Friday, 14 June 2013

Alexander the Great and the Greek waiter

'I foresee a great funeral contest over me'. Alexander the Great

On 13 June 323 BC, in a room surrounded by his doctors, Alexander the Great died of a fever.

Some said he had been poisoned by the Macedonian general Antipater. Others that the death of their commander was due to excessive drinking. 

But it is more likely that the conqueror of Egypt, Persia, and Asia Minor as far as the banks of the Hyphasis in India, where he wept that there were no more kingdoms for him to conquer, was carried away by the humble mosquito, a victim of West Nile fever or of malaria.

Alexander's body was barely cold when it was embalmed and placed in a human shaped sarcophagus filled with honey. 

But what to do with it then?

Alexander's wish was that they toss the body in the river! 

But his wife, Roxanne, and one of his generals, Perdiccas, decided to evoke the wishes of his mother, Olympias, and transport the remains for burial in the family crypt at Aegae in Macedonia.

A sumptuous funeral carriage was constructed, fashioned out of beaten gold, the top adorned with mother-of-pearl and precious stones. It took one year to complete and needed sixty-four mules to pull it.

But while on route to Aegae it was hijacked by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals! 

Ptolemy took it to Egypt and Alexander's body was buried in Memphis.

Alexander's mortal remains remained in Memphis until the late fourth or early third century BC, and then were taken to a new burial place in Alexander, the city bearing the conqueror's name.

But they did stay in this place. At some time during the reign of Ptolemy Philopator, from 222/21 to 205 BC, they were taken to a communal mausoleum, also in Alexandria, and placed with the bodies of Ptolemy Philopator's dynastic predecessors. 

And there they stayed. The future Roman Emperor Augustus is said to have visited the tomb around 30 BC and placed a golden diadem on Alexander's mummified head. And the last recorded visit to the tomb was by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in AD 215. 

By the fourth century AD all trace of the location had been lost to posterity.

But modern-day Indiana Joneses have not given up the search. For generations streams of distinguished archaeologists from renowned institutions have made their way to Alexandria in the hopes of being the first to claim one of the antiquity's greatest prizes. 

And among them, lost in the throng, was a lowly Greek waiter, Stelio Koumoustos, from Christiana Konstantinou's cafe-bar in downtown Alexandria.

When not serving black tea and Turkish coffee to Mlle Christiana's customers, Stelio was out digging holes wherever he could.

Then, in 1960, convinced that the tomb lay buried beneath Alexandria's Saad Zaghuil Square, he persuaded the United Arab Republic's Department of Antiquities to excavate the site.

Using his salary and his waiter's tips Stelio raised the sum of 500 Egyptian pounds to finance the dig.

The newspapers got interested, among them the The Times of London. 

On Monday 4 April 1960 The Times reported that the excavation had officially begun. Traffic was stopped and large crowds gathered.

The work continued apace, and then, on Tuesday 26 April, the diggers make a discovery! 

But alas it was not Alexander's tomb they had found. Only water. Lots of water.

Then the work stopped, The Times lost interest, and Stelio returned to clearing tables in Mlle Christiana's cafe.

Stelio kept searching for a couple more decades but never found the elusive tomb of Alexander. 

He finally returned to Greece where he tried to share his carefully amassed data in exchange for a pension in dollars and a Mercedes-Benz. 

As a graduate student commented, it would have been a small price to pay for the location of the tomb of a legend that was truly worthy of the name.

The Alexander Mosaic c. 100 BC.
Death of Alexander the Great by (after) Jean II Restout.
Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus depicting Alexander at the Battle of Issus. [Wikipedia Commons].
Alexander's Funeral Carriage - mid nineteenth century.
Ptolemy by unknown artist 3rd century BC.
Augustus Before the Tomb of Alexander by Sebastien Bourdon.
Reconstruction of Alexander's tomb - source:
Christiana Konstantinou in Alexandria.
Mercedes-Benz 170S [Wikepedia Commons]

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