also been suggested as a possible location for the Ptolemaic tombs.

Indeed, it should be the favorite choice.

The royal quarter, including the Museum and royal palaces, was situated in the northern part of the city in an area called Brocheion. Therefore, the Soma must have been located to the south of it, at the intersection of the two main roads – El Horreya Street and El Nabi Daniel Street. One site of particular interest is the location of St. Mark’s Church. Although the current St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral is relatively new, it is believed to have been built on the site of a church founded by St. Mark himself much earlier.

However, it is possible that the structure was not a church, but instead the remains of the Ptolemaic tombs.

The red dot shows the location of the cathedral.

A connection between the two buildings has already been suggested. A controversial theory by Andrew Michael Chugg, put forward in recent years is, that the Venetians did not steal Saint Mark’s body from that building, but instead, brought back with them to Venice the corpse of Alexander the Great (taking it for St. Mark).

While there is no proof of the latter, it is a convincing idea that the Church of the most important Saint of Alexandria was built over the Soma. This means that the tombs of Alexander and Cleopatra would have to be searched for there.

If the Soma was indeed completely destroyed by the 365 earthquake and tsunami, covered with sedimentation and broken, it is possible to find significant parts of it under new buildings. The ‘pagan’ Alexander and Cleopatra graves would have been covered with new favorites of the ruling class at the time – Christian saints and churches.

And Taposiris Magna?

Now and according to the press, Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist at the University of Santo Domingo, has been searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra for nearly 20 years. In 2022 she and her team uncovered a 1,305-meter tunnel, located 13 meters underground in Taposiris Magna, a city established by Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus between 280 and 270 BC.

The excavations discovered a religious center with sanctuaries, a sacred lake, over 1,500 objects including busts, statues, golden pieces, and a vast collection of coins dating back to the Ptolemaic era.

A series of clues led Martinez to believe that Cleopatra’s tomb might be located in the Temple of Osiris. Chief among them was the name, as Cleopatra was considered in her time to be the incarnation of Isis and Antony as Osiris, Isis’ husband.

However, to this day, there is no proof that any of the Ptolemaic rulers were buried in Taposiris Magna instead of in the prestigious Soma in Alexandria.

And there is more. Here is what Cassius Dio says about the distance between the Timonium, the place where Antony tries to commit suicide, and the tomb in which Cleopatra hides:

He first asked one of the bystanders to slay him; but when the man drew his sword and slew himself, Antony wished to imitate his courage and so gave himself a wound and fell upon his face, causing the bystanders to believe that he was dead. At this an outcry was raised, and Cleopatra, hearing it, peered out over the top of the tomb. By a certain contrivance its doors, once closed, could not be opened again, but the upper part of it next to the roof was not yet fully completed. Now when some of them saw her peering out at this point, they raised a shout so that even Antony heard. So he, learning that she survived, stood up, as if he had still the power to live; but, as had lost much blood, he despaired of his life and besought the bystanders to carry him to the monument and to hoist him up by the ropes that were hanging there to lift the stone blocks.

Cassius Dio on the death of Cleopatra

If Cleopatra’s grave would be in Taposiris Magna, Cleopatra and Antony would have needed to see each other over a 48 kilometers distance. Unless the new excavations also bring to light the first example of a two-way telescope in antiquity, that is little likely…

Conclusion

After the discussion above, one might ask why the search is being conducted in Taposiris Magna and not in St. Mark’s church.

Would it not be much more reasonable to undertake underground research under St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria in order to find, hopefully, the burial places of Alexander, Antony, and Cleopatra?

There are several reasons, why this is not done:

  1. It would be relatively easy to excavate the uninhabited Taposiris Magna, but it would be a major issue to excavate around the Church of Saint Mark. The church is the historical seat of the Pope of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, as well as hit by a terrorist bombing. It would be extremely delicate to propose touching the building to search for the Ptolemies.
  2. The archaeologists working at Taposiris Magna may well be aware of their weak claim to finding Cleopatra’s tomb, but they use her name to raise funds and interest. Nobody would pay attention to the news on Taposiris Magna in the ruin-rich country of Egypt if it weren’t for Cleopatra.
  3. Zahi Hawass, the godfather of the Taposiris excavations, is well-known for using famous names to attract attention. He never finds anything without mentioning Nefertiti, Cleopatra, or Alexander the Great. Many may remember his statement, when he said, “We will put mummies into the museums of Sharm El Sheikh. We know there weren’t any found, but that’s what tourists want to see.”

It is highly unlikely that Cleopatra was buried in Taposiris Magna. As Plutarch reports, dying Marc Antony was brought in the arms of his servants to her into the tomb. If it had been located in Taposiris and not in the middle of Alexandria, it would have taken these poor servants ten hours to get there from the palace of Marc Antony.

Cleopatra also escaped from the royal palace, in which she was held captive, back to the tomb, to pay Marc Antony her last respects. It is equally unlikely that Augustus, who had her guarded for fear that she could flee, would have allowed her to travel 48 km into the land.

Thus, we can conclude with certainty that the grave of Cleopatra (and of Alexander) is to be sought in the city center of Alexandria and nowhere else.

Most probably, the remains of the Soma lie under the area now covered by the St. Mark’s Cathedral of Alexandria.

We are still looking forward to finding out what is discovered in Taposiris Magna, understanding that archaeology is not an easy profession, and wishing the team luck and always sufficient financing.

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