The world of Cleopatra – III

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 24 May 2022

Zahi Hawass continues his four-part series of articles with the search for the tomb of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra and her Roman lover Mark Antony.

Taposiris Magna
Taposiris Magna


Plutarch, the Roman author, states that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were buried together in Alexandria. The historical evidence indicates that Cleopatra built a tomb for herself near her palace in Alexandria, which is now underwater.

There are many scholars and amateurs who have searched for the tomb of Alexander the Great. Some believe that he was buried in Alexandria, and the famous Greek waiter Stelios Comoutsos began the search in the area of Ramleh Station for the tomb. 

The great historian Liana Souvaltzi worked at Siwa inside a temple excavated by Steindorf, a German archaeologist, and believed that Alexander the Great’s tomb was located in Siwa. Other people think that the great Greek leader was buried in the Bahariya Oasis because of the temple in that area.

However, no one has ever begun a massive search for the tomb of Cleopatra. This is likely because everyone thought that her tomb was next to her palace, which we know is now underwater in the royal quarter of Shatby.

In October 2004, Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist and historian from the Dominican Republic, came to Egypt to meet me and present to me her theory. She had developed a theory that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were buried inside a temple dedicated to Isis and Osiris at Taposiris Magna, a location about 45 km west of Alexandria near an area called Borg Al-Arab.

Martinez presented the following theory: in her life and art, Cleopatra had associated herself strongly with Isis, portraying herself as the goddess and Mark Antony as her consort Osiris. The Temple of Taposiris Magna, dedicated to Isis and Osiris, would thus be a place of important religious symbolism to her in life and death.

It had retained its significance as a place of religion, and it was a very important temple at that time and afterwards, as Plutarch records it being associated with the Osirian mysteries. The ancient writer Strabo also records that Alexander the Great stopped at this temple on his journey to the Siwa Oasis.

Cleopatra was afraid that the hatred of the Romans would lead them to destroy her remains, so it is logical she would have entrusted her body to a group of people she knew would protect it. The location of the temple is also ideal, within the ancient limits of Alexandria but outside the area controlled by the Romans at the time. The priests of the temple could have easily hidden her body away from the Romans and kept it safe for eternity.

No other temple fulfils these conditions as well as Taposiris Magna, making it a possible location for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The religious and political significance of the temple, along with its safe location, would make it a good place for Cleopatra and Mark Antony to be buried.

Previous research: I was convinced that Cleopatra and Mark Antony could be buried in this temple. Therefore, we began the first archaeological search for the queen in October 2005. 

The Temple of Taposiris Magna is located along the coastal road between the Mediterranean Sea and the freshwater Lake Mareotis. The temple area was called pr-wsir in the Pharaonic Period, which was interpreted into Greek as Busiris. In modern times, it is known as Abusir. 

There are around 14 locations in Egypt called Abusir, all connected with the story of Isis and Osiris. This legend tells how Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Seth, who scattered the pieces up and down the Nile. Osiris’ wife Isis then collected all the pieces of her husband and used her magic to bring him back to life and bear his son Horus.

The city of Taposiris Magna was founded by king Ptolemy II (280-270 BCE), but the first reference to the temple was by Strabo, who lived in Alexandria around 25 BCE. Plutarch said that the reason it was called Busiris was because the body of Osiris had lain there. This may also be a reason the temple was dedicated to Isis and Osiris.

During the Roman Period, the Romans turned the site into a fortress and dismantled the inner sanctuary. A church was erected in the acropolis in the fourth century CE consisting of a Byzantine basilica with a T-shaped ground plan, and this was expanded in the fifth century. At this time, the Roman fortress became a monastery and was later destroyed during the fourth day of Egypt’s later Arab occupation. 

The first important modern records of the temple come from Napoleon’s scientific expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Texts about the site were collected by scholars on this expedition but never published, although they left drawings and maps of the site that show that the pylons of the wall were three stories high at that time. They also provided plans of the stone tower and crypt. 

Other work includes the excavations made by Evaristo Breccia in 1905-1907, who found Greek inscriptions, most importantly one with the name of Ptolemy II and his wife Arsinoe, the earliest artefact from this site yet found. He also located buildings around the temple and private sanctuaries and irrigation systems from various periods.

Later, Achille Adrian and Jasper Brinton did restoration work at the site at different times but neither project was ever completed. Another excavation was led by Edward L Ochsenschlager, who headed an American team working at the Mareotis lakeside for about a month in 1975.

The last excavation prior to our own work was led by Gyózó Vörös, who disproved previous ideas about the temple and took out the ancient pavement stones between the marked section boundaries where he thought the sanctuary had stood. The expedition found the objects listed in the catalogue. About 80-90 cm below ground level, they found the imprint of the former sanctuary and discovered that a Hellenistic shrine with Doric-style columns had once stood in the courtyard.


Egyptian research: The Egyptian excavations began in 2005. We found many architectural components at different levels and also began to excavate the shafts inside and outside the temple. 

On the first level, we were able to discover the foundations of limestone rooms built parallel to the north wall. The floors of the rooms were also cased in limestone.

In this area a pottery vessel was found that was one of the small vessels used to contain oil from the church that was used for blessings. A great number of these vessels were found that contained seals with Greek inscriptions. A headless royal statue was found below one of the walls of the first level.

The second level that we found in the search for the tomb of Cleopatra showed architectural components dating to the end of the Roman Period. The most important was a rectangular building consisting of three rooms of different dimensions. Also found was an entrance at the end of the eastern wall of this building on the north that led to a hall with two small rooms on the east and west sides. 

A tunnel separated the two rooms, and at its end there was a door leading to another large room, its floor covered with blocks of limestone. The front of this building was used as a house for the leader of the Roman camp.

On the third level of our excavation, we found five steps of a descending stairway on the west of the Roman house. Built of limestone, they lead to a court. The fourth level contains the foundations of the residential houses, perhaps used by the Ptolemaic temple priests. It contains a group of ovens, and in front of one oven was found a stela inscribed with 10 lines of Greek, which appears to have been a gift to the temple. 

To the south of these buildings are the foundations of another rectangular building, which has an altar on its western end leading to the sanctuary. This building could have been a chapel dedicated to the temple gods. In that chapel the arm of a statue was found representing the arm of Harpocrates (Horus, the son of Osiris). Thus, we can see that the temple was dedicated to Osiris and in the temple was a chapel of Isis, which would complete the divine triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.

Several shafts were found inside and outside the temple. The first shaft inside the temple was cut into the rock to a depth of at least 25 metres. It contained niches cut into for use as stairs. At a depth of 25 metres was found a skeleton and also a collar made of gold. It seems that this skeleton was that of a male who had been left inside the shaft and never found.

The excavation continued to 28 metres, and another skeleton was found, this time that of a male that appears to have been left in the shaft after the destruction of the temple, as we found objects of the temple rulers below it. The excavation in this shaft continued to a depth of 35 metres, which was found to date to the Ptolemaic Period.

A third skeleton, that of a female, was found in a shaft located in the southwest corner of the temple. She had died in childbirth, and in her right hand she was holding a statue of Alexander the Great and wearing a ring on her left hand. Around her right ankle was a chain with an amulet of a snake.

Another shaft was also found, the shape of which indicated that perhaps contained the entrance to a tomb. I was able to enter this shaft for about six metres — a great adventure — but I was faced with the problem of the high water table. Within the debris of the shaft a great number of Rhodian amphorae with seals containing the name of the factory and the names of the priests were found. These vessels date to the third century BCE and were used to transport the famous Rhodian wine. 

Many rooms were found near this shaft, and in one was found an alabaster head of a queen about one metre below the Byzantine floor level. The style of the head likely belongs to queen Cleopatra based on its similarity to her depiction on her coins.


Further excavations: The shaft that was re-excavated outside the temple was located in front of the pylon south of the entrance. 

The location of this shaft near the entrance indicates that it dates prior to the temple’s construction. At a depth of about three metres, we found parts of amphorae, and at 17 metres we found part of the statue of a female. At 19.9 metres, we found the lower part of a statue without feet that represented a woman wearing a long robe. All the features display Pharaonic attributes, indicating that it is a royal statue. At a depth of 24 metres, we found another alabaster life-size head of a statue.

The most important discovery we made was the large cemetery near the temple. A preliminary survey showed that there was a large cemetery extending to the east and west of the temple, indicating a strong relation between the temple and the cemetery. The most important discovery here was a group of anthropoid coffins, along with the high quality of the mummification and the good preservation of the mummies.

The tombs had suffered many periods of destruction, but the artefacts recovered from them showed their richness. We were able to see golden masks on the mummies, as well as others that were in different colours and had hieroglyphic inscriptions. The mummies with gold are similar to the mummies discovered in the Valley of the Golden Mummies that I found recently in the Bahariya Oasis.

We also found offering tables, lamps, and glass vessels near the mummies and occasionally a layer of gold used to cover the open parts. One of the beautiful masks found was used for the mummy of a young lady. The mask is made of gypsum, with the remains of gold on it. I was also able to excavate a tomb on the side that contained a hidden shaft containing two mummies in gold cases. Other mummies were found with hieroglyphic inscriptions on the casing.

All the tombs in the cemetery are oriented in the direction of the temple. The style of the tombs found during the excavation fall into three categories: chamber tombs or hypogeum cuts into the mountain consisting of 13 steps down into a chamber or nave containing niches for burial; pit tombs having a simple shape and containing coffins cut into the mountain used for one or more burial; and anthropoid tombs that are similar to the pit tombs but have a human shape and contain only one burial.

The style of the tombs and the burials, as well as the pottery found, dates the cemetery to the end of the Ptolemaic Period or the beginning of the Roman Period in the first or second century CE. The style of the amphorae known as AE 3 and the decoration of the lamps are also strong evidence of this date.

This led to the conclusion that the excavation showed extensive human activity on the north side of the temple concentrated during the Roman and Byzantine periods. It was also proven that the camp of the Roman soldiers that was built inside the temple near the wall was not constructed at the beginning of the Roman Period, which indicates that the temple was not changed into a military citadel at the beginning of the Roman Period, as has been previously supposed.

The most important discovery at the temple occurred when we began to re-excavate the foundations of the main chapel that had been previously found by the Hungarian mission.

We were able to find three holes for temple objects. The Hungarian expedition had found a fourth hole located at the northeast corner, but they did not find any objects inside. They also destroyed a part of the two holes in the southeast and northwest corners and were unable to find the temple foundations.

We were able to discover a hole in the southwest corner in good condition, but we did not find any objects in it from the temple foundations. It may have been robbed in the Roman Period. But in the hole found in the northwest corner, we found three small stelae. The discovery of these objects can give us the date of the temple construction during the time of Ptolemy IV.

Some people believe that the cemetery was built by people who wanted to be buried near Osiris, but I believe that the cemetery was for people who wanted to be buried by an important person such as a king or a queen inside the temple. If one follows the sunset and observes how it sits on the akher (horizon) of the temple pylon, one can see the relation between the cemetery and the temple.

We conducted a radar survey of the temple, and this showed indications of three anomalies in the rock around a depth of 25 metres. We hope to be able to examine these locations in future excavations.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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