Saint Sisoes and Alexander the Great's Bones / by Chris Hall

After the fall of Constantinople in 1452 to the Ottoman Turks, there appeared to the newly subjugated Greeks an image of the 4th century ascetic, Saint Sisoes, lamenting over over the bones of the pagan emperor, Alexander the Great.  This strange icon is called the Astonishment of Saint Sisoes, and in it Saint Sisoes not only contemplates the death of a man, but also an entire earthly empire.  The icon first started to appear in Greek monasteries, but quickly spread to other monasteries throughout the former Byzantine Empire.  The inscription accompanying these icons reads:

Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory.  Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

“The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me and causes my heart to shed tears, as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe.  How can I possibly stand it?  Oh, death!  Who can evade you?”

The icon, then, is a Greek memento mori (Latin: “Remember your mortality”), made more powerful by showing one of the greatest rulers in history – a  man who conquered half of the known world – as a pile of bones.  This recalls the famous quote, from an unknown source, on Alexander the Great which says, “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”

The pre-Christian Roman Emperors all believed their lineage could be traced to Alexander the Great, and this belief endured with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, all the way through to the final emperor, Constantine the XI.  Alexander the Great was looked upon as the prime exemplar of earthly governance (a tradition which continued through the Middle Ages, with the Alexander Romances).  The icons of Saint Sisoes Astonished Before the Bones of Alexander the Great, then, was not just a reminder of death as the great equalizer, or the great brought low, but of the passing of an entire Empire, stretching back almost 2,000 years.

The location of Alexander the Great's body is mystery.  After his death in 323 BCE, the emperor was ceremoniously buried in the city that bore his name, Alexandria in Egypt.  The tomb was a place of pilgrimage for the pagan Emperors, with Alexander being worshiped as a kind of demi-god.  This all stopped when Christianity was made the official state religion of the Empire during the rule of Theodosius.  Without imperial patronage, pagan shrines and temple slowly fell into disuse.  In some areas, however, such as in Egypt, old pagan shrines and temples were destroyed quickly, and with extreme prejudice.  While Alexander the Great was held in great esteem by the Christians for his earthly accomplishments, they drew the line at worship.  It was under these circumstances that Alexander the Great's tomb disappeared, sometime in the late 4th century.  

Sisoes, as an Egyptian living during this time, might very well have witnessed the destruction of Alexander's tomb.  Saint Sisoes the Great, as he would be called after his death, was a solitary, ascetic monk, living in the Egyptian desert, in a cave sanctified by his predecessor, Saint Anthony the Great.  He lived there for sixty years, seeking the spiritual sublime, and was said to have been granted the gift of wonder-working, so that by his prayers he was once even able to restore a dead child back to life.