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

Jonathan Thompson,Nicholas Pyke
Sunday 13 June 2004 00:00 BST

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."


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David Keys

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