It is the quintessential tale of ill-fated love. The story of the affair and tragic deaths of Queen Cleopatra VII and Roman general Marcus Antonius has echoed through the ages. Entombed together, they sleep an eternal slumber somewhere in Egypt. But where? The location of the tomb has been long lost to history and, despite regular reports that archaeologists are on the verge of its discovery, it remains missing. The tantalising prospect of its knowledge and treasures are seemingly beyond reach. With these treasures having the potential to eclipse the findings of Howard Carter and the tomb of Tutankhamun should it be discovered unopened, Cleopatra’s tomb would likely be one of the greatest treasures ever known to humanity.
It was in 32 BC that Octavian convinced the Roman Senate to declare war on Cleopatra of Egypt, the move would be the final play of a long-running rivalry between Octavian and Cleopatra’s lover Marcus Antonius, commonly known as Mark Antony. Octavian had successfully convinced Rome that Mark Anthony was turning traitor, being less than Roman for his affair with Cleopatra and a threat to Roman hegemony. The war would become known as the Last war of the Roman Republic.
Octavian defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in Alexandria on August 1, 30 BC. Faced with overwhelming defeat, Antony fell on his sword and allegedly died in his lover’s arms, the Pharaoh also committing suicide soon afterwards. Legend says she died from the venomous bite of an asp. Octavian would go on to rule the Roman Empire as the first emperor from 27 BC, beginning the era of Pax Romana.
According to Roman historians Suetonius and Plutarch, the victorious Octavian allowed Antony and Cleopatra to be buried together inside the tomb that they had already begun. Plutarch wrote that Octavian had given orders that Cleopatra’s “body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion” and that Mark Antony had been cremated.
“After Cleopatra had heard this, in the first place, she begged Caesar that she might be permitted to pour libations for Antony; and when the request was granted, she had herself carried to the tomb, and embracing the urn which held his ashes.”
However, the story that Mark Antony was cremated was contradicted by Suetonius. The historian claimed that the ill-fated lovers were entombed together and both given burials, Antony not being cremated at all.
“[Octavian] allowed them both the honour of burial and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished”
This tomb is believed by some in the Egyptian Antiquities Service to be located south of Alexandria at Taposiris Magna’s temple of Osiris. While this remains a working theory of those digging at the site, the location of the tomb remains officially unknown and disputed.
Initially, archaeologists had focused their efforts on locating the tomb at a location in Alexandra. The site is now submerged in the sea following an earthquake in the 8th century. However, through the work of famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and Dominican lawyer, archaeologist, and diplomat Kathleen Martínez, focus and press turned toward Taposiris Magna. These claims were given prominent coverage when Hawass announced that archaeologists working at the location might be close to discovering the tomb in 2009.
Never without his trademark “Indiana Jones” fedora, the charismatic and enthusiastic Hawass is a particular favourite of the media regarding all matters Egyptian. While some have accused him of over-exaggeration and playing to the press, his credentials as an archaeologist, Egyptologist, and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, are impeccable. His backing of the claims could not be easily dismissed.
“This could be the most important discovery of the 21st century. This is the perfect place for them to be hidden.”
Zahi Hawass, then Secretary-General of the SCA, Reuters
Archaeologists began to excavate at Taposiris Magna in 1998 and by 2006 were excavating at a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, one of three sites that they believed may contain the tomb of Antony and Cleopatra.
Behind the temple, a cemetery was discovered that contained Greco-Roman style mummies, all buried with their faces turned toward the temple. Speculation was immediately raised that it was a sign that a burial of high importance to the Greek Ptolemaic kingdom was buried inside the temple. Cleopatra was immediately brought to mind, having been of Greek descent herself. She was the last Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Egypt as a whole. Such was the devotion to their Greek heritage, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic Pharaoh to learn Egyptian. The dynasty had traditionally spoken only Greek and governed Egypt as Hellenistic Greek monarchs.
Taposiris Magna was established by Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus between 280 and 270 BC and may have played a role in trade between Egypt and Libya. Wine from the region was famous throughout the area during the age. With a name that meant “tomb of Osiris”, the ruins feature the temple as mentioned earlier to Isis and Osiris and what was long believed to be a lighthouse. The building is now thought to be purely funerary.
Archaeologists from Egypt and the Dominican Republic began excavating the temple of Taposiris Magna in 2002 and have so far discovered 27 tombs, 20 being shaped like vaulted sarcophagi while the other seven consist of staircases leading to simple burial chambers. Ten mummies have been found at the site, and two of them are gilded. Three shafts have been found that researchers suggest may have been used for burials. Other discoveries indicating that Antony and Cleopatra might be close include coins depicting Alexander the Great alongside others that represent the Pharaoh herself. A head of Cleopatra has been discovered alongside amulets and a headless statue that dates to the Ptolemaic Period. One of the discoveries may be a mask of Mark Antony.
Despite research that suggested that the beauty of Cleopatra had been exaggerated, Zahi Hawass was adamant that the findings at Taposiris Magna confirmed the legend. In typical style, he bullishly rejected other’s conclusions.
“What some scholars have said about Cleopatra being very ugly? The finds from Taposiris reflect a charm… and indicate that Cleopatra was in no way unattractive”
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of the State for Antiquities, BBC
Hawass and Martínez certainly seem to be two very conflicting characters, with the Dominican proud of being “the only woman who dares enter the labyrinths.” Were it not for Cleopatra, Martínez might never have become an archaeologist, focusing her academic endeavours on law rather than her passion for Egyptology. That was until an argument with her father in 1990 regarding the strength of her biography.
“My parents had convinced me that it was not worthwhile for me to be an archaeologist because I would never have a serious job and could not make a living from that profession. They convinced me.”
Martínez seems to have seen something of herself in Cleopatra, seeing a Pharaoh who thrived regardless of Roman propaganda and centuries of prejudice and oppression against women. Her research led to a startling theory — that Cleopatra had believed herself as a representation of Isis. Therefore, she was likely buried close to a temple dedicated to the goddess.
The theory was in direct conflict with prevailing views that the tomb of Cleopatra was now underwater at the palace of Alexandria, and Martínez was forced to fund the first exhibitions to Taposiris Magna herself.
These original theories had been developed by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio. Goddio had discovered the submerged city of Thonis-Heracleion in Aboukir Bay and led the excavation of Eastern Canopus and Antirhodos in Alexandria’s ancient harbour. However, not a single tomb from the Ptolemaic Kingdom has ever been found, and while it seems likely that they would have been buried close to the royal palace in Alexandria, that is by no means certain.
“The thing is, we don’t know where Alexander [the Great] or any of the 15 Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt were buried,” says Susan Walker, an honorary curator and former Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Walker believes that the tomb of Cleopatra and Antony is most likely with the other graves from the dynasty and either underwater or underneath modern developments in Alexandria. Walker rejects the likelihood of Taposiris Magna, stating that “my understanding is that the mummies found there are more likely to be high-status priests than members of the royal family.”
Despite the division over the claims of Cleopatra being present, there was still plenty of valuable archaeology being done at Taposiris Magna in any event. In 2010, the joint team discovered the limestone foundation stones that would once line the entrance to the temple. The same year they found a magnificently well-preserved statue of Ptolemy IV alongside the temple’s original gate on its western side.
“If we discover the tomb… it will be the most important discovery of the 21st century. If we do not discover the tomb… we made major discoveries here, inside the temple and outside the temple.”
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of the State for Antiquities, The Independent
By 2012, the search at the site was running into strife. Bedouin tribesmen were said to be increasingly concerned about one of the labyrinths, claiming that “anyone who goes in there vanishes forever.” While this might seem like superstition, reports of curses are mere flavour, and the truth is that the dig had become beset by surprise pieces of history — bombs and bodies from the battle of El Alamein during the Second World War.
“We’ve contacted the Army. We found the remains of Italian and New Zealand soldiers. We’ve turned over more than 60 bombs. Some soldiers were burned alive within the tunnels. There’s so much story in those tombs, from the pharaohs to the 2nd World War.”
Kathleen Martínez, Dominican Today
Work was halted on the excavations in 2013 following the coup d ‘état that saw Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. All archaeological offices throughout the country were “practically closed”, and Martínez was unable to renew her permit to work due to the chaos.
“At present, there is no quorum for the Permanent Supreme Council of Antiquities to meet; it is made up of about 100 university professors, and right now they have other priorities, like how to prevent museums from being looted”
Kathleen Martínez, Dominican Today
Martínez and Zahi Hawass eventually returned to work and by 2015 and, with Egypt making attempts to fund and promote its rich cultural heritage to recover the tourism industry, found efforts given new urgency and coverage in the press. Showing journalists around the site, Hawass presented the assembled media with the mask that is believed to depict Mark Antony, joking that it might just as quickly be Richard Burton, the actor who played the general in the 1963 movie, Cleopatra. There was significant news behind the theatre, however. That being the discovery of the cemetery at the site.
“The discovery of the cemetery this week really convinced me that there is someone important buried inside this temple. No one would be buried outside a temple without reason. We saw that in the pharaonic days; they were always buried beside pyramids”
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of the State for Antiquities, SBSNews
However, by 2019, Hawass’ tendency to talk big seemingly got him into trouble. Speaking in Palermo, the archaeologist allegedly told those attending one of his lectures that he was on the verge of finding the tomb. Reports soon appeared in the press, including Egypt’s biggest daily newspaper Al-Ahram. Not only was he forced to deny the claims, but he also refuted the entire hypothesis behind Martínez’s Isis temple theory, stating that “the Egyptians never buried inside a temple” and that “the temples were for worshiping, and this was for the goddess Isis. It is therefore unlikely that Cleopatra was buried there.”
It was earlier this year, however, that the two gilded mummies were found at the Taposiris Magna, with Glenn Godenho, a senior lecturer in Egyptology at Liverpool University, describing the finds as “spectacular”. Once covered in gold leaf, the mummies were speculated to be from the upper echelons of Egyptian society and perhaps even known to Cleopatra.
“Although now covered in dust from 2,000 years underground, at the time these mummies would have been spectacular. To be covered in gold leaf shows they would have been important members of society”
Glenn Godenho, senior lecturer in Egyptology at Liverpool University
Kathleen Martínez remains convinced that Cleopatra’s tomb will be found at Taposiris Magna, with only a small percentage of the site having been excavated so far. However, the claims of Martínez are very much a personal crusade and many others don’t believe that the tomb is anywhere near the site, with most assuming the tomb remains underwater.
“There is no evidence at all that Cleopatra’s tomb could be in [Taposiris Magna]. I believe now that Cleopatra was buried in her tomb that she built next to her palace, and it is under the water. Her tomb will never be found.”
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of the State for Antiquities, Live Science
While the work at Taposiris Magna must never be discounted, with valuable additions to Egyptology already having been discovered, the likelihood that Egypt’s last Queen lays under Abukir Bay remains the most likely conclusion.
“It’s worth pointing out that there is much to this place besides Cleopatra though — archaeological work here is set to help us understand more about its role in trade between Mediterranean and African worlds, religious activity and afterlife beliefs, social structures and population. … There’s also the question of how far back in time use of this place goes. Cleo’s just one thread of business, and we shouldn’t take our eye off the bigger picture”
Glenn Godenho, senior lecturer in Egyptology at Liverpool University
While many hold out hope that Kathleen Martínez has invoked some of the spirit of Cleopatra as a strong lone voice in the traditional world of men, the reality might sadly be that the dreams of finding another Tutankhamun’s tomb were destroyed long ago. Entombed for eternity and never to be disturbed, perhaps that’s precisely how Antony and Cleopatra would have wanted to spend their eternal rest.
“She shall be buried by her Antony,
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous.”
Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5 Scene 2
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