The Alexander Cipher
This book has been over a decade in the contemplation and writing, and during that time I’ve received help, encouragement, and advice from a great many people—too many to acknowledge individually. But I would particularly like to thank my UK and U.S. agents, Luigi Bonomi and George Lucas, and my editors, Wayne Brookes and Jaime Levine, both for seeing something they liked in the original manuscript and for helping me make it better. I’d also like to thank Colin Clement for correcting my worst excesses about life and archaeology in Alexandria and Egypt. It goes without saying that where any mistakes remain, they are mine alone.
After Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BC, his body was taken in a magnificent procession to Egypt for eventual burial in Alexandria, where it remained on display for some six hundred years.
Alexander’s mausoleum was considered a wonder of the world. Roman emperors including Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caracalla made pilgrimages there. Yet, after a series of earthquakes, fires, and wars, Alexandria fell into decline and the tomb was lost.
Despite numerous excavations, it has never been found.
The Libyan Desert, 318 BC
THERE WAS A FRESHWATER SPRING at the lowest point of the cave, like a single black nail at the tip of a twisted, charred, and mutilated leg. A thick layer of lichen and other scum clotted its surface, barely disturbed in centuries except to ripple and shiver at the touch of one of the insects that lived upon it, or to dimple with bubbles of gas belched from deep beneath the floor of the surrounding desert.
Suddenly, the skin burst and the head and shoulders of a man erupted from the water. His face was turned upward, and instantly he gasped huge heaves of air through his flared nostrils and gaping mouth, as though he’d been underwater beyond the limit of his endurance.
There was no light at all in the cave, not even a phosphorescence of water, and the man’s relief at surviving his underwater flight quickly turned to distress. Had he merely exchanged one mode of death for another? He felt around the edge of the pool until he found a low ledge. He heaved himself up, twisted around to sit on it. Almost as an afterthought, he reached beneath his soaking tunic for his dagger, but in truth, there was little danger of pursuit. He’d had to fight and kick his way through every inch of that watery escape. He’d like to see that fat, sword-wielding Libyan try to follow; for sure, he’d cork in the passage, and it wouldn’t spit him out till he’d lost some flesh.
Something whirred past his cheek. He cried out in terror and threw up his hands. The echo was curiously slow and deep for what he’d imagined to be a small cave. Something else flapped past him. It sounded like a bird, but no bird could navigate in such darkness. Perhaps a bat. He’d certainly seen colonies of them at dusk, swarming the distant orchards like midges. His hopes rose; if these were the same bats, there had to be a way out of here. After surveying the rock walls with his hands, he began to climb the gentlest one.
He wasn’t an athletic man, and the ascent was nightmarish in the dark, but at least the rough walls offered good holds. Each time he reached a dead end, he simply retreated and found another route. Hours passed, and more hours. He grew hungry and tired, but he didn’t allow himself to give up, and finally he reached a precarious ledge high above the cavern floor, just wide