I was always fascinated by the story of St. Mark, whose remains are richly guarded under the main altar inside the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Especially when I look at the beautiful mosaic on the facade of the Basilica where the remains of San Marco are covered with a blue sheet… like he had just died yesterday instead of 800 years earlier!
Why Mark the Evangelist in Venice?
St. Mark was well educated, and travelled extensively. He was in Rome in AD 42; Peter encountered Mark and took him as a travel companion and interpreter.
Tradition has it that Mark was sent by Peter to Aquileia, to take care of the evangelization of the north-east area. Mark was responsible for the choice of the first bishop of the mother church of Aquileia.
Mark eventually decided to go back to Alexandria (Egypt), he embarked but was surprised by a storm, landing on the Rialtine islands (the first nucleus of the future Venice), where he fell asleep and dreamed of an Angel who greeted him: “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” and promised him that in those islands he would find peace at last.
And this last part is all made up by the Venetians because they needed a beautiful story.
As a matter of fact, the then Doge wanted to consolidate the supremacy of Venice—back then relics of a certain level were a guarantee for a future ecclesiastical seat. And what relic can be more prestigious than that of the apostle who converted that area?
It was Aquileia, not Venice, but Venetians didn’t see much of a difference! Transferring the veneration of the saint to Venice would have brought enormous benefits, including economic ones.
St. Mark preached in Alexandria (Egypt), he was also the first bishop of the city. Belief reports that Mark was martyred there, dragged by horses until his head was off and as a sign of further contempt burned at stake; it is said that some faithful have managed to steal the burnt remains for a worthy burial.
The relics—or just a few bones—were thus stolen on commission from the Doge in 828, in Alexandria in Egypt. The protagonists are two merchants/CIA spies: Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello.
The Plot Thickens
When Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello arrived in Alessandria to steal St. Mark relics they were facilitated by the priests, who, to protect the relics, allowed the two Venetians to take away the remains of the Saint (or, perhaps, they were bribed). But when they pushed aside the tombstone, they noticed that there were two bodies. Having no time to investigate, the merchants put all the remains in a large basket, covering it with pig heads to hide the spicy scents coming from one of the mummies (and dispel the inspection of the Islamic port authorities, just like nowadays using coffee to dissipate the sniffing off drugs).
St. Mark or Alexander the Great?
In 1811 it was decided to inspect the burial and to move St. Mark under the main altar to avoid the risk of flooding.
The inspector, Count Manin, found two corpses, one intact, including the head, of the other only a few bones. At that time there was no DNA evidence or Carbon 14 analysis and the investigations were superficial. Therefore it ended there, without too much fuss.
Alexander the Great was buried in Alexandria. He died in 323, Alexander was embalmed and transported to Egypt, he was then transferred to Alexandria and placed in a mausoleum.
In short, in the same place the body of St. Mark appeared and that of Alexander disappeared (officially).
Of course, it would be a nice sleight of hand if what arrived in Venice were not the bones of Mark but those of Alexander, even if the all story may seem unlikely.
But then, as usual, what matters is the myth that was born and grew around those bones, in a short time Venice became the main recognized center of the Adriatic Sea.
To read more about the whereabouts of Alexander the Great, see the book By Chugg, Andrew The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great.