History Stories

Some had hoped the sarcophagus contained Alexander the Great—the reality is much grosser.

This summer, construction workers discovered an enormous, 2,000-year-old sarcophagus in Alexandria, Egypt. The sheer size of the black granite tomb—it’s over six feet tall and nearly nine feet long—sparked speculation that it contained someone of great importance, perhaps even Alexander the Great.

But when experts opened the sarcophagus on Thursday, they instead found three mummies decomposing in dark-red liquid. No, this wasn’t a Plagues of Egypt situation—the bloody-looking substance was sewage that had leaked inside.

Archaeologists speculate that in life, these mummies were soldiers. One clue is a skull that appears to have arrow damage. Another indication is the lack of decoration in the sarcophagus.

Wealthy and important people received the best treatment when it came time for mummification and burial. In an ancient mummy workshop recently discovered in the Saqqara necropolis outside Memphis, archaeologists found what they think is the tomb of a second priest to the goddess Mut. The priest’s status was signified by a detailed death mask, beaded netting and gilded images of gods.

In contrast, the lack of death masks and other decorations in the massive granite sarcophagus signals that these mummies weren’t high-status figures like royals or priests. One of the things that threw examiners off was an alabaster bust found near the tomb, which seemed to indicate that a person of important status was buried there.

A photo released on July 19, 2018 by the Egyptian Antiques ministry showing the skeletons found in the black granite sarcophagus uncovered early this month, filled with sewage water. (Credit: Egyptian Antiquities Ministry/AFP/Getty Images)

A photo released on July 19, 2018 by the Egyptian Antiques ministry showing the skeletons found in the black granite sarcophagus uncovered early this month, filled with sewage water. (Credit: Egyptian Antiquities Ministry/AFP/Getty Images)

“The alabaster head is likely that of a nobleman in Alexandria,” said Ayman Ashmawy, the head of ancient artifacts at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, to The Guardian before opening the sarcophagus.

Some experts date the Alexandria burial site to the Ptolemaic period, circa 323-30 B.C., which began with the death of Alexander the Great and the accession of Ptolemy I and ended with Cleopatra. People speculated the sarcophagus might contain Alexander the Great because he was supposedly buried in the Alexandria, the city he founded and named after himself.

In the lead-up to the tomb opening, Twitter users joked that opening the sarcophagus would unleash a curse à la the 1932 film The Mummy and its loose remakes with Brendan Fraser in 1999 and Tom Cruise in 2017.

“If we’ve learned anything from every Mummy movie of the last 100 years, its that this sarcophagus must not be opened,” tweetedJeet Heer, a staff writer at The New Republic. In another tweet, author Zoraida Córdova speculated about what could be inside: “I hope it’s Brendan [Fraser] from the 90s” (didn’t we all).

The jokes gained so much attention that “the curse” even came up when Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, spoke to reporters at the archaeological site.

“We’ve opened it and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness,” Waziri said, according to Reuters. “I was the first to put my whole head inside the sarcophagus…and here I stand before you… I am fine.”

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