Exploration Mysteries: The Lost Tombs of Legendary Figures

Where were Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Anthony and Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Attila the Hun buried? Sometimes, the grave sites simply vanished from memory over time. But with others, the concealment was deliberate, and people were slain to ensure that the mystery would never be solved. Will we ever discover their whereabouts?

Alexander the Great

The King of Macedon is often described as the ‘greatest Greek ever to live’. To this day, Greeks fiercely protect his name and legacy. In his 20s, he achieved what no other could: He expanded his empire from Macedon all the way to Asia Minor, the Levant, Mesopotamia, parts of North Africa including Egypt and Libya, and Central and Southern Asia. 

This overwhelming power had consequences. Alexander’s ambition and unconventional ideas made him a target for various assassination plots and the source of discontent among his generals. He adopted Persian customs and wanted Persians and Macedonians to intermix, thereby creating a new race. He wanted to conquer further to Arabia, but his soldiers were tired and missing their families in Macedon. Not everyone was on board with his mission for world conquest. 

Alexander the Great on a Roman mosaic. Photo: Andreas Wolochow/Shutterstock

 

Alexander died in 323 BC, at just 32. Scholars believe he perished from typhoid or malaria, or was poisoned. While on his deathbed, his generals begged him to name his heir. His Bactrian wife Roxana was pregnant, but for many reasons, the unborn child was not acceptable as an heir.

Ambiguously, he said the empire should go to the strongest. Thus, the War of the Successors caused the empire to split into four main parts: the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, the Kingdom of Macedon, the Kingdom of Pergamon, and the Seleucid Empire. 

As for Alexander’s body, the king had wished to be buried in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Did this ever happen? Most historical accounts depict Ptolemy stealing the body, encased in a gold sarcophagus, and whisking it away to Egypt, first to Memphis, and later to Alexandria.

During the Ptolemaic dynasty, reverence of the tomb became a cult. Yet around 400 AD, the tomb’s location fizzled into obscurity and myth. Some historians believe that Alexander’s body was a symbol of power and legitimacy, which is why his generals fought for it. 

Possible Locations: grave found??

Some have suggested the following: near his father Philip II in Vergina, Macedonia, beneath the Nabi Daniel Mosque in Alexandria, or Amphipolis in Macedonia. But 2021 brought exciting news: Egyptian officials claimed that the tomb had, in fact, been found in the Siwa Oasis, where tunnels and a statue of Alexander have turned up. This is awaiting confirmation. The Greeks remain skeptical.

Have Alexander the Great’s remains been found at last? Siwa Oasis. Photo: Wikipedia

Cleopatra and Mark Anthony

Cleopatra Philopator VII and the Roman general Marc Antony were the ancient world’s most celebrated power couple. She was the seductive and cunning last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt before the Roman conquest. Marc Antony was the second most powerful man in Rome after Caesar.

 

Cleopatra’s life privileged birth belied her brief, roller-coaster life. She inherited economic and political burdens from her father, went to war with her own siblings, and had to play endless political games to secure her throne. She famously engaged in a relationship with Julius Caesar and gave him a son named Caesarion (who was not officially recognized). When Caesar was assassinated, rule passed to his grandnephew, who became Caesar Augustus. In the wake of this new power, Marc Antony and Cleopatra made an alliance, both political and marital. 

Together, the two butted heads with Augustus over several displays of disrespect, including Antony marrying Cleopatra despite his previous marriage to Augustus’s sister. The pair also publicly recognized Caesarion as the rightful heir to Rome. Skirmishes culminated in the decisive Battle of Actium, where most of Antony’s forces and allies abandoned him for Augustus. As the situation grew dimmer, the pair eventually killed themselves. 

Details of the suicide are blurred in myth. The snake bite that killed the Queen is one of those questionable elements. She might have simply swallowed poison. The bodies are in an unknown location.

Possible Locations

Some ancient historians have said that Augustus permitted the pair to be buried together. However, it is possible that this is just propaganda and the Roman ruler had their bodies hidden or destroyed so the now-Roman province of Egypt would not have a pilgrimage site to revere them. Grave robbers may also have plundered or destroyed the tomb. The bodies might even have been cremated.

In 1998, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio discovered the supposed remains of Cleopatra’s palace on the sunken island of Antirhodos. Centuries before, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami had destroyed it. Reliefs of Cleopatra’s father and Caesarion turned up in the submerged ruins. Goddio’s theory is that the body or sarcophagus is somewhere underwater. 

One popular theory places it in Alexandria. Kathleen Martinez is heading the search for Cleopatra’s tomb and came across six burial chambers at Taposiris Magna in the southwest of the city. She found a bust of Marc Antony, coins minted with the couple’s images and a 1st century AD painting resembling Cleopatra. These discoveries need further investigation.

Nefertiti

The beautiful bust of the 18th dynasty queen in Germany’s Neues Museum portrays a powerful and mysterious woman who remains an enigma. We know little about Nefertiti’s early life. She may have been a foreign-born princess given to the Pharaoh Akhenaten, or the daughter of a prominent figure of the Egyptian court, or even her husband’s sister. Nevertheless, she was a prominent figure who suddenly disappeared from historical records…

Bust of Nefertiti. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Nefertiti was Great Royal Wife to her husband Akhenaten and lived around 1350 BC. She exerted a lot of political influence, and historians even go as far as to suggest that she may have been co-regent at one point. Some considered her a fertility goddess for bearing Akhenaten’s six daughters.

The couple was most famous for establishing a monotheistic religion around the one sun god, Aten. This did not pan out well. When the king and queen made themselves priests and gods on earth, people were up in arms and declared them heretics.

Several years into their rule, tragedy seemed to strike. Akhenaten’s daughters died and Nefertiti mysteriously disappeared from records. For many years, historians believed that Nefertiti and her family were killed because of their heretical beliefs. However, new research has shed light on the possibility that Nefertiti actually ruled a few years after Akhenaten died, possibly from Marfan syndrome. They believe she was renamed Neferneferuaten when she became co-regent. Nevertheless, the influential Queen’s body was never found.

Possible Locations

At tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings, a “younger lady” was found. While many hoped this was Nefertiti, DNA tests showed that she is King Tut’s mother. Akhenaten’s tomb in Amarna has reliefs of Nefertiti and their daughters and a chamber most likely meant for the Queen. However, all the bodies were removed. 

New research speculates that Nefertiti could be buried somewhere near the famous Tomb KV62, which is King Tut’s resting place. 

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire and ruled from the 12th to 13th centuries. He conquered most of Eurasia, united tribes, and modernized the areas under his control.

He came from humble beginnings. His tribe abandoned him when his father died.  Genghis suffered from many family disputes, lived poorly, was enslaved by his father’s enemies, and had to rescue his wife after they kidnapped her. These circumstances drove him to rise up and become something more.

You can say that Genghis Khan was ahead of his time. In his empire, people practiced religious freedom and tolerance. He encouraged a system of meritocracy and introduced paper currency. 

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Despite his accomplishments, he had a simple outlook. He wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave in his beloved mountains of Burkhan Khaldun, where he often prayed before battles. He did not want anyone to find him.

Burkhan Khaldun in northeastern Mongolia. Photo: Shutterstock

 

When he died, possibly from injuries and overall poor health, his soldiers marched to Burkhan Khaldun with his body. They killed anyone they encountered to protect the location’s secret. The soldiers even killed animals out of fear that they would lead other animals and humans to the grave. Legend says over a thousand horses trampled in the area to cover up any tracks, and that they planted trees to hide the grave. The area was called the Great Taboo, or Ikh Khorig.  

Possible Locations

Mongol tradition respects his resting place and no one really tries to interfere. This is because Mongols believe that disturbing his resting place will result in a world-ending catastrophe. Even when the Soviets were active in the region, they upheld the traditions of the locals and went so far as to restrict the area.

The Mongolian government has somewhat relaxed these restrictions today so archaeologists can study the area. However, so far they have not turned up anything relevant, and any attempts to find Genghis displeases the locals. Some have used drones and satellite imagery in order to tag potential sites in the Burkhan Khaldun mountains. But he can be anywhere. 

Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun is considered one of the most evil men in history. He was famously ambitious, ruthless, and had no mercy even on the most vulnerable populations. His own family wasn’t spared: He killed his own brother to consolidate power. For these reasons, his lust for riches, territory, and bloodshed, he became known as the Scourge of God. 

Photo: German Vizulis/Shutterstock

 

Generally, the Huns were a nomadic and aggressive people. They conquered the Burgundians, Alans, Eastern and Western Goths, and many other nomadic people. Attila himself invaded Gaul and the Eastern Roman Empire with ease and sacked over 70 cities in the Balkans. His reputation was so frightening that empires paid him in gold to keep him away. 

All his power, however, did not spare him life’s great equalizer, death. Attila the Hun suddenly died from hemorrhaging at his own wedding. His army encased him in three extravagant, nesting coffins made from gold, silver, and iron. 

Possible Locations

The army diverted a river to hide his remains and as with Genghis, killed people to hide the body’s location. Legends speak of his final resting place as somewhere beneath the River Tisza in Hungary or in a forest outside Hungary’s capital, Budapest. 

In 2014, construction workers claimed that they found his tomb, but this was a hoax. As yet, no clues of substance have ever turned up.

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago. Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb. Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration. Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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Twinkletoes
Twinkletoes
3 months ago

Neat article, except the bit about Attila, which could do with a bit of nuance.