An archaeological mission taking place outside Alexandria could uncover the final resting place of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. As Edward Lewis reports, finding the tombs of history's famous lovers could restore the reputation of 'first city of the civilised world' Exploring Alexandria's past sometimes feels like a who's who of ancient history. Starting with its founder, Alexander the Great, in 331BC and going on to include - among others - Ptolemy, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and the Roman emperor Augustus, the city was once the second largest and most influential in the Mediterranean, enjoying cultural diversity, enormous wealth and an unrivalled intellectual tradition. Within its boundaries it could boast the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the Great Library and the tomb of Alexander the Great, in addition to numerous other exquisite sacred and public structures. The Roman historian Diodorus of Sicily described it as "the first city of the civilised world".
Today, the "Bride of the Mediterranean" (Arous el Bahr), as the city is affectionately known by Egyptians, gives little impression of the scale and splendour it once possessed. It lives in the shadows of Luxor, Aswan and Cairo, repeatedly a bystander as Egypt's antique history has been unearthed. With the exception of some stunning recent underwater discoveries, archaeology has been obstructed by natural and man-made elements, including earthquakes, a rising water table and rapid urban development.
But now, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has released details of a mission taking place just outside Alexandria that could mark a remarkable change of fortunes for the city's mute archaeological record. The Egyptian/Dominican Republic team aims to find the royal tombs of the Ptolemies - the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt between 305BC and 30BC - including those of two of history's most famous lovers, Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
Goddess, queen, lover - Cleopatra has been immortalised through the works of historians (both ancient and contemporary), playwrights and film directors. The last of the Ptolemys, Cleopatra dedicated her life to retaining autonomy for Egypt while postponing the inevitable submission to Rome. Her love affairs and marriages, to Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, split the Roman Empire. Finding her tomb would place Alexandria on the archaeological map and rival anything previously discovered in Egypt.
According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Mark Antony and Cleopatra were buried together in Egypt. Although neither a description of the tomb nor its location is recorded, according to Dr Said Altalhawy, the site director, and Dr Kathleen Martinez, the head of the mission, Taposiris Magna is a probable candidate. Situated on a spit of land between the Mediterranean and Lake Mariout some 45km west of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna was renowned in antiquity for its temple, founded in the third century BC and dedicated to the cult of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, and his wife Isis. The name means the "great house of Osiris". "This is undoubtedly a funerary temple. It is a grand temple, a temple that linked the dead to another world," explains Dr Altalhawy. "This is not a common archaeological site; it is a very important one."
Today, Taposiris Magna has been left behind as the surrounding area undergoes dramatic change. Vast Lego-like resorts line the coast. On the roadside near the temple, vendors sell watermelons, oblivious to the potential of what lies nearby. There are no signs or paths to the complex. Without specific directions or a knowledgeable driver, you could easily miss it. Yet it is precisely this isolation that has ensured Taposiris Magna's preservation.
After the modest archaeological discoveries of downtown Alexandria, the temple of Osiris is an impressive sight. Within its towering white brick walls, several structures are identifiable, ranging from Ptolemaic chambers to Byzantine chapels. Heads of columns lie on the temple floor and an intricate water system of narrow channels surround a small sacred lake. Scattered everywhere are the unmistakable shapes of amphora bases or handles sticking out of the sand alongside countless shards of sun-bleached pottery.
"Everywhere we work, everywhere we dig we find something," Dr Altalhawy says. One of the team's most important discoveries is a temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian deity with whom Cleopatra is closely associated. That devotion to both Osiris and Isis is found within the same complex is, according to Dr Martinez, an example of "religious symbolism and a sacred union between Osiris and Isis; Osiris as Mark Antony and Isis as herself." They also found coins depicting Cleopatra's profile, further support, according to Dr Martinez, for the link between Goddess and queen. "After we saw Cleopatra's face we knew the coins were important because we found them in the shrine of Isis where offerings to the gods were made."
Equally significant was a series of tunnels and chambers underneath the temple floor, which Dr Martinez strongly believes are tombs associated with a ruling elite. "We believe that it is inside the temple that we have the biggest possibility of finding a royal tomb. We have found a complex of tunnels and more than 10 chambers and shafts, some 25-30 metres deep that I believe will lead us to royalty."
Other striking finds include a fragment of a mask incorporating a cleft chin that bears a striking resemblance to Mark Antony, the head of a queen (thought to be that of Cleopatra) and a headless Ptolemaic statue. "Nothing we have found to date suggests this complex was an ordinary temple. They didn't choose this area by chance," adds Dr Altalhawy. Taposiris Magna, despite its size and obvious importance, was not even located in the regional capital. "We asked ourselves why is this temple here and not in the capital? It must have had an important function to be so isolated."
Whether or not the tombs of Cleopatra and Mark Antony are found, Taposiris Magna has yielded some remarkable discoveries, most significantly, a vast cemetery, some three kilometres square, that Dr Altalhawy believes is one of the biggest ancient cemeteries found in Egypt. Five metres under the topsoil, a tomb has been unveiled, the skeletons lying in the same position in which they were placed thousands of years ago. Each shaft is shared by a number of bones, some with their heads and feet missing, cut off by grave robbers eager to get hold of the valuable necklaces and anklets worn by the deceased. Surrounding the main chambers are shallow sarcophagi-shaped graves, no doubt created for the workers of the families who were often buried close to their masters. Most striking of all are two Ptolemaic mummies that lie side by side in a deep separate chamber. These mummies, and several others found, were once gilded, not only demonstrating the wealth of the occupants but also the importance of Osiris's temple and its environs.
This cemetery is similar to those at Giza and further south in Luxor, further suggesting that the complex houses royal tombs. "All the clues we have found leave me to the belief it is the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony," enthuses Dr Martinez. The site is now closed for the summer, and the team will have to wait until at least January before they can continue the search for the resting place of Alexandria's most venerated daughter.