Throughout history there have been those great figures whose names everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they actually know anything about them. These are the big hitters of history, seemingly larger than life, almost transcending the bounds of physical entities to become legends. Yet for as well known as they are and for as much as historians might know about their deaths, some of these legendary figures have managed to pose great mysteries in their passing, leading mighty lives only to vanish without a trace after death, only their memories remaining.
Going back into the mists of time we have the great Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, and her Roman General lover Mark Anthony. When Antony and Cleopatra were defeated in a massive naval battle against Octavian’s forces the during at the 31 BC Battle of Actium, Octavian moved to invade Egypt in 30 BC. Antony’s forces were crushed, and in defeat he committed suicide, likely by stabbing himself, although no one is quite certain. When Cleopatra learned of this death and was faced with being brought in before to a Roman triumphal in celebration of the loathed Octavian’s victory, she too killed herself in a fit of depression and defiance.
Mysteries have long swirled ever since around Cleopatra’s death, and despite the fact that she is one of the most recognizable, iconic, and well-known rulers in history, even all the way up into modern times, there is much we still don’t know about her last days and moments. One persistent mystery is how she died in the first place. The most common theory is that she killed herself by enticing an asp or other venomous snake to bite her arm, but there are all sorts of other ideas, including that she used a poison loaded hairpin she is said to have carried at all times, that she applied some sort of poisonous ointment to her skin, or that she simply overdosed on opium. No one really knows. We also don’t know where her final resting place is, as it was never recorded, although it was written that she was buried together with Mark Antony.
It has been theorized that Cleopatra would have had a tomb prepared for herself in some form, probably near Alexandria, but where it could be is anyone’s guess. There have been many digs trying to find the lost tomb of Cleopatra, and in 2009 archeologists investigated a promising site at the Taposiris Magna temple in Abusir, Egypt. Here there were found mummies, busts featuring her visage, a mask believed to have belonged to Mark Anthony, and coins with their likenesses, all of which seemed to suggest that Cleopatra and Antony were not far away, but the dig was ultimately unsuccessful. In more recent years it has been suggested that her tomb in fact might now lie under the sea, and in the end the lost tomb of Cleopatra is one of the holy grails of archeology.
Just as famous as Cleopatra was the iconic Alexander III of Macedon, more popularly known as Alexander the Great, who ruled from 356 BC to 323 BC and is well-known for his reign of stunning conquests spanning an empire from Greece to India and covering large swaths of Asia and northeast Africa. His inexorable, unstoppable path of victory came to an end in 323 BC, when he was killed in Babylon. His body was then supposedly placed within an opulent sarcophagus fashioned of solid gold and filled with honey, all of which was then placed within a golden casket and put on display in a tomb in Alexandria, where the sarcophagus was visited by such notable historical figures as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, Octavian, Caligula, Hadrian, Severus, Caracalla, and many others. The tomb was finally sealed after it was plundered for gold and Alexander’s breast plate was stolen, and it remained that way until Christianity came to the region in the 4th century and paganism was outlawed. After this, Alexander the Great’s tomb and casket just sort of vanished off the face of the earth. To this day no one has any idea where Alexander the Great’s tomb and sarcophagus are, with it being theorized to rest at a variety of places including Alexandria, Greece, or even all the way over in Venice, but despite countless expeditions it remains one of the great historical mysteries.
Speaking of empire building warlords, here we have the founder and first emperor of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan. During his reign and ruthless expansion across vast areas he would conquer regions sprawled out from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific and encompassing large portions of Eurasia and most of Central Asia and China. It would become one of the largest empires the world has ever known, all fashioned through a brutal and bloody campaign, and all darkly shadowed by a cloud of violent genocide and punctuated by the merciless massacres of countless innocent people. Genghis Khan is one of the most notorious, vicious, and feared tyrants in history, and upon his death on August 18, 1227 during a military campaign in China it is probably safe to say that there was no love lost among the cowering populace of the lands he had held in an iron, ravenous grip. However, for as much as we know about his specacular life, his death and final resting place remain complete mysteries.
One mystery is his exact cause of death, which has been variously theorized to have been dying in action, falling from a horse, or succumbing to some illness or infection of a wound, or even being murdered by his own men, but no one really knows. What we do know is that Genghis Khan had stipulated to his men that upon his death he was to be buried in an unmarked grave and its location kept a total secret. To this end, his closest men really went overboard. It is said that the location where he was buried was intentionally trampled over by nearly a thousand horsemen in order to mask its location, after which every single one of the horsemen was killed. Even as the body was being moved to its final resting place it is believed that his personal funeral escort had everyone who witnessed their movements executed, as well as the ones who dug the grave, to keep it all secret, with the final result being that no one has a clue as to where one of the most fearsome warlords in history is buried.
Of course with such a veil of secrecy there are other legends surrounding the grave of Genghis Khan as well, such as the legend that a whole river was diverted over the burial site to hide it. Although there is a mausoleum with some of Genghis Khan’s possessions located in the town of Ejin Horo Banner, Inner Mongolia, this is not his actual resting place, and archeologists have scoured the world trying to locate it, utilizing ground penetrating radar, satellite imagery, and all manner of cutting edge technology, but it has evaded all attempts to find it and remains lost to history.
Quite similar is the lost grave of another great ruler, Attila the Hun, who ruled the Huns from 434 to 453, and was the head of a great empire of tribes that stretched across large swaths of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern Europe. He was known as a fearsome conqueror and plunderer who sought to spread out across Europe and Persia seeking to invade and dominate new lands, constantly battling the Romans and establishing himself as one of the Roman Empire’s greatest foes. In 453 Attila the Hun would according to records die a rather unusual death when he purportedly choked on a nosebleed at his own wedding feast, an odd end to such a ferocious and feared conqueror. Upon his death, it is said that Attila the Hun was buried within a coffin lavishly covered with gold and silver and filled with gems and other treasure, and that just as with Genghis Khan a river was diverted to hide the grave, and everyone who dug it was mercilessly killed to preserve its secret. Attila the Hun’s grave has never been found, and both he and even the Hunnic people themselves largely remain mysteries.
In later eras we have other tyrants and rulers who are known for their mysterious graves. Between 1448 to 1476, the area of modern day Romania known as Wallachia was ruled by Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and perhaps even more known as the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as for his infamous cruelty and his gruesome habit of impaling enemies on spikes. Vlad the Impaler was killed in battle against Ottoman forces and his body supposedly decapitated and chopped into pieces, but where his final grave is has remained a mystery. It was long thought that he was interred in the Monastery of Snagov outside of Bucharest, with an unmarked tombstone long thought to be his. However, in the 1930s this grave was dug up only to find the bones and jaws of horses. Since then there have been many proposed sites for Vlad the Impaler’s final resting place, but so far it has not been found, and the grave of the real life Dracula remains steeped in mystery.
It is not only rulers and warlords who are well known for their elusive final resting places, and some of the more famous mysterious lost graves belong to well-known artists. Perhaps the most famous of all of these is that of the great artist, inventor, overall polymath and master of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci. After dying in 1519 at the age of 67, which was quite old for the era, Da Vinci was supposedly interred beneath a church that was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1789. When workers rebuilding the site went through the rubble, they are said to have found some human remains and a part of a demolished headstone that were believed to have belonged to Da Vinci, and that these were brought to another chapel. Although his official resting place is France’s Chateau d’Amboise, it is still unknown if these remains and the piece of headstone kept there are really his at all, and even the description displayed at the grave explains it as merely the “presumed remains” of Da Vinci.
There is also the story of the grave of one of history’s great composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died in 1791 at the age of 35 from an unidentified illness. Considering how incredibly famous Mozart has become over the centuries, one would think that his grave would be known as well, but this does not seem to be the case. One of the problems is that in life he was not nearly as well-known as he would go on to be, after his death, and so his burial was not all that big of an event. In fact, it seems what has gone on to be considered one of the greatest composers of all time was rather unceremoniously put in a cheap wooden coffin and buried in a cemetery in a common, unmarked grave, possibly even buried in a sort of mass grave with others. Making things even more difficult is that in that era it was common to remove all of the graves to make way for new ones every 10 years, so Mozart’s remains could have gone anywhere, possibly even crushed or cremated and otherwise destroyed. In 1801, a gravedigger came forward to claim that he had in his possession the skull of Mozart, but DNA tests in later years have cast doubt on this. Where are Mozart’s remains? Ideas range from that they have vanished forever to that fans of the composer had them moved to a safe location, but in the end no one really knows.
Here we have looked at only a few of the lost graves and tombs of some of history’s most important people. Where did they go? How could such prominent, larger than life figures in life just disappear into the ether in death? Some of these lost graves have gone on to become some of the most highly sought after treasures in archeology, yet they remain hidden and evasive, keeping their secrets close. One day we may find the answers we seek, but for now these spectacular historical figures remain enigmas in death, seemingly eveporating into the mists of time.