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Experts May Be the Closest to Finding Cleopatra’s Long-Lost Tomb Than Ever Before

Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images and Roland Unger / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images and Roland Unger / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Archaeologists have discovered a remarkable tunnel located underneath the Taposiris Magna Temple in Egypt. Its location matches up with theories about where Cleopatra’s body was buried, and excavations have begun in hopes of finding the Egyptian queen’s long-lost tomb.

Cleopatra’s tragic death

A color painting of the death of Cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra, 1785. Private Collection. (Photo Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Cleopatra VII ruled as queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 BC until her death in 30 BC. During her time as queen, she had multiple love affairs with politicians, most notably Roman dictator Julius Caesar and Roman politician Marc Antony. Her relationships were historically famous, even serving as the plot of the William Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra.

Her reign and love affairs changed the course of history. Following her defeat by the Roman Empire, Rome took over Egypt. In an effort to prevent herself from being paraded as a trophy of Roman victory, Cleopatra ended her life. Her death signaled the end of the Hellenistic period.

If her tomb is here, it is very symbolic

Temple wall ruins on a hill, the blue sky contrasting the sandy color of the walls
North facade of the Osiris Temple ruin in Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria, facing the sea. (Photo Credit: Koantao / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony was significant and complex, but their deaths were even more so. Both Cleopatra and Antony died by suicide, Antony going first following his defeat to Octavian. After his death, Cleopatra negotiated with Octavian to have Antony’s body buried in Egypt.

Maiken Mosleth King, a lecturer in ancient history from the University of Bristol’s Department of Classics and Ancient History, explained how symbolic it would be if the couple was buried at the Taposiris Magna Temple, otherwise known as the “great tomb of Osiris.” “If Cleopatra and Antony were buried in this temple, this would have made a powerful political and religious statement, likening the death of Antony to the murder of Osiris,” he said.

By being buried here, Cleopatra and Antony would have eternal life together, living in different forms of existence. If Cleopatra had herself and Antony buried at the temple, they would be seen as the reenactments of Isis and Osiris.

“This would also have placed Cleopatra in the role of the dutiful mourning wife Isis, for posterity to see. To the Egyptian public, it would have sent the message that the god-like power of the Pharaohs could not be extinguished by Roman savagery,” King explained.

The discovery of the tunnel

Archaeologist sitting at a hole int he ground, walls around her
Kathleen Martinez, an Egyptologist from the Dominican Republic, sits near a grave found at the temple of Tasposiris Magna near Borg al-Arab, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Alexandria, on April 19, 2009. (Photo Credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP / Getty Images)

The tunnel that’s believed to be the key to finding Cleopatra’s tomb was discovered under the Taposiris Magna Temple, located near the once-capital city of Alexandria. Thirteen meters underground, it is 0.8 miles long and has a height of about six feet.

When it was first discovered, it was said to resemble the Tunnel of Eupalinos which is located on the Greek island of Samos. The Tunnel of Eupalinos is considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of its period, and the newly discovered temple is no different.

Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry has described the tunnel as a “geometric miracle.” Kathleen Martinez, who headed the joint excavation, said, “This is the first time that any archeologist has found tunnels, passages underground [and] inside the enclosure walls of the temple, so we have changed forever what they know about the architecture.”

Parts of the tunnel were submerged in water, confirming a theory that the Taposiris Magna Temple’s foundations are underwater. This is thought to have been caused by a number of earthquakes that occurred between 320 and 1303 AD.

Other findings

A hand holds the head of a small statue in front of an excavation site
An alabaster statue of Cleopatra is shown to the press at the temple of Tasposiris Magna near Borg al-Arab, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Alexandria, on April 19, 2009. (Photo Credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP / Getty Images)

Numerous artifacts have been found inside of the tunnel, further suggesting that the tomb of Cleopatra may be nearby. Two mummies with gold leaf-wrapped tongues were found in a poor state of preservation, a result of the water found under the temple. The golden tongues are a clear sign that they were of society’s elite class, and they may have interacted with Cleopatra personally.

A cemetery was also located facing the temple, indicating that a royal may be buried nearby. Other items found at the site included a variety of coins with the names of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great on them, beheaded statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, multiple pottery vessels, and a block of limestone.

Martinez is a self-taught archaeologist

An archaeologist holds the remains of a statue's face, excavation site in the background
Kathleen Martinez displays a mask believed to depict Roman general Marc Anthony found at the temple of Tasposiris Magna near Borg al-Arab, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Alexandria, on April 19, 2009. (Photo Credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP / Getty Images)

Martinez’s search for Cleopatra’s tomb and her work at the Taposiris Magna Temple has stretched over 15 years. “As a result of 10 years of study of Cleopatra’s historical character … I need to come to Egypt to the field to see the remains of this temple to be sure that these remains have the possibility of being the lost tomb of Cleopatra,” she said

Martinez made this discovery as a self-taught archaeologist. “I don’t think 100 per cent as an archaeologist, because my first training is as a criminal lawyer, so I took Cleopatra as a case,” she said. It didn’t take her long to recognize that this particular area of the temple that they were searching in could very well lead to the tomb of Cleopatra.

“After three months studying the area, I realised it was the perfect place for Cleopatra’s tomb. Nobody ever came out with this idea,” she explained. “This is the first time that any archeologist has found tunnels, passages underground [and] inside the enclosure walls of the temple.”

Martinez is committed to continuing the search for Cleopatra’s tomb, however long that may take. “If there’s a one per cent chance that the last queen of Egypt could be buried there, it is my duty to search for her,” she said. She also noted that should the tunnel lead to Cleopatra’s tomb, it would be “the most important discovery of the 21st century.”

Martinez has an update about her search

Headshot of Robert Ballard.
Robert Ballard at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in April 2017. (Photo Credit: Daniel Zuchnik / WireImage / Getty Images)

Martinez has provided an update on her search for Cleopatra’s tomb following a lecture she gave on February 13, 2024. She explained how all 14 Ptolemy Pharaohs have been missing, with the belief being that they were all buried in the ancient city of Alexandria, which is now submerged underwater. Following a shift to her extensive research, she sought to prove that the Taposiris Magna temple was dedicated to the Goddess Isis, whom Cleopatra believed she was the reincarnation of, for 500 years.

During their search, they found several artifacts that suggested it was, in fact, a temple dedicated to Isis, such as a “foundation plate” with an inscription that reads, “The King of high and low Egypt Ptolemy V lives forever beloved by Isis, son of Ptolemy IV King of high and low Egypt, and his wife, Arsenoe III, both benevolent Gods, consecrated this temple to the mother Isis,” and coins with “Queen Cleopatra” written on one side and her face shown on the other. 

Martinez then theorized that if Alexandria was underwater, then the second temple (there were usually two temples: one for the male god and one for the female goddess) must also be underwater. She enlisted the help of legendary sub-aquatic archaeologist Robert Ballard, the man responsible for discovering the Titanic wreck, and sought the approval of the local government to search the submerged area known to have been Alexandria which had previously been off-limits. After being granted permission, the team discovered several things underwater, including unnatural structures that would not just form from the sea, as well as basalt, the same material found in statues at the first temple.

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They believe their findings suggest a land structure once existed there before the city was submerged, and they hope it is the temple they are searching for. Ultimately, they found five points of interest that they are eager to explore more during their next permit season. 

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!