A tsunami destroyed the tomb of Alexander the Great

For at least 150 years, scientists have recognized that something unusual happened along the western coast of Crete and the surrounding shores of the Mediterranean. When Captain Thomas Pratt mapped the Aegean Sea in the 1850s, he noticed an ancient Roman harbor on an island that sat 6 meters above the sea level.

Archaeologists have found skeletons in collapsed buildings with coins dating back to the 4th century. Other signs of destruction were found from this time in far-flung areas, from Cyprus to Libya. Mollusk shells from the former shoreline of Crete have also been dated to roughly the same time. Finally, research linked this uplift to the 365 earthquake and tsunami.

It may well be that the tomb and remains of Alexander the Great were also lost in this event.

Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia, lived in the 4th century BCE and was one of the most successful military commanders in history. He conquered a vast empire that extended from Greece to Egypt and into present-day Pakistan and India, but his tomb has disappeared.

Alexander’s death

Alexander was born in 356 BCE in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, and was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia and his fourth wife, Olympias. He received an education from the famous Aristotle and was trained in military tactics and strategy from a young age.

At the age of 20, Alexander succeeded his father as king of Macedon and immediately set out to expand his empire. He led his armies on a series of conquests, defeating the Persians, Egyptians, and other peoples. He also founded a number of cities, including Alexandria in Egypt, which became one of the greatest centers of learning in the ancient world. Alexander was known for his military brilliance, his strategic thinking, and his ability to inspire his troops.

As a military commander and conqueror, Alexander the Great was, however, also responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. It is estimated that he may have been the cause of the deaths of as many as 50,000 soldiers and civilians. During his campaigns, Alexander waged brutal and bloody battles against his enemies, often resulting in significant casualties on both sides. He also ordered the execution of captured enemy soldiers and leaders, and is said to have shown little mercy to those who opposed him. The civilians he captured were sold into slavery. Today, he would be brought to trial for war crimes.

Despite his victories, Alexander’s reign was short-lived. He died in 323 BCE at the age of 32, possibly from malaria or poisoning. Nevertheless, his legacy endured, and he is remembered as one of the greatest military leaders in history.

Alexander’s tomb

It is widely believed that Alexander the Great was buried in Alexandria, Egypt, which he founded in 331 BCE. However, the exact location of his tomb remains unknown, and it has been a mystery for centuries.

Saint Sisoes facing the tomb of Alexander the Great, Byzantine museum

According to ancient sources, Alexander was initially buried in a gold sarcophagus in Memphis and later transferred to the city of Alexandria. His tomb was reportedly open to the public and visited by many travelers, including kings and emperors. For centuries, it was a popular destination for pilgrims. However, over time, the location of the tomb was lost and it has never been rediscovered.

Saint Sisoes facing the tomb of Alexander the Great, Byzantine museum

In the late 4th century CE, a Christian bishop named Athanasius was the last person to speak about Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria, recalling that it was lost.

Where was Alexander’s tomb located?

Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to locate Alexander’s tomb, but all have been unsuccessful. Despite this, the legend of Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria has persisted, and it remains an intriguing mystery to this day. Most likely, the tomb was located in the Soma, the necropolis of the Ptolemies.

The Soma was indeed the necropolis of the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE. The necropolis was located in the center of Alexandria, and it was an important burial site for the Ptolemaic rulers and their families.

The Soma was a large and elaborate complex, with numerous tombs and mausoleums constructed over several centuries. The most famous tomb at the Soma was that of Alexander the Great himself, although the exact location of his tomb within the complex has been lost to history. It is supposed to have been located at the intersection of the Canopus Way and the Soma Street, approximately where the Coptic St. Mark’s Cathedral of Alexandria stands today.

In addition to the tombs of the Ptolemaic rulers, the Soma also contained the tombs of other important figures in ancient Egyptian and Greek society, including most probably that of Cleopatra.

What happened to Alexander’s tomb?

The Soma was one of the most important cultural and historical sites in Alexandria. Emperors came to see Alexander’s remains, including Augustus, Caesar, and Caligula. So how come it disappeared?

It is most likely that the site suffered significant damage and destruction during a major tsunami that struck Alexandria in 365 AD, causing extensive damage to the city and its infrastructure. Indeed, shortly after this event, John Chrysostom, who visited Alexandria in 400 AD, asked to see Alexander’s tomb and remarked, “His tomb even his own people know not.”

Sabratha, Apollonia, and Crete were gratly damaged by the tsunami.

The tsunami that likely caused the destruction of Alexander’s tomb struck the city with brutal force on the morning of July 21, 365. It was one of the largest and most devastating tsunamis in recorded history, causing widespread destruction and loss of life in the eastern Mediterranean. The disaster disrupted trade and commerce and contributed to a period of economic decline and political instability in the region. The port of Apollonia was completely submerged, and the cities of Crete and Cyrenaica were destroyed. Alexandria was also swallowed by the ocean. In shallow harbors like Alexandria’s, the sea’s return would have been particularly terrifying, with the tsunami multiplying in height as it moved more slowly into the shallows and beyond (see for sources here).

The tsunami was triggered by a massive earthquake that struck the eastern Mediterranean, with an estimated magnitude of 8.0 or higher. In 2008, geoscientists identified a fault west of Crete that slipped during a quake within the third quarter of the fourth century, which may have been the cause of the catastrophe.

The earthquake was centered in the ocean, and its effects were felt as far away as Italy and the Middle East. The tsunami that followed is believed to have been as much as 30 meters high and caused massive flooding and destruction along the coasts of Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

Alexandria was hit particularly hard. The tsunami caused widespread damage to the city’s buildings and infrastructure. The ancient historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the disaster in his writings, noting that the waves of the tsunami reached as far as the inland parts of the city, and that many people were killed or injured by the surging waters.

The exact number of casualties from the tsunami is not known, but it is believed to have been significant, possibly around 50,000 people. The disaster had a major impact on the area, and it is still studied today as an example of the devastating effects that earthquakes and tsunamis can have on coastal communities.

There is some debate among historians and archaeologists about the extent of the damage that the 365 CE tsunami caused to Alexandria’s ancient buildings. While it is clear that the tsunami caused significant harm to the city, it is unclear how much of that damage was caused by the waves themselves and how much was caused by subsequent flooding, earthquakes, and other factors.

Some scholars have argued that the tsunami did not cause as much damage to Alexandria’s ancient buildings as was once believed. They point to the fact that many of the city’s famous landmarks, such as the Pharos lighthouse and the Serapeum temple, remained standing after the disaster, suggesting that they were able to withstand the waves.

Other scholars, however, argue that the tsunami did indeed cause significant damage to Alexandria’s ancient buildings, particularly those that were located near the coast. They point to evidence such as the discovery of massive blocks of masonry that were moved and dislodged by the waves, as well as the collapse of coastal structures.

The fate of the Soma, the necropolis of the Ptolemies in Alexandria, during the 365 CE tsunami is a particular subject of debate among scholars and historians, and its impact may have been underestimated until now. The Soma was a famous and important burial site for the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great until the Roman conquest of the country in 30 BCE.

There is evidence to suggest that the Soma may have been enormously damaged or even totally destroyed by the tsunami. A number of ancient sources describe the tsunami as causing damage to the royal tombs in Alexandria. The event seems to have left a deep impact on the imagination of people.

Thus, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote in his “Res Gestae” that the tsunami “violently inundated a large part of the city and caused great damage to the temples and the royal tombs.”

Equally, the Roman poet Claudian wrote in his “De Raptu Proserpinae” that the tsunami “struck the tombs of the kings, throwing open the doors of the sepulchers and tearing away the roofs.”

The Greek historian and geographer Strabo agreed and wrote in his “Geography” that the tsunami “caused great destruction to the city, flooding many of the streets and damaging the royal tombs.”

It is clear that the disaster had a significant impact on the city of Alexandria and played a role in the decline of the city as a major center of trade and culture in the ancient world.

Moreover, it is most probable that the grave of Alexander the Great was destroyed during this major event. Its exact location and Alexander’s body have been lost to history due to the devastation caused by the earthquake and waves. Alexander’s and probably also Cleopatra’s bodies disappeared in the turmoil of the floods.

Since then, as is normal after such major destruction, the city has undergone extensive urban development and reconstruction, which altered or even fully destroyed the original location of the tombs of the Ptolemies.

There have been many stories and legends about the fate of Alexander’s tomb over the centuries, including tales of its destruction by invading armies or treasure hunters, and of its relocation to secret locations in Egypt or elsewhere. However, there is little concrete evidence to support these claims, and the fate of the tomb is rather sealed by the impact of natural disaster.

In recent years, there have been some attempts to locate Alexander’s tomb using modern archaeological techniques and remote sensing technologies. However, these efforts have so far been unsuccessful, and the location of the tomb (or at least its foundations) remains one of the great mysteries of ancient history.

Most probably, the Soma lies in the subsoil of the Coptic St. Mark’s Cathedral of Alexandria.

Here is the account of the event in the vivid words of an eyewitness:

On the twenty-first of July in the first consulship of Valentinian with his brother, horrible phenomena suddenly spread through the entire extent of the world, such as are related to us neither in fable nor in truthful history.

For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun.

Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn. And over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland and levelled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed marvelous sights.

For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces.

Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning apart through long decay.

Ammianus Marcellinus on the tsunami of 365 AD

Could such a tsunami hit again?

Scientists have traced the cause of the 365 AD earthquake to a previously unrecognized fault along an underwater rift called the Hellenic Trench. This fault is near a larger fault known to run along a region, where two continental plates run into each other.

One of the faults is unproblematic, but the other is not. When this latter fault slips, it can cause large earthquakes and, with that, tsunamis. Using global positioning system (GPS) measurements of the movement of the continental plates, the scientists estimated how much energy builds up in the problematic fault and estimated it could slip and cause a massive earthquake about once every 800 years.

Other researchers disagree, saying the 365 AD event was unique. But the recent earthquake in Turkey certainly proved once again that nature is unpredictable…

That there has been only one other tsunami event (in AD 1303) in the past 1,650 years should draw our attention on the modern-day earthquake and tsunami hazards in the Eastern Mediterranean. 1303 plus 800 makes 2103, which is already perilously close to today.

The UNESCO Tsunami programme works in any case in particular on Alexandria.

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