Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Queen Cleopatra of Egypt: Then and Now

(above) Screen vamp Theda Bara in a still from the first film about Cleopatra, from 1917.  Only forty seconds of the film still exists sadly, as this and many of Miss Bara's other silent films are lost.
(left) Elizabeth Taylor. 

A recent exposition has come to the city of Philadelphia showing artifacts connected to the most famous queen in the ancient world. The exhibit "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt"  is sponsored by the Franklin Institute and The National Geographic Society.   

Cleopatra (69BC--31BC) was actually the seventh monarch from the Ptolemaic Dynasty to bear that name but the first to rule by herself after the death of her brother. Her greatest achievement seems to have been the ability to play off the massive Roman Empire by beguiling two of its most powerful men in succession: first, the mighty Julius Caesar and, later, his former ally and avenger against Caesar's assassins, Marc Anthony. 

How she managed to do this mix of love and politics has made her irresistible for centuries to poets, playwrights, and history buffs.   Playwrights as famous as  Shakespeare and Shaw have found her a beguiling subject.

 But what made her  successful in keeping her throne intact (at least until Anthony lost it all to Octavian at the Battle of Actium) took great acumen. It is likely she was one of the few rulers of Egypt descended from the Macedonian General   who took the trouble to learn the Egyptian language.  The historian Plutarch claims she knew many languages of the region, and records that she was not an incomparable beauty but rather had an excellence in speech and intelligence to go with her attractiveness. 

In other words, she was fun and no snob when it came to discoursing with barbarians. 

Today modern Egyptologists are trying to find the tombs of Cleopatra and her last love Anthony in a small settlement 30 miles west of Alexandria.   There is still questions about her mother's identity and how much she was of Greek ancestry or African blood.  But all this is pat of her fascination that has endured for centuries.  

Cleopatra in Art
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."--Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 

  Her most famous incarnation was by Elizabeth Taylor  in the 1963 film, a spectacular over blown epic that made her and Richard Burton the modern Anthony and Cleopatra for the 1960's and 70's, an age of movie stars and the paparazzi who made a living off their binary star wattage. 

How real Cleopatra lasted as long as she has in history is her greatest long-term  achievement.   And if they do ever find her tomb, you can bet it will be the biggest story of  that week.  



  1. For more on the exhibit and some great photos of ancient Egyptian art and underwater archeology, please see the link below: http://events.nationalgeographic.com/events/cleopatra/

  2. Personally... I think what makes her so intriguing is the fact she is so intelligent! She was able to give into her passions, hold a place where most women were considered property of a man, and the list goes on… I mean here it is how many years later, and globally, we still have Eastern thinking that is much different from Western thinking. I know the Egyptian people themselves are fascinating to me, and I knew a college professor that blew me away with his mind, but surrounding geographics are still in the same mind frame as the days this woman walked the earth

  3. I think it was National Geographic or the History channel that did a piece to show her true face off the skull? Which led me to believe her mind was much sharper, than again a good dose of self esteem can do the same... but a subject worth reading/watching more about

  4. She was more than pretty face, Growed, that's for certain, and a woman who would be right at home today in the corridors of power.

  5. She was surely one of the world's first "women's libbers"! Funny thing, women have been getting what they want, and need, from men for thousands of years, which makes me wonder why men think they're superior?
    Trust me, if you want something from a woman and she doesn't want to give it to you, you're not gonna get it until she gets what she wants.
    Fortunately, we all know what men want!! lol
    She was someone to look up to, that's for sure.

  6. I don't suffer from that superiority thing anymore, although it took some years to get the wisdom you speak of there, Jacquie.

  7. It's really too bad about the Theda Bara film. I'd thought all that got digitalized years ago. I remember a big push for money to do that with.

  8. Good for you! My husband didn't either, for which I was VERY grateful!
    It takes a special kind of man to feel that way, one who is secure. Most aren't, from what I've seen.

  9. The sad thing is a lot of her films were made at Fox Studios and they were put in storage in a warehouse in New Jersey after the silent era ended. In 1938 or so, there was a huge fire and the film library was lost--this was long before anyone was taking film preservation seriously.

    But footage from old films are still being found, so we can be a little bit hopeful that this first American "Cleopatra" will come to light some day.

  10. Thanks. I owe it all to my wife's patience.

  11. I read an article where it stated Cleopatra would have had a rather large nose. In fact coins found with images of her, all show a hooked nose. It was thought to be her power that was attractive, much as intellect and power attracts these days. She certainly didn't have the stunning beauty of Elizabeth Taylor!

    I find it strange that someone who was so important to Egypt has never been found. Much care would have been taken over the mummification of her body. There's one tomb somewhere (and I forget the area), unfortunately it's under water. Scholars thought there was a possibility of her body being there. Archaeologists were talking of it being explored way back in 2008, but because of its position there were difficulties expected.

    There's a Mummy in the British Museum called Cleopatra, but that is of a young girl of 17 years old.

    What a great thing it would be to find this particular lady. I also read there was a possibility her body could have been sent to Rome. I love these mysteries, don't you, doug?

  12. Hey, that`s really interesying. When I was at school I took part in a debate to prove that "History is bunk" and I used "Cleopatra`s nose" as the core of my argument, by saying that given a different shaped nose Caesar might not have fallen in love with her and the whole course of history would have been different . But I didn`t realise at the time that her nose was not really an asset.

  13. Hahahaha, How interesting! I hope I haven't shattered your dreams in any way.

  14. You're right Cassandra. I notice that in the coinage part of the National Geographic link about Cleopatra. (Located in my first comment.) No Elizabeth Taylor nor Vivian Leigh for that matter perhaps, but as Henry Kissinger said memorably, "power is the greatest aphrodesiac." Not sure about that, but I gather he might know a bit about power at least.

    A lot of the exploration in the Alexandria area is indeed under water, according to a radio interview I heard about the exhibit and its background. Only two or three percent of the potential area has been covered so far. It is amazing that Cleopatra has not been located, and one can only hope robbers or what have you didn't disturb the site for some spectacular future find. I would assume Octavian would have been decent enough to give her burial honors after she died. I suppose she killed herself to keep from being a star attraction in some triumph. Catacombs sections are still being found in Rome even today (one from the 4th Century, BCE just this week) so who knows?!

    The British Museum is a veritable trove of great exhibits! When I was there (1985) the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon were on display of course, and some incredible Egyptian relics and things from the Sutton Hoo ship, et al. All too much for one morning and long afternoon to take in . When I got home, I looked through the book I bought of its various rooms and realized how much I'd still missed!

    I do indeed. enjoy the mystery of what happened to the great figures in history, and how every piece of papyrus rediscovered could lead us to reassess the ancient world.

    Even a bit of information from a find of pottery shards in Israel/Palestine or the ruins of a Minoan settlement in Crete, say, might someday expand our knowledge of civilization and trading practices.
    And as for a major find? Well, who would have thought before the 1920's that a complete tomb of a pharaoh would be found and yet it was!

  15. From looking on it a bit, I gather that Cleopatra and her nose making history turn out one way rather than the other was originally Blaise Pascal's argument, Jeff.

    "He who would fully know human vanity has but to consider the causes and effects of love" or so he thought, and who can disagree?

    Whatever drew Anthony to spend excess time with Cleopatra-by a nose or just the fact that she intrigued all hell out of him--it had a profound effect on Roman politics, that's for sure. I know that if Anthony had finally decided to settle down with Octavian's sister, it would be a duller world without their story.

    And Shakespeare would have had one less play in his canon.

  16. I suppose that there has been so much writing about the beauty of Cleopatra that we in the past have looked at that beauty from Western eyes. In Egypt for instance and I believe Turkey, fat women were considered beautiful. Of course, with the rise of the bimbo and television all that has changed, slim is desirable. As for power being and aphrodisiac, that maybe so. Take Margaret Thatcher, a some what bossy woman, who may have made men around her feel inferior, was said to have had many of the males in her cabinet left with feelings of great attraction for her. I think this is all to do with power and the hope that some of the limelight may rub off on them.

    The fact that the Nile flooded so often was a two edged sword of kinds. When it receded it left behind a silt rich in minerals. This enabled the people to have a period where they could grow fine crops and feed themselves until the floods came again.

    Many of the burial places were frequently flooded as you stated. Also, I believe over the years, the Nile shot off making other routes, so places not expected to flood was soon under water.

    In the Egyptian culture, they were very much afraid of the gods, so a decent burial for even one's enemy would be important. As you can tell I'm no expert on this subject.

    Maybe Cleopatra had the last laugh on us, and she is nicely tucked away in a watery grave. Because the Nile produces much silt, if that leaked into her resting place she may be in some kind of preservation and still mummified, but if she is at water level, I doubt there's anything left but her jewels. Then as you stated there were the robbers. They left tombs in a terrible state.

    Hahaha, I know what you mean about the British museum. It's actually impossible to do it all in one day. At least they now have defibrillators at first- aid for those who feel they have to try.:-/

    Yes, indeed, what a great find the Pharaoh's tomb was and we still reel at the wonders bought out.
    I understand that because it isn't safe to leave these places intact, all has to be removed. It does make me feel sad that the intention all those years ago, was to keep the body safe while on the way to the gods. Yet it has been plundered by those of us who are better than the robbers, simply to keep it all safe.

    I only hope that particular lady , Cleopatra, reveals herself to the world again before I have to get off!

  17. It's easy to forget in this era of drastic emphasis on emaciated figures and button noses that female beauty does not have a single benchmark in all cultures.

    Didn't know Margaret Thatcher had that effect on some of her ministers. I remember she was criticized for not having any women in her cabinet, but I don't know if that was always the case in her
    long tenure as PM.

    I think you put forth good possibilities for preservation or lack thereof regarding Cleopatra's tomb, Cassandra. It's been said by archeologists that Egypt's dry climate did more to preserve mummies than the process of mummification itself.

    Cleopatra might be happy in the thought that she truly is one with the great Nile forever.

    Also, if she is indeed still to be found, it might be amongst a group of other royal personages as I understand sometimes royal mummies were stored together in new places to prevent further vandalism by looters after a burial chamber was sacked.

    I have no idea what the Egyptian government spends on artifacts security but I imagine there are people out in the deserts today with no good intentions looking to make a big score on the black market.

    Yes, I'd like to be around for Cleopatra and Anthony's second big coming-out party. What a stroke of luck it might be to have all that laid out in a museum exhibit someday. ( Doubtless it would make the lines for King Tut's treasures look like a rainy Sunday matinee! )

  18. When they do find Cleopatra with any luck that costume will catch on, which will have me for one hanging around the British Museum for much longer than what might in some quarters be considered healthy Doug, but my commitment to historical research will remain undaunted nevertheless.

    I like to keep abreast of history if I can (in the interests of self improvement of course) and if this is an accurate depiction of Cleo's wardrobe, I can't wait for a Cleopatra World reconstruction to open in a town close to me.

    Thanks for this post which has brought out the latent Egyptologist in me Doug, I hope they're digging in the right place so that these discoveries are made before I become too visually impaired to fully appreciate them.....Carry on up Alexandria I say Doug..... phworrrrr not arf!

  19. "Cleopatra World"! You have a touch of the entrepeneur I see, AA.

    Yes, that style of dress indicates a female fashion trend more than a few of us have been waiting about to see. I sincerely hope there is much more to Saharan African ha-ute couture than gems fashioned together to make scarabs and crocodiles.

    And I've seen my fill of Whatever Dynasty Egyptian wall art: Seti, Horus and that bunch with the car-touches and Pharaohs in funky headgear and funny Bermuda shorts on. That painting above could just be some Edwardian artistic fantasy, but they said the same about Troy before Heinrich Schliemann dug up a few of the settlements. More study is called for here.

    No wonder Cleo had to meet Caesar rolled up in a carpet!

    Keeping 'abreast of history' here must take into account how the nubile Queen of the Nile went beyond the cleavage between Roman and Egyptian spheres of power. Not enough energy has been put into this subject, and its certainly not something we can leave to academics alone.

    My feelings are the same regarding this tomb project : "Dig faster guys, faster!"

  20. I arrive with my hair in beads and heavy black eyeliner, which I'll admit with hair the colour of wheat looks rather odd. I dare say if Cleopatra's style hits town my contribution will have to be her sandals.

    Yes our Maggie had her way with the men but she drew the line at touching, hahaha.

    I think you are right and many of the famous Egyptians it will be found if Cleo, turns up one day.

    That will be some headline in the newspapers and most likely knock football out of the limelight!

  21. Comfortable footwear is always fashionable as far as I'm concerned Cassandra. It's hard to get me out of my sandals come Summertime and I have a day off or two.

    What to do about "wheat hair"? Well, you could always say you're a distant relation of Cleopatra on the side of the family that went into tin-mining in ancient Cornwall. Who's to say otherwise? ;-)

    Glad Mrs. Thatcher drew the line and stayed loyal to hubby Dennis. I can think of a one particular modern American President who should have avoided such scandals while in office. Not that this fellow I'm thinking of invented anything new amongst politicos.

    Yes, Cleo's Tomb might even damper down the coverage on the Premier League Final. Even The Super Bowl!

  22. Indeed and I already have a few pairs of gladiator sandals, they may pass muster. It is nice to slop about in something comfortable. Noel Coward would have disappeared into a room and come out wearing his smoking jacket to relax in.:-)

    I could even dye the wheat with henna but it would end up red! One could pass as a rare albino...

    Those in politics do manage to bring a whole lot of trouble on themselves. It isn't rocket science, they must know their little carrying on,s will be found out. It does make one wonder at their qualifications to run a country if they can't even get that right.

    We had two days break from soccer and now it starts again.

  23. It's hard to think of Noel Coward relaxing without a smoking jacket, Cassandra. A certain formal panache left the world with his passing.

    I just think a brunette wig would solve your situation in case of another "King Tut"-type fashion craze. (Why risk the perils of dying hair?)

    Finding the famous monarch's tomb would also do well in reviving the whole Cleopatra film dynasty. Angelina Jolie is rumored to be considering a role in a new project. And maybe we in The States would finally get a DVD release of "Carry On Cleo"!

    I think with some politicians its a kind of recklessness that comes with the ego to want to excel in high office. There was one case in America with a Senator (Gary Hart) who destroyed his chances to be President by having photographs taken of himself with a girlfriend on his lap in front of a boat in a Florida marina. The boat was called "Monkey Business"?! And, yes, its not like John Kennedy's days when you could cheat and news editors would look the other way. I think its something on the irrational side of male VIPs going on there.

    Yes, soccer returns. The Netherlands have come from behind to beat the mighty Brazil team, 2-1. If you go out this weekend, watch out for crazed Hollander ex-pats doing cartwheels on the sidewalks. ;-)