Does the tomb of St Mark in Venice really contain the bones of Alexander the Great?

It could be one of the worst cases of mistaken identity ever known. A British historian is claiming that the venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history.

It could be one of the worst cases of mistaken identity ever known. A British historian is claiming that the venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history.

The mummified remains buried beneath the altar of St Mark's Basilica in fact belong to Alexander the Great, according to Andrew Chugg, a respected authority on the Macedonian conqueror.

His theory, a complex tale of medieval body-snatching, is already dividing the academic world. This week he will cause outrage among devout Catholics when, writing in the latest edition ofHistory Today, he says the saintly relics should be exhumed and subjected to genetic testing.

Locating the body's resting place has been rated as the holy grail of archaeology. Alexander, a Macedonian king living in the 4th century BC, had godlike status during his lifetime and for many centuries after. By his 30th birthday he had conquered an empire stretching 3,000 miles from Greece to India.

His life will be dramatised later this year in a "sword and sandals" Hollywood epic starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Sir Anthony Hopkins and directed by Oliver Stone.

Alexander died aged 32 or 33, according to some authorities, and for 700 years his corpse lay entombed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which he founded. Yet, by the 4th century AD it had vanished.

Mr Chugg, the author of several books on Alexander, believes the confusion occurred when the warrior's body was disguised as St Mark to protect it from destruction during a Christian uprising.

"Both bodies were said to be mummified in linen, and one seems to disappear at the same time that the other appears - in almost exactly the same place, near the central crossroads of Alexandria," he writes. "It's a strong possibility that somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided it might be a good plan to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St Mark.

"If this is true, then it was Alexander's remains - not those of St Mark - that were stolen by Venetian merchants and taken back to their native city some four centuries later." In fact, three early Christian sources state that St Mark's body was burnt after his death.

Mr Chugg's theory, elaborated in a forthcoming book, The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great, has divided academics. Robin Lane Fox of Oxford University, an eminent Alexander scholar who advised Oliver Stone on the film, was dismissive. "It's very charming, but it's slightly stale buns," he said.

But Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Cambridge and author of Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, was enthusiastic. "There's certainly a chance it could be true, because there's a historical gap that needs to be filled," he said. "We all want to explain why the trail goes cold at the end of the 4th century. At that point, Christianity triumphs and nobody has a voice to say where this pre-Christian hero is buried. He just fades away."

Dr Paul Doherty, another recent biographer, said: "Alexander was regarded as almost a divine figure, and if we could get to the body, with DNA testing, we could find out a great deal about him - for instance, why he died so quickly. The corpse of Alexander's father, Philip, was discovered in Greek Macedonia in 1970, so there's no reason why we shouldn't find Alexander. The body is out there somewhere - but I suspect it is still under the streets of Alexandria."

THE GRAIL TRAIL - AND UNKNOWN RESTING PLACES

The Ark of the Covenant

Made of acacia wood and solid gold, this most sacred of ancient Israelite artefacts contained the original tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, it vanished when the Babylonians captured the city in 587BC. Different theories have suggested that it is concealed beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or that it was taken to Babylon, Rome, Arabia or Ethiopia. The only certain fact is that - pace Indiana Jones - it has never been rediscovered.

Tomb of Genghis Khan

Surrounded by treasure and slaves - buried alive alongside him - the great khan was interred on top of an as yet unidentified mountain in Mongolia. The architect of the medieval world's largest empire, who brought death to millions, has so far succeeded in keeping his own grave undisturbed.

The Golden Sun God of the Incas

Made of solid gold, this was the supreme Inca deity: during the conquest, they succeeded in spiriting it away to their last jungle stronghold. But the Spanish finally captured it and sent it to their king ... It then vanished.

The Tomb of Christ

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was identified in 325 when the Emperor Constantine asked the Archbishop of Jerusalem to locate the tomb. He immediately demolished a hated Roman temple, insisting the tomb was underneath it - whether motivated by a genuine tradition or by a wish to destroy a pagan temple is not known.

The Holy Grail

The greatest quest of all - Christ meets King Arthur with a helping of Celtic and French romances. The Grail is said to be either the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper or one that caught his blood on the cross. Competing grails have surfaced over the past 400 years in Spain, Italy and Russia, but the "real" grail seems to be just legend.

David Keys

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