Chroniclers have left tantalizing descriptions of two edifices that once overlooked the crossroads of the ancient city. Our word “museum” derives from the Mouseion (Shrine of the Muses), a complex incorporating lecture halls, laboratories, observatories and the legendary Mother Library, founded by Ptolemy I (323–282 BC), the first dynasty to rule Alexandria in antiquity. Across the way stood the Soma (literally, “dead body”), a temple where Alexander the Great was entombed alongside several Ptolemies. Alexander reposed in a gold sarcophagus until Ptolemy IX melted it down to mint coins during a crisis, but his body remained on view long after the dynasty had fallen. The victorious Octavian paid his respects to Alexandria’s founder but disdained his heirs, stating, “I wished to see a king, I did not wish to see corpses.” According to one chronicler, Octavian accidentally broke Alexander’s nose while bending to kiss the dead conqueror.

What happened to Alexander’s body later remains a mystery. Folklore has it that his tomb lies beneath the Mosque of Nabi Daniel, but most scholars now believe that the Romans reburied him outside the Royal Quarter, in what is now Shatby, where the Christian cemeteries are today (see Bab Sharq). Another theory is that it reposes in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

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