Though their names, works and biographies survive elsewhere, the tombs of various historical individuals continue to evade the archaeologist’s trowel. From Cleopatra to Attila the Hun, these figures were laid to rest in elusive locations, the whereabouts of which remain a mystery to this day.
Here are 5 tombs that have remained beyond prying eyes for centuries, despite repeated attempts at recovery. Each has fascinated antiquarians, archaeologists and generations of local communities.
1. Alexander the Great
Despite Alexander the Great having been buried in at least 3 tombs, none are known to contemporary archaeologists. After Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC, his body underwent a convoluted series of funerary arrangements directed by his generals. On its way from Babylon in a cart that allegedly took 2 years to construct, his body was intercepted in Syria by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, and redirected to Egypt.
He was first buried in Memphis, at an uncertain location, and then in the late 4th or early 3rd century BC, Alexander’s body was reburied in Alexandria. This was perhaps done by Ptolemy himself, who proclaimed himself King of Egypt and inaugurated the Ptolemaic dynasty, or by his son and successor.
Alexander was reburied once more in Alexandria by Ptolemy Philopator (222/221-205 BC). He was placed alongside his Ptolemaic successors in a communal tomb. There Augustus viewed the body of Alexander in 30 BC, while Emperor Caracalla visited the tomb in 215 AD.
Though contemporary sources record its location at the crossroads of the major north-south and east-west arterial roads of Alexandria, it has never been found. This is despite multiple references to it in texts over the next thousand years and modern attempts to identify it.
A limited number of sources provide suggestions about the possible location of Cleopatra’s tomb. Despite Cleopatra being one of ancient Egypt’s most famous figures, ruling Ptolemaic Egypt between 51 and 30 BC, the mystery of her tomb has attended her legacy for centuries.
Some accounts of her life, such as Plutarch’s, suggest the structure was completed by 30 BC in Alexandria, and that she may also have sought refuge inside it from Octavian, the future Roman Emperor Augustus. She is generally supposed to have committed suicide in order to avoid being paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a humiliating ritual of submission.
If the structure remained intact after the defeat of Ptolemaic Egypt, an earthquake in the 4th century AD would likely have finished it off. A large part of the ancient city was destroyed and was swallowed by the encroaching sea. Other theories of her final resting place include the smuggling of her body by loyalists to the city of Taposiris Magna, and her unmarked burial in a Macedonian-Egyptian cemetery.
3. Genghis Khan
The final burial site of Genghis Khan is another mystery that remains the subject of research and speculation. Genghis Khan died in August 1227, having founded the Mongol Empire, which stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.
The undiscovered site of Genghis Khan’s tomb is assumed to be near Burkhan Khaldun, a mountain in the Khentii mountain range of northeastern Mongolia made sacred by Genghis Khan and repeatedly mentioned in the court-sanctioned Secret History of the Mongols.
Genghis Khan asked to be buried without markings according to a legend, while Marco Polo wrote that by the end of the 13th century his tomb was already a mystery. Polo also alleged that the slaves that attended his funeral were massacred by soldiers, who in turn were massacred by another group of soldiers, who in turn committed suicide, taking the knowledge of the grave’s whereabouts with them.
The apparent vanishing of the world-historical figure has proved a tantalising negative space to fill in with folklore. His tomb is variously described as being concealed by a river, obscured by the trampling of horses, and located in a mysterious place known in Chinese as the Qinian Valley.
4. Attila the Hun
When Attila, the feared ruler of the Huns, died in 453 AD, he was reportedly buried in three nesting coffins made of iron, silver and gold. His grave has never been recovered but is suspected to be in Hungary.
Attila had plundered the Balkans, invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and fought as far west as Roman Gaul. His death is attributed by the Byzantine diplomat Priscus to severe bleeding during a marriage feast. Meanwhile, the Roman chronicler Marcellinus Comes reports, more dubiously and 80 years later, that he was assassinated by his new wife.
Priscus’s account was recounted by the 6th-century scholar Jordanes, who described Attila as being buried “in the secrecy of night” with great riches, and in order to keep them “from human curiosity, they slew those appointed to the work”.
The location of the original tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I remains unidentified, though as of 2021 his mummy resides in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Amenhotep I was the second pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, a period in which the Egyptian Empire experienced great expansion.
Though an official report noted that the royal tomb of Amenhotep was secure almost 4 centuries after his death, his tomb continues to elude archaeologists. Possible tombs have been identified, for example at ‘Tomb ANB’ in a necropolis near Thebes.
Amenhotep I’s body was located among a cache of mummies, having been moved from its original location for an unknown reason. It’s possible Amenhotep’s original tomb was deemed insecure, or perhaps had already suffered from robbery.