In Moon Knight‘s fourth episode Steven Grant found something archeologists have long searched for in vain. He discovered the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. The final resting place of the legendary conqueror vanished long ago. Even the timing of its disappearance remains a mystery. Many have claimed to have located the priceless site—which would potentially rival or surpass all other finds ever—only for them to turn up empty. But if someone did find Alexander the Great’s tomb would it look like anything like the tomb seen on Marvel’s Moon Knight? The MCU series got some aspects right, even if it’s unlikely Alexander’s tomb lies hidden beneath the sand.
Alexander the Great and His Empire
It’s hard to overstate the accomplishments of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian King who amassed a vast empire in just 12 short years. Born in born 356 BCE to King Phillip II, Alexander was already a great general when he ascended to his father’s throne at age 20 following Phillip’s assassination. Alexander was also a scholar tutored by none other than Aristotle.
The new Macedonian King wasted no time expanding his realm. Alexander soon ruled over all of Greece. He then turned west where he conquered the powerful Persian Empire. During his short but unparalleled reign he also conquered Northern Africa. At the time of his death at just age 32 his empire included complete control of the Mediterranean Sea and spanned from Greece into India. Had he lived longer he would have continued pushing the boundaries of his kingdom.
The Death of Alexander the Great
The details around Alexander’s final days and death are much debated. As are the cause of it. Had someone poisoned him? Did he die of natural causes or disease? Or did his body simply give out following 12 years of relentless battles and conquests? Whatever the reason, historians have long questioned whether he actually did, or at least tried to, name an heir before he died in Babylon in June 323 (As though any one person could assume his mantle.)
Ultimately his kingdom fell to both his unborn son and his father’s illegitimate son. They briefly ruled in name only before assassins murdered each of them. Satraps, a type of governor, oversaw different portions of Alexander’s former realm. After a long power struggle the Macedonian’s dominion broke apart into four distinct and separate territories. Alexander’s kingdom only ever belonged to him.
The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great
Priests of Egypt named Alexander Pharaoh in 332 BCE. Though he spent relatively little time there, he dedicated resources to restoring neglected temples and building new ones and Egyptians accepted him as both ruler and god. He also founded Alexandria, a grand new Egyptian capital city named after himself. (He did that a lot. Alexander named up to 70 cities for himself.) Alexandria sits on the western edge of the Nile River delta along the Mediterranean Sea. That location might be why his tomb has been lost to time.
While reliable texts about Alexander’s life are scant, historical accounts provide us with multiple reports of his final resting place. Originally meant to be entombed in Macedonian, Alexander’s body first resided in Memphis, Egypt in a gold sarcophagus filled with honey. Later his remains moved to Alexandria where they resided in the city’s Soma, a wall-enclosed royal district that also contained the tombs of Ptolemaic kings. Worshippers carved what must have been a stunning tomb into the rock underneath the Soma. It was there his body lay in state.
The tomb also served as a holy site; pilgrims from around the world came to pay their respects to a man considered a god. Legendary historical figures visited as well. The list of luminaries who paid their respects to Alexander includes both Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor Augustus. Cleopatra is one of the historical figures who reportedly looted treasures from the tomb. Caligula is another, said to have taken Alexander’s breastplate.
In 199 CE, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus closed the tomb to prevent any more thefts, but his son and heir removed more items in 215 CE. He’s the last Emperor known to have visited the tomb. However, by 400 CE the location of the site was already in question. St. John Chrysostom wrote the people of Alexandria no longer knew its exact spot when he asked. Later visitors claimed to have seen the tomb, but their veracity is questionable at best. There are also questions whether or not someone moved Alexander’s body out of Alexandria entirely. But regardless of what happened to his remains, we know his tomb once resided in his most famous namesake city.
How did one of the most famous gravesites to ever exist, a tomb for arguably the most renowned figure of the ancient world, vanish from the historical record? How could a location treated as a temple to a god disappear in a highly populated city? Alexander’s tomb might have been, quite literally, washed away.
Rising Seas and the Many Failed Attempts To Find Alexander the Great’s Lost Tomb
Archeologists have held more than 140 officially sanctioned attempts to locate Alexander the Great’s lost tomb. Each excavation turned up empty or resulted in an unrelated discovery. It’s hard to believe one of the single most sought-after historical sites can been so hard to find when we know the exact city it resided in. But that’s because while Steven Grant found the fictional tomb under Egyptian sands in Moon Knight, the real tomb of Alexander the Great is likely now a watery grave deep below the sea. From National Geographic:
…Alexandria and its founder’s tomb were under threat—not from invading forces, but from nature. In 356 A.D., a tsunami inundated the city. The disaster marked the start of a long era of earthquakes and rising sea levels. (Sea level rise still threatens Alexandria today.)
As the sea encroached to the north, the waters of the Nile Delta on which Alexandria is situated caused the ancient part of the city to slowly sink at a rate of up to 0.25 centimeters a year—as much as 12 feet since Alexander’s time. The city survived, building over its ancient portions and ballooning to a population of more than five million.
Twelve feet of water and centuries worth of new city could keep Alexander the Great’s tomb hidden for much longer. Maybe even forever.
What Did Moon Knight Get Right About Alexander the Great and His Lost Tomb?
The MCU series also associated Alexander with Ammit, claiming he served as her avatar. However, Alexander the Great associated himself with the king of the Egyptian gods, Ammon. He was known/claimed to be the son of Zeus-Ammon. That helped solidify his position as Pharaoh and a living god. Considering his quick temper, if you ever travel in time, don’t tell Alexander Marvel’s Moon Knight turned him into the mouthpiece of another god.
The shock Ancient Egyptian enthusiast Steven experienced at finding “Mr. Great’s” tomb might have actually undersold the moment. It’s one of the most sought-after historical sites in history. (In fairness to him, we doubt most archeologists have literal demons chasing them during digs. That would temper anyone’s excitement.) The oversized sarcophagus on the show was as grand as we’d expect. It wasn’t entirely made of gold, though. (Nor was it alabaster or crystal, the other types of coffin some historical records say Alexander’s body ended up in.)
The entirety of the Moon Knight tomb also wasn’t nearly as ornate or full of remarkable treasures as we might expect. The most famous, undisturbed Egyptian tomb ever found belonged to King Tut, a minor Pharaoh. Alexander’s tomb, even if plundered, would blow Tut’s out of the Nile. But the show did make clear this tomb was clearly that of a Pharaoh. It was special and full of elements only a vaunted, living god would earn at burial.
But unless someone secretly moved both Alexander the Great’s body and his entire tomb from Alexandria to the desert, it’s almost certain it won’t ever be found buried in the sand as it was on Moon Knight. Not unless the seas start drying up instead of rising.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.
Originally published on April 20, 2022.