Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt
Organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI), with help from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), the exhibition features about 150 artifacts from Cleopatra’s time including statuary, jewelry, daily items, coins and religious tokens that archaeologists have uncovered. Also on display is an original papyrus document that scientists believe was written in Cleopatra’s own hand.
Cleopatra, the last great Pharaoh before Egypt succumbed to Roman opposition, lived from 69–30 B.C. (Ptolemaic period), with a reign marked by political intrigue and challenges to her throne. She captivated two of the most powerful men of her day, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as she attempted to restore Egypt to its former superpower status.
After Egypt succumbed to Roman forces and Cleopatra famously took her own life following the suicide of her lover Mark Antony, the Romans attempted to wipe her legacy from the pages of history. Cleopatra thus has remained one of history’s greatest enigmas, and her final resting place is one of Egypt’s unsolved mysteries.
Presently there are two ongoing expeditions in the search for Cleopatra – one on land and one under the sea. On land in Egypt, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s pre-eminent archaeologist and secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, along with a team of archaeologists, are searching for the tomb of the ill-fated lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Never-before-seen artifacts referencing Cleopatra, excavated by Hawass’ team at the temple of Taposiris Magna, about 30 miles west of Alexandria, are featured in the exhibition at The Franklin Institute.
Off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, the search by Franck Goddio, French underwater archaeologist and director of IEASM, has resulted in one of the most ambitious underwater expeditions ever undertaken. With financial support from the Hilti Foundation, Goddio and his team have uncovered Cleopatra’s royal palace and the two ancient cities of Canopus and Heracleion, which had been lost beneath the sea after a series of earthquakes and tidal waves nearly 2,000 years ago. The exhibition at The Franklin Institute features remnants from the grand palace where Cleopatra ruled along with underwater footage and photos of Goddio’s team retrieving artifacts from the ocean and bringing them to the surface for the first time in centuries.
MYTHS vs. FACTS of CLEOPATRA
MYTH: There was only one Cleopatra.
FACT: The Cleopatra we are familiar with is Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator. There are at least seven other known “Cleopatras” who lived during the Ptolemaic dynasty in which Cleopatra VII ruled, including her daughter, Cleopatra Selene II.
MYTH: Cleopatra was an Egyptian.
FACT: Cleopatra was of Greek descent. She was born during winter 69-68 BC, probably in Alexandria. She belonged to the Lagides dynasty, a dynasty of Macedonian (North Greece) origin, who ruled Egypt since the end of the IV century BC. The founder of her dynasty, Ptolemy I, served as a general to Alexander the Great and became ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death. The Ptolemies then established Alexandria, Egypt as the center of culture and commerce in the ancient world. This is where Cleopatra VII later ruled and lived in the royal palace.
MYTH: Cleopatra was a seductress.
FACT: Popular culture portrays Cleopatra as a temptress, seducing Julius Caesar and becoming his mistress, then later luring Mark Antony. However, Cleopatra had her children and her country’s best interest in mind. At that time, Rome was the greatest superpower of the Mediterranean. Called the Imperator, Julius Caesar was a victorious commander and a very influential leader. Rome and Egypt had an uneasy alliance. Rome needed Egypt’s wheat. Egypt needed Rome’s protection. To secure power, Cleopatra navigated an alliance through her union with Caesar. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra entered into an alliance with Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of Rome. Later, when he was involved in a power struggle with Caesar’s nephew Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra joined forces to attempt to control both Rome and Egypt.
MYTH: Cleopatra took her own life because she was heartbroken by her lover’s death.
FACT: Egypt fell to the Romans after a crushing defeat of Cleopatra’s navy by Octavian’s Roman forces. Mark Antony committed suicide shortly thereafter. It was rumored that Cleopatra would be captured by Octavian and paraded through the streets of Rome in shackles as a war prisoner by Octavian. Nearly two weeks after Mark Antony took his own life, she followed suit, likely in part to prevent the shame of public humiliation.
MYTH: Cleopatra died from the bite of a poisonous snake.
FACT: While legend says that she died from the bite of an asp, a poisonous snake, we still today are not sure what killed Cleopatra. The snake bite may have been an invention of the Romans in an attempt to defame her memory and connect her to something with vile and evil connotations. Cleopatra was very knowledgeable about poisons, writing books on the subject. Other theories suggest that she may have ingested a poisonous fig or applied a toxic substance to her skin.