Was Alexander the Great Really Buried in a Giant Vat of Honey?

Ancient History

Alexander the Great had a relatively calm burial. But, of course, it wasn’t anything average, which you’d expect of a guy whom history has given such an impressive moniker. The exact location of Alexander’s tomb is up for debate, but it definitely hung out in Alexandria, Egypt, for a long period of time. It is known that one of his successors, Ptolemy (the first of that name to rule Egypt), took Alexander’s body to Alexandria, perhaps stealing it from another of the diadochi, or successors of Alexander, named Perdiccas. After all, the conqueror’s body would be a relic to the many who regarded him as divine, and he who possessed it might be seen as imbued with some of Alex’s power posthumous.

Alexander The Great1

In Egypt, the tomb of Alexander became a big tourist attraction (read: the king was on display like a “Ripley’s Believe or Not” figure for centuries). In the first century C.E., Strabo wrote about the an area in Alexandria dubbed the Sema, an “enclosure which contained the burial-places of the kings and that of Alexander.” According to Strabo, Alexander rested in a glass sarcophagus because one of the greedy Ptolemies melted down his original golden one.

In the twentieth century, archaeologist E.A. Wallis Budge resurrected an old story, that Alexander was preserved in honey. That idea most prominently appeared in the Silvae of the first-century poet Statius, who claimed that, in Alexandria, “Alexander/Warring founder of the city, sleeps drenched in honey/From Hybla.”

Tomb Of Alexander The Great

In his aptly-titled Mummy, Budge cited a translation of an ancient Arabic manuscript that made this assertion, while another medieval text he mentioned had Alexander asking for his body to be preserved in honey, myrrh, and raise oil. Budge then claimed that the Egyptians embalmed their own people in honey, and “the body of Alexander the Great was also preserved in ‘white honey which had not been melted.'”

The sources to which Budge refers seem to have been much later than most of the classical ones, but they could well have represented independent traditions not recorded by many of the ancient chroniclers. But the ancient Egyptians, though skilled bee-keepers, didn’t use honey to embalm the deceased (except for its wax, utilized as a means to seal canopic jars), and, if Alexander was embalmed, it would have been done in Babylon, where he died. In other cultures, especially in Eastern Europe, honey, however, was often used to dry out and mummify bodies.

So was Alexander really buried in a giant honey pot? Probably not, but the sweet stuff may well have been used as a preservative agent while Ptolemy was toting his former boss’s corpse all across the Near East. Alex was probably embalmed for the long journey, but the exact substances used to do so probably will never be known.



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