In this episode of the podcast series The Ancients, Dr.Chris Naunton joins Tristan Hughes to put forward several theories about the ongoing mystery of the whereabouts of Cleopatra’s lost burial place.
Cleopatra is one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous figures. Pharaoh in her own right, she ruled Ptolemaic Egypt for 21 years until her death by suicide in 30BC, when Egypt came under the control of Rome. One of the mysteries that plagues ancient historians and archaeologists is the location of Cleopatra’s tomb, which it’s believed will help provide a valuable window into Cleopatra’s life and death.
There are tiny clues which hint at the tomb’s location: accounts of the period say that Cleopatra was building a monument for herself and her lover Mark Antony rather than being buried in the mausoleum which housed many of the Ptolemies. As ruler of Egypt, a building project like this would have been vast and the tomb itself would have been lavishly appointed.
Some accounts of Cleopatra’s life suggest that the building was completed by 30BC – and in fact, having been chased to Alexandria by Octavian, she effectively took refuge in her mausoleum for a time in fear for her life. In this particular version, the mausoleum is described as having multiple floors, with windows or doors in an upper level which allowed Cleopatra to communicate with those on the ground outside.
Where in Alexandria might it have been?
Alexandria was hit by an earthquake in the 4th century AD: much of the ancient city was partially destroyed and submerged as the sea bed dropped several metres. It’s quite likely that Cleopatra’s tomb was in this part of the city, but extensive underwater archaeological research hasn’t provided any hard evidence – yet.
Cleopatra had closely associated herself with the goddess Isis in her lifetime and one history suggests that her mausoleum was located close to one of Alexandria’s Temples of Isis.
Was she actually buried in her mausoleum?
Some historians have hypothesised that Cleopatra wasn’t buried in Alexandria at all. She committed suicide, probably partly in an attempt to avoid be captured and paraded humiliatingly through the streets of Rome by Octavian.
Even having avoided humiliation in life though, many believe it was unlikely Octavian would have permitted her the burial she wanted. One theory is that Cleopatra’s handmaidens smuggled her body out of the city to Taposiris Magna, a few kilometres west by the coast.
Another theory is that she is buried in an unmarked, rock cut grave in a Macedonian-Egyptian cemetery. However, the general consensus believes Alexandria is still the most likely site: and the quest to find her tomb remains.
Learn more about the theories of Cleopatra’s burial place and the ongoing attempts to find them in The Lost Tomb of Cleopatra on The Ancients by History Hit.