I suppose you could call it the Melting Monarch's Mummy Trick, or the Ebbing Emperor Illusion – except this was no illusion. On June 11, 323 B.C. , Alexander III of Macedonia died in Babylon, probably after being poisoned since assassination was the normal recall procedure in Macedonian politics. But the death of Alexander the Great was just the prologue to the second greatest act of prestidigitation in world history, when the mummy of the most famous man since Adam vanished from the center of one of the largest cities in the civilized world, from one of the most famous and often visited mausoleums in the world. One day he was there, and the next – poof - he was gone, never to be seen again. And it wasn't that anybody forgot about him. The day his corpse went walk-about, he was still the best known conquer in history. He was “The Great” with a capital “G”, for heavens sake. And then he was gone. And he is still gone. It must be a mystery; right?
His body lay in his tent for three days, unattended. His loyal follows paid no respects to the man they had followed into the mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of India because they were too busy arguing over who should inherit what parts of his empire. Alexander himself thought the best way to enhance his image would have been for his body to be thrown into the Euphrates River, so he would simply disappear- very mysterious. Instead, eventually, he was mummified after the Egyptian fashion, and placed in a casket carved to bear his image. This was then placed inside a gold sarcophagus. The intent was to ship his body back to Macedonia, where he would be buried next to his father. But somewhere in Syria the procession was waylaid by cavalry under the command of Ptolemy, who Alexander had assigned to run his province of Egypt.
After slaughtering the funeral procession, Ptolemy hijacked the mummy to the Egyptian holy city of Memphis, about 160 miles south of his new capital which Alexander had ordered built, and had named “Alexandria”. Under Macedonian tradition, by burying Alexander's corpus delicti, Ptolemy was laying claim to his empire. But after twenty years of fighting, Ptolemy gave up his dreams of world-wide glory and had himself just crowned Pharaoh of Egypt. And the late Alexander the Great took up residence in the temple of Ptah in Memphis.
He stayed there for about fifty years before the son, Ptolemy Soma , had him shipped down river to Alexandria, where he was given his own tomb inside the Brucheum, the Greek quarter of the city. Then in about 210 B.C. the grandson, Ptolemy Philopater, built a larger shrine, the Mausoleum of the Ptolemies (later called just The Soma), to house the mummies of his parents, grand and great-grand parents as well as Alexander. This is how you build an empire, with the foundation poured on top of the upper floors.
The new temple, designed to look as old as the ancient temples still dotting the landscape, stood at the corner of The Street of Soma and Canoptic Street – the 42nd Street and Fifth Avenues of ancient Alexandria. Down the street from this temple of the divine were the Royal Palaces, the famous Library of Alexandria and the Temple of the Caesar's. For the next five hundred years they dragged the corpse out for special occasion, and for viewing by visiting dignitaries, including a Who's Who of classical Rome - Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Caesar Augustus, and one Roman Emperor after another. This dressed-up desiccated carcass had become an object of veneration, made divine by the faith imparted in the cadaver by the thousands who prayed and offered sacrifice to it. To facilitate them, the ninth Pharoh to bear the name Ptolemy had the gold sarcophagus melted down, and Alexander's mummy case was encased in glass, the better for the tourists to see. The gold, went in the Pharoh's purse.
But it was not faith alone that persevered Alexander's corpse, it was also the tourist industry, which sprang up to serve the faithful and the curious who visited The Soma. There were hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops - everybody wanted souvenirs. When they caught Caesar Augustus trying to slip Alexander's nose into his pocket, he claimed it broke off by accident. They still made him leave it behind. The Emperor Caligula was brazen enough that he broke the glass and walked out with the breastplate ripped right off of Alexander's chest. In the second century A.D., to protect the taxes produced by this industry, the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus closed The Soma to all but the richest visitors. Average folks still came to look at the building, but not as many.
You'd would think it would be easy to locate such a famous spot, even 2,000 years later, but just after daybreak on July 21, 365 A.D. there was an 8.3 earthquake off Cyprus, 400 miles to the northwest. The shaking and tsunamis slammed into Alexandria, killing about 5,000 people, knocking down 50,000 houses and dropping the sea level of the entire coast about 20 feet. Needless to say, the morning after that morning, The Soma lost its importance to the city. Probably Alexander's mummy had slipped into the harbor and most likely the survivors had more important things to worry about other than the dried out carcass of a long dead heathen monarch.
The only reason to suspect The Soma and the corpse survived this temblor is the reprobate philosopher Libanius. He had resisted conversion to to the new political correctness - Christianity. For committing that sin he had been exiled from Constantinople. Yes, he was a pagan. But the dirty little secret of Christianity is that even pagans were appalled by the sins usually attributed by Christians to the pagans; sins like lust and greed. In describing greedy capitalists about 390 A.D. Libanius asked, “Who could be the friend of such as these? When they behave like this for money's sake, would they keep their hands off temple offerings or tombs?...And this evil...is universal, whether you mention Paltus or Alexandria where the corpse of Alexander is displayed..” And that alliteration is the only mention of the tomb of Alexander after the earthquake of 365. And since there is no record that Libanius ever visited Alexandria, I find this less than convincing, especially considering that Libanius died not long after writing this passage. Had he lived, maybe he would have corrected it.
There is a theory floating about that the corpse of Alexander was re-named as the corpse of the Christian Saint Mark, and The Soma as the Church of St. Mark. It just seems to me to be a lot of trouble to go to. After 365 the tourist industry of Alexandria certainly needed a new Alexander, but the two things ancient Alexandria had after the earthquake was dead bodies, and salvaged stones for building new temples. And while it might be emotionally satisfying to blame religious fanatics for the loss of the Alexander's corpse, and it might be appealing to suppose Alexander the Great still exists, buried under St. Mark's square in Venice, it is far more likely that he ended up in the harbor of Alexandria, soaking like a packet of old freeze dried coffee, slowly losing his effervescence.
The real magic trick of history is that in the face of overwhelming evidence each generation continues to labor under the delusion that they invented sin and mystery, or at least identified it better.