Where is Cleopatra’s tomb?
The famous Cleopatra VII Philopator, last queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, died around 10th or 12th August 30 BC in Alexandria. She vanished from memory for a long time until she resurfaced since 14th century in medieval and renaissance art. Of course, her image was still molded by Roman propaganda (read my account on the Remarkable Cleopatra in this post).
The location of Cleopatra’s final resting place has been a topic of much speculation, and continues to tantalize.
In this post, I examine what ancient accounts said of her tomb, theories and results of recent searches for the tomb of the famous queen, and why the search for her tomb remains challenging and elusive.
It is not very surprising that we have not found Cleopatra’s tomb; there are very famous people from antiquity whose tombs have never been discovered (excluding cultures where cremations were the norm and there was no practice of building grand tombs). For example, we have not found the tombs of the following
Alexander the Great
And of course, the subject of this post, Cleopatra VII Philopater, Ptolemaic queen of Egypt and the Last Pharaoh
Before we speculate, let us look at what actually the ancient historians had to say. We have accounts of Cleopatra from four—Strabo, Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Seutonius—of whom Strabo was the only one who was contemporary.
Accounts of ancient historians regarding Cleopatra’s death
Roman historian, possibly 34 years old and contemporary of Cleopatra and in Alexandria at the time of her death, but likely wrote his accounts a decade after her death.
but a little later she too put herself to death secretly, while in prison, by the bite of an asp or (for two accounts are given) by applying a poisonous ointment; and the result was that the empire of the sons of Lagus, which had endured for many years, was dissolved
Source: Strabo’s Geography - Book XVII, Chapter 1: Loeb Classical Library edition, 1932 UChicago Public Edition
Unfortunately, Strabo says nothing at all about her tomb or its location. He probably had the best information regarding her, yet, for whatever reason, he reveals nothing. Either he did not write about it, or what he wrote has been lost to time.
Greek historian, biographer, became a Roman citizen. Wrote “Parallel Lives’ - biographies of famous Romans and Greeks. It is his work “Life of Antony” that covers Cleopatra, and it is one of the most thorough works on her life. He wrote probably about a hundred years after Cleopatra’s death, using older sources.
Let’s see what Plutarch says about Cleopatra’s burial.
Caesar, although vexed at the death of the woman, admired her lofty spirit; and he gave orders that her body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion. Her women also received honourable interment by his orders. …. [snip]… Now, the statues of Antony were torn down, but those of Cleopatra were left standing, because Archibius, one of her friends, gave Caesar two thousand talents, in order that they might not suffer the same fate as Antony’s.
Source: Plutarch, Parallel Lives Vol. IX, Life of Antony - Loeb Classical Library Edition, hosted on UChicago, Public Domain.
Note: “Caesar” mentioned above refers to Octavian Caesar and not his uncle Julius Caesar. Ancient historians called Octavian as Caesar since Julius Caesar adopted him.
So, according to Plutarch, we at least know that her body (and Antony’s) did not suffer dishonorable ends—they were not discarded and thrown away. It does seem Cleopatra and Antony were buried together, and “in a splendid” fashion. We do not know what that means, and ancient historians rarely gave good geographical descriptions—so Plutarch says absolutely nothing about where she was buried. Strabo says “she was in a prison” but Plutarch does not mention a prison. Plutarch at one point says she kissed the urn referring to Antony’s—so it seems like Antony was cremated but then we do not know if the joint burial means Cleopatra’s body and Antony’s ashes, or if Plutarch made a mistake.
Regardless, we receive no clues as to her location.
Next, let’s look at another major source for the Cleopatra story.
Roman Statesman who published extensive volumes on the history of Rome, wrote about Cleopatra about two hundred years after her death.
Let’s see what he says:
“..allowed her to spend some days where she was, occupied in embalming Antony’s body; then they took her to the palace,…”
Well, he says Cleopatra was busy embalming Antony’s body, and he was not cremated.
Then, Dio goes on to say:
“…and they were both embalmed in the same fashion and buried in the same tomb…”
Source: Cassius Dio Roman History Vol V - Loeb Classic Library Edition, hosted on UChicago.
Whatever source Dio used, it seems it was consistent with Cleopatra and Antony being embalmed and buried together.
Roman historian who probably wrote about a hundred fifty years after Cleopatra’s death.
“He allowed them both the honour of burial, and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished.”
Source: Suetonius, Life of Augustus, Loeb Classic Library Edition, hosted on UChicago.
So far, of all the accounts, Suetonius says the most in that one sentence. That they were buried together (Antony’s ashes or body, he does not say) in a mausoleum, which she had begun, and that Caesar allowed that mausoleum to be finished. This is the best concise account we have so far. And yet, unfortunately, Suetonius says nothing at all about the location. It is important to understand that Suetonius and Plutarch lived around the same time, and may have referred to similar sources. And if that older source introduced errors, then that would have only been magnified or repeated.
We have thus covered what the “nearest by timeline” sources say about the matter. And unfortunately, it’s not much. And like all archeologists, historians, treasure hunters, and armchair google maps experts, one has to tie other pieces to come up with a few hypotheses.
Theories of the location of Cleopatra’s tomb
The passages leave us with little except the tantalizing fact that Cleopatra and Antony were buried together in a proper mausoleum and probably in a grand fashion (as circumstances and Caesar Octavian allowed at that time).
But where could the tomb be?
By her palace in Alexandria
It could be that a hastily constructed mausoleum existed near her palace and she was buried there. The problem is that we do not conclusively know where Cleopatra’s palace is, but it is most likely now under the sea (and may have been called the Antirhodos as mentioned by Strabo). To be clear, Strabo did not say it was Cleopatra’s palace, but he did say it housed a royal house. And at that time, it would almost certainly be Cleopatra’s.
For a better flyby of all these locations, go to my Cleopatra Maps Flyby page. Note that the locations annotated here are all approximations based on various research elements—as much as we have learned about these places, there were no GPS’ in the ancient world, and without structures still standing it is exceptionally difficult to pin point exact locations.
Probable locations in Alexandria.
Underwater expeditions in this area have unearthed spectacular structures, but none that suggest that it really is Cleopatra’s palace or that there is a tomb. We’ll get to the matter of why it’s so hard to find information on Cleopatra or the Ptolemies, later.
A separate structure somewhere nearby
Perhaps they buried her somewhere nearby—and with nothing to go by, it’s impossible to say where. Which means the tomb is beneath waters or now beneath the construction of Alexandria.
Along with Alexander’s tomb
Alexander the Great was an important figure for the Ptolemies. The founder of Cleopatra’s dynasty, Ptolemy I, was one of Alexander’s principal generals. He assumed satrapy of Egypt after Alexander’s death. Most historians agree that Alexander’s body was in a grand mausoleum in Alexandria (called the Soma), likely near the palace, and somewhere in the area noted above.
Now, why do I think it could be near or with Alexander’s tomb? Archeologists have never found the tombs of the Ptolemies. This dynasty ruled for nearly three hundred years and we have not one tomb in Egypt (only one was found in Cyprus)—either all of them are submerged under water, or, could it be possible that they wished to be buried along with their illustrious deified king Alexander? It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that Cleopatra may have begun creating her mausoleum near or by Alexander’s, along with her forefathers.
The challenge is that we not found Alexander’s tomb either. What we do know is that it seems Caesar Octavian visited Alexander’s mausoleum and saw his body (Suetonius says this) but refused to see those of the Ptolemies (I came to see a king, not corpses, he apparently said), but none of the biographers say anything about whether the Ptolemies were buried nearby or elsewhere.
Now, imagine if this hypothesis were true, that the Ptolemaic rulers built their tombs near/around Alexanders. And if we found Alexander’s tomb, it would be the most sensational find, with his, Ptolemy I Soter (founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty), Ptolemy Philadelphus (the one who possibly completed the construction of the Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse), and then Cleopatra and Mark Antony!
In or near Taposiris Magna
google maps link to the location
What we can say with certainty is that there is one magnificent structure further west of Alexandria, built by Ptolemy V, that still survives. This is called the “Taposiris Magna.” This temple has come to attention due to the work of Dr. Kathleen Martinez, a Dominican lawyer turned archeologist who has spent years looking for Cleopatra.
Taposiris Magna temple ruins; By Koantao - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28126202
Dr. Martinez’s work has gained much visibility, partly because unlike some other opportunists, she has been spending time diligently and with care, and has found many artifacts going back to the Ptolemaic era in the temple, including many mummies and coins with Cleopatra’s name. If you are curious, check out her page or the PBS documentary “Search for Cleopatra’s Tomb”
But Cleopatra has eluded her (so far).
There is a challenge in accepting Taposiris Magna as the final resting place. We have no idea how the Ptolemies preferred to be buried, because we’ve found no tomb. But they also emulated the Egyptian pharaohs—Cleopatra in particular seems to have shown herself as Isis (a prominent Egyptian goddess)—so perhaps she fashioned a tomb for herself like the Pharaohs. But the Pharaohs didn’t have their bodies buried in their temples, but in separate, custom made tombs designed for their passage to the afterlife. If that were to be the case, it may be a stretch to think Cleopatra was buried inside, because based on Suetonius’ account, if she was already working on a tomb, it may have been a separate structure.
Having said that, some of the mummies found outside the temple had their faces facing the temple—and therefore it is conceivable that Cleopatra held this great temple at esteem, and then had a tomb prepared for herself outside it, but facing the direction of the inner sanctum. These are tantalizing possibilities.
In or near the Dendera Temple
The Dendera temple was a prominent temple during Cleopatra’s time. Could she be in a mausoleum nearby? This is a stretch too, because in the tumult of Roman takeover, it seems extremely unlikely that Cleopatra and Antony’s bodies were transported away from Alexandria.
Cleopatra and her son Ptolemy Caesar depicted on the walls of the Dendera temple. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
With nothing but the flimsiest of evidence to go by, my own preferred order of where her tomb lies is
Under water near her palace
Below ground/within the vicinity of Alexander’s tombs, along with her ancestors’
Taposiris Magna or its vicinity
CHALLENGES OF THE SEARCH FOR CLEOPATRA’s TOMB
Why is the location of Cleopatra’s tomb so poorly documented by ancient historians?
As much as we lament the lack of information of where exactly she was buried, it has been rare for ancient historians and biographers to describe locations with much specificity (how could they? there was no GPS and no system of longitude-latitude).
This is not isolated to Cleopatra’s tomb.
Here’s a food for thought. For all we know about Alexander and his great battles and invasion of India, we cannot conclusively say the specific locations of Guagamela, his route into India, location of the battle of Hydaspes or the friction with the Mallians, his last stopping point in India, where his body was hijacked in Syria. None. You can similarly apply the situation to any number of famous people in antiquity and realize how much we don’t know at all.
Often the writers glossed over physical characteristics and locations, and spent time on events and allegories and metaphors. Strabo, for example, describes the entire Ptolemaic dynasty of three hundred years in a single page but he spent great deal of time describing Egypt.
For Strabo, who might have actually been in Alexandria, the description of Egypt and the city were far more interesting than stating the exact location of the tomb—and why would he? Octavian was the conqueror, there was so much happening, and yes, the queen died, but who would actually be interested in the exact location of where she was buried? Besides, for the people of the time, the location may have been obvious (ah, yes, good sir, her tomb is right there, along with those others!). Similarly, Plutarch and Dio too probably saw no need to dwell on the tomb—besides, they were busy trumpeting Roman propaganda and vilifying her, and there was little incentive to glorify her resting place.
It’s important to see the context of the time—the Romans hated her. To them (including biographers), she was a vanquished nuisance and there was no particular reason to be describing the location of her tomb.
That we are fascinated by its location does not mean they were!
Why is there no documentation from the Egyptian side?
Yes! This is a pertinent question.
Unfortunately, we have practically nothing from the time period from native sources. There is one tantalizing fragment of a papyrus that may have Cleopatra’s signature—that’s pretty much it. Time, conquests, earthquakes, riots, have all destroyed whatever was left of her name and empire.
Papyri of court records were often simply reused for other purposes. Statues were often broken and stone reused—same with buildings. Beyond that, portions of her world are under water, and the rest underground. For a queen so famous, there is practically nothing from her time from her land. Even the single marble bust of the lifelike-image of her face that historians are “reasonably certain” is her, was actually found near Rome, and none so far in Egypt! Here is an interesting link that has pictures of coins and busts that depict Cleopatra.
Where does that leave us? Well, this famous queen keeps us intrigued and guessing, over two thousand years after her death. If her tomb is found, it would be a spectacular event with great publicity.
If you are intrigued by the queen, you might want to try my Last Pharaoh series — the trilogy takes you on a tumultuous journey with Cleopatra, and you can also do Google flybys on all major locations of her life (best experienced after reading the trilogy)