Who’s in the Alexander Sarcophagus?

Sidon, a port city about 25 miles south of Beirut whose rich history dates to 4000 B.C., was among the most successful of the Phoenician city-states. In the fourth century B.C., it fell to Alexander the Great, entering a Hellenistic age that lasted for more than 100 years until the Romans took over. It changed hands several more times before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.

So it is not surprising that when, in the mid-1800s, archaeologists started exploring Sidon, they found treasures. The French turned up (among other things) a sarcophagus that belonged to a Phoenician king named Eshmunazar II and sent it back to the Louvre. Later, a Turk named Osman Hamdi Bey, who had studied in Paris, became director of the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and began leading his own excavations in Sidon. In 1887, his team hit upon more than two dozen sarcophagi. Many were stunning, including the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, which shows 18 comely, elegant females in varying expressions of grief; it’s now in the Istanbul ­museum.

But the star discovery was clearly a fantastically beautiful burial chamber depicting Alexander in battle and at hunt in high-relief. One glance told the Ottoman archaeologists that it was made for someone special. Given its date—fourth century B.C.—and its Hellenistic style, they proposed that it belonged to Alexander.

It didn’t, everyone now says. Alexander’s tomb has never been found (though a few academics argue that a sarcophagus found in Alexandria and now at the British Museum is his; the British Museum disagrees). The specimen in question, which nevertheless became known as the Alexander Sarcophagus, was likely carved for Abdalonymos, a gardener of royal blood who was made Sidon’s king by Alexander in 332 B.C. (some scholars disagree about this, too).

But there is no debate about its status as a masterpiece. The Alexander Sarcophagus sits in a place of honor at the Archaeological Museum and is unmistakably a work of the highest artistic order, among the most important classical antiquities ever discovered. It is totally intact and in almost perfect condition. Despite its 2,000-plus years, it bears traces of the garish reds, yellows and other colors it once wore.

Made of Pentelic marble—the same stone used for the structures on the Acropolis—the sarcophagus tells a story on each of its four sides. Two are battle scenes; two show hunts. Alexander, with his determined visage and curly cropped hair, is instantly recognizable and decidedly heroic. In fact, while the depictions on the friezes are accurate as to the style of arms and dress and detailed reputedly even to the fingernails (I couldn’t get that close), and while they are realistic, not idealized figures, the overall result contains more than a dash of propaganda.

The first and perhaps greatest panel depicts the battle of Issus in 333 B.C., the crucial moment when Alexander of Macedonia defeated Persia for primacy in Asia Minor. The Persian emperor Darius III had expected an invasion and, because Alexander’s reputation preceded him, chose to lead his own army. But though Alexander was outnumbered, he outmaneuvered Darius tactically; his troops waged a fierce and bloody battle, destroying the Persian army.

On this frieze, Alexander rides a rearing horse, charging a Persian and trampling another one underfoot. The sculpture is so three-dimensional that it practically steps off the stone. Alexander, his face intense, makes eye contact with a Persian he targets with a spear (presumably made of metal, and missing, as are all the spears made for the sarcophagus); the Persian cowers in fear. Nearby, an equally fervent pair of warring foot soldiers are at each other’s throats. And so it goes throughout what could be construed as six scenes: Alexander’s army shows its muscles, literally (especially the leg muscles), while the Persians are covered in historically accurate trousers and head coverings that conceal theirs. You can read the agony on the face of a dying Persian, one among many scattered on the ground. Alexander’s army simply shows determination.

On the opposite long frieze, however, things have changed. Alexander is now in control of a unified country, and the Greeks and the Persians, still easy to discern by their dress (some Greeks are nude, and all are bare-headed), are happily hunting lion and stag together. Again, Alexander rides a rearing horse, his mantle flowing in the wind, a dog near his feet. He encourages the Persian—perhaps Abdalonymos—ahead of him, whose horse encounters a hungry lion. The lion’s claws pierce the horse, and his jaw bites its stomach. But Abdalonymos attacks with a spear, while another Persian prepares to land a blow on the beast with an ax.

The second most prominent figure in both scenes, some scholars believe, is Alexander’s close friend from Macedonia, Hephaestion.

The two short sides are similar, if simpler. One depicts the Battle of Gazza in 312 B.C.; in the other, Persians, including another figure thought to be Abdalonymos, hunt a panther.

The Alexander sarcophagus is shaped like a temple, with a pitched roof adorned with carved scale-like tiles. Gargoyles sit on the edges. Small friezes have been carved in the pediments. Between the roof and the friezes, and below them, panels are trimmed in vine leaves, Greek labyrinths and egg-and-dart motifs. The proportions work.

No one knows who made this exquisite object. Some experts have suggested that the hand of as many as six sculptors can be detected, but the work is so consistently good that you could have fooled me.

There was a painter, too. Near the sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum, the Turks have placed a model displaying what one part of the sarcophagus, Alexander on his charging horse, would have looked like had its colors remained. To eyes now expecting Greek artifacts to be white marble, the magenta, red and gold seem to clash. But even then, it’s easy to see a jewel of a piece.

—Ms. Dobrzynski writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal and other publications and blogs at www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.