In July 2018 building workers dug down to about 15 feet at a construction site in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria; then, they came across something as exciting as it was unexpected. The team had uncovered a massive stone sarcophagus – clearly from ancient times. And archaeologists were subsequently called in to handle the latest piece of treasure found under the streets of the ancient city.
In particular, the sarcophagus had been discovered in the Sidi Gaber neighborhood of Alexandria, at a site where a new apartment building was under construction. Alexandria, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, was itself founded in around 332 BC by Alexander the Great. At the time, Alexander violently ruled the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon; he would also go on to conquer a large swathe of the world.
And during the Ptolemaic era – when the Macedonian Greeks were in charge – and through to the succeeding periods of Roman and then Byzantine rule, Alexandria was Egypt’s capital. Now, in the modern era, Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city after the current-day capital of Cairo.
Meanwhile, Alexander the Great – or Alexander III of Macedon – was born in 356 BC in Pella, Central Macedonia. And by the time he was 30, Alexander had carved out one of the largest empires in ancient history; the lands he conquered by force of arms extended all the way from Greece to the north of India.
Fast-forward to 2018, and it was thought that the mysterious sarcophagus may contain the remains of Alexander himself. And this was a distinct possibility, too, as the location of Alexander’s last resting place has been a longstanding mystery. Plus, an alabaster bust was found with the ancient container, although time had worn away its features. Could the sculpture have been intended to depict the ancient ruler?
But there was something else to potentially consider before prizing open the sarcophagus: the possibility of a mummy’s curse. The mummy or pharaoh’s curse has been a popular belief since the time of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, as a number of those that found the ruler’s resting place reportedly died soon after. However, medical experts have rejected the idea of there being such curse; instead, the deaths of some of those associated with the tomb, it has been asserted, were from natural causes.
What was known for sure is that the Alexandrian sarcophagus is of monumental proportions. At over 8 feet long and in excess of 5 feet wide, the item is larger than any other of its kind previously discovered in Alexandria. The black granite tomb also has an overall weight of just under 30 tons, with the lid alone weighing roughly half of that.
But the speculation was soon to come to an end, as later in July 2018 the moment to open the sarcophagus had come. A team of mummification and restoration experts – led by the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities director Mostafa Waziri and accompanied by army engineers – duly prepared themselves to lift the covering.
Alas, what the group found was not the remains of Alexander the Great. Instead, what lurked inside was so repugnant that Waziri and his colleagues had to temporarily flee the site. When the excavators had lifted the lid of the sarcophagus just a few inches, an awful smell was released; they were therefore forced to abandon their task and were only able to return after a break.
Inside the sarcophagus, meanwhile, lay three skeletons drenched in several inches of reddish-brown effluent. This turned out to be noxious liquid from a sewage trench – hence the overpowering odor. Waziri further explained to the BBC, “We found the bones of three people, in what looks like a family burial… Unfortunately, the mummies inside were not in the best condition, and only the bones remain.”
Waziri went on to dispel any notions that opening the ancient tomb had released any terrifying pharaoh’s curse. He asserted, “We’ve opened [the tomb], and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness. I was the first to put my whole head inside the sarcophagus… and here I stand before you… I am fine.”
At first, as Waziri revealed, the experts suspected they had found the burial of a family group. Specialists also think that the tomb dates back to the early Ptolemaic period, which followed Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC.
What’s more, it turned out that one of the three skulls in the sarcophagus had lacerations consistent with arrow wounds. In light of this, then, it was posited that the three skeletons were those of soldiers. As for the alabaster bust? Well, it’s believed to be a representation of one of the tomb’s occupants.
However, there was nothing else in the sarcophagus apart from the three sets of human bones. According to Waziri, this lack of anything of value in the coffin – along with the absence of any inscription – therefore reduced the chances of its occupants having been anyone who was once of note.
Meanwhile, the unpleasant sewage liquid seems to have penetrated the sarcophagus and caused the decomposition of the mummies via a crack in the stone. And in a bizarre twist to this story, some people started to clamor for access to the effluent that had seeped into the ancient tomb.
Apparently, some believe that this horrible concoction could be some kind of mysterious elixir with other-worldly properties. One individual based in the U.K. even started an online petition – headed with the demand “Let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus” – for the liquid to be released.
The bizarre plea for access to the sewage water goes on to say, “We need to drink the red liquid from the cursed dark sarcophagus in the form of some sort of carbonated energy drink so we can assume its powers and finally die.”
Whether the person who started the petition has a uniquely grotesque sense of humor or is in urgent need of help is open to conjecture. But what is perhaps even stranger is the fact that more than 33,000 people have put their names to the petition.
When it came to the sarcophagus, though, the find was arguably anti-climactic. Because the tomb had an unbroken coating of mortar visible under its lid, researchers had hoped that this meant it had not been looted. And that in turn meant that the contents may have been very valuable indeed. So, the fact that the sarcophagus had been penetrated by raw sewage and contained only three jumbled skeletons was likely something of a let-down.
But now the painstaking work of analyzing the bones of the three individuals is under way. And it may be that these skeletons will eventually yield some fascinating secrets that will increase our knowledge of how people lived in ancient Alexandria. In the meantime, though, we can at least be grateful that no curse has apparently been unleashed upon the world.