- Giorgos Christides
- Special for BBC, Amphipolis, Greece
The discovery of a huge tomb in northern Greece has fascinated the whole world.
Who is buried there? they wonder.
In early August, a team of Greek archaeologists led by Katerina Peristeri unearthed what authorities say is the largest burial site discovered in the country. And data from the time of Alexander the Great.
The tomb is in ancient Amphipolis, an important city of the kingdom of Macedonia, 100 km east of Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece.
Its structure dates back to the end of the 4th century BC and is 500m wide, larger than the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, located in Vergina, west of Thessaloniki.
“We are watching the excavation at Amphipolis with amazement and deep emotion,” Konstantinos Tasoulas, Greece’s culture minister, told the BBC.
“It is a funerary monument of unique dimensions and impressive artistic mastery. The most beautiful secrets are hidden right under our feet.”
If you want to know who Alexander the Great was, go to the end of this note.
ancient and modern guardians
Inside the tomb, archaeologists will enjoy two magnificent caryatids.
Each of the sculpted female figures has an outstretched arm, presumably to deter intruders from entering the main chamber of the tomb.
And their modern counterparts are sitting in a police car, about 200m from the entrance of the tomb. The excavation is protected 24 hours a day by two policemen.
Their mission is to keep out the dozens of journalists and tourists who arrive here on a winding dirt road from the nearest village, Mesolakkia.
And in case it’s not clear, a towering “Do Not Enter” sign serves the same purpose.
The excavation team has not made any statement on the identity of the tomb’s occupant.
But that hasn’t stopped the media, archaeologists, and ordinary people from already placing their bets.
Archaeologists agree that the tomb’s magnificence means it was built for a notable person, perhaps a family director of Alexander the Great. Perhaps his mother, Olympias, or his wife, Roxana, or some Macedonian nobleman.
Others say it could be a cenotaph.
But only the excavation team can give definitive answers. And progress has been slow, as workers need a third chamber that is in danger of collapsing.
The experts have not reached a verdict. But for the few hundred inhabitants of Amphipoli and Mesolakkia, the two towns closest to the excavation site, there is no doubt: inside the imposing marble-walled tomb that lies a few meters from their homes, there can be no other than Alexander the Great.
“Only Alexander deserves a similar monument,” says Antonis Papadopoulos, a 61-year-old farmer, over coffee in a tavern opposite Amphipoli’s archaeological museum.
“The magnitude and opulence of this tomb is unique. Common sense says that it is he who is entombed there.”
Archaeologists and the Greek culture ministry warn instead that this is just speculation, especially since Alexander the Great is believed to have been buried in Egypt.
“We are naturally anxious to learn the identity of the occupant of the tomb, but that will be revealed in due course by the excavators,” says Minister Tasoulas.
The discovery, the fruit of two years of excavations, was announced during a visit by Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, who visited the site last month, describing it as “very important.”
Since that announcement, Amphipoli and Mesolakkia have filled with people, with a bustle that breaks into the slow and calm rhythm of village life.
“Journalists and visitors suddenly started coming from all over Greece and abroad. We used to walk around the site every day, working in the fields,” says Athanasios Zournatzis, a community leader from Mesolakkia.
“We knew there was something there, but we didn’t expect the magnitude of this discovery.”
A Belgian couple passing by tells me that they traveled here after reading about the tomb in the newspaper.
The find has stirred up a wave of Greek pride and patriotism, taking the spotlight, at least temporarily, out of economic troubles.
In Mesolakkia, the meeting point for journalists and travelers is a traditional kafenio, or café, with a large plane tree shaded from the hot September sun.
Zournatzis says that the villagers hope “they have won the lottery.”
Father Konstantinos, a 92-year-old priest, says he is attentive to events and “shares the enthusiasm.”
Local residents say they have already received offers to sell their land, but many want to wait until archaeologists make the official announcement.
“Before the discovery, the land here was worth almost nothing. But now nobody sells it,” says Menia Kyriakou, a Mesolakkia resident.
A group of women drinking coffee at a nearby table explain that it is not so easy to find out the latest news about the tomb.
Eleni Tzimoka, who recently returned to the town from Thessaloniki, says they are waiting in the cafe for the phone company to install an internet connection.
“We know the tomb story is great, but without access to the red, it’s hard to keep up to date.”
Who was Alexander the Great
- He was born in the year 356 BC in Pella, son of Philip II of Macedonia and Olympia, and was educated by Aristotle.
- Became king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia at the age of 20
- After his military victories in the Persian territories of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, he was “great king” of Persia at the age of 25
- He founded 70 cities and an empire that reached as far as the Punjab region of northwestern India.
- He died in 323 BC in Babylon, a victim of fever.