Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt

Cleopatra coinA new exhibit of 150 artifacts from Cleopatra’s Egypt opens today at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt puts on display for the first time in the United States jewelry, coins, religious items, even colossal statues raised from the the Bay of Aboukir, off the coast of Alexandria.

Papyrus fragments thought to have been signed by CleopatraThere’s even an original papyrus document with an inscription that archaeologists think was written in Cleopatra’s own hand. The document grants a tax break from sales of imported wine to Roman businessman Publius Canidius, a friend of Mark Antony. It’s inscribed “make it happen” in Greek, and that’s the bit that is thought to have been printed by Cleopatra herself. Very Jean Luc Picard.

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. The artifacts in this exhibition are woven into the story of her rule and life in ancient Egypt during her dynasty (Ptolemaic period). The story of her life and time unfolds in a dramatic setting with high-definition multimedia, original soundscapes and a mobile-based social media experience. Additionally each guest receives an audio tour with admission that provides a rich background to the featured artifacts. […]

The exhibition also showcases artifacts from [underwater archaeologist and director of IEASM] Franck Goddio’s continuing underwater search off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, begun in 1992 and sponsored by the Hilti Foundation. Goddio’s remarkable finds bring visitors inside his search for the lost world of Cleopatra, including remnants from the grand palace where she ruled. Visitors also see 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.

“The aim of our work is to reveal traces of the past and bring history back to life. We are delighted to present our underwater archaeological achievements and discoveries off the coast of Egypt to the American public,” said Franck Goddio.

The exhibit has two agendas that I can detect, one stated and one not. The stated one is to rehabilitate Cleopatra’s reputation, long since besmirched by the victorious Romans who wrote that particularly piece of history. The unstated one is to promote Zahi Hawass’ search for Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s tomb at the Taposiris Magna site. The press release about the exhibit dedicates a couple of paragraphs to Hawass’ excavation, and National Geographic’s website on the show has a whole page about it, plus links to previous stories.

Keeping that caveat in mind, the exhibit is a powerful, full-immersion voyage into Cleopatra’s world, even taking visitors under water to find her. Cleopatra will remain at the Franklin through January 2, 2011, after which it will travel to 5 other US cities, as yet unannounced.

Exhibit visitors walk over artifacts found under water

16 thoughts on “Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt

  1. “For her own person, it beggared all description. She did lie/In her pavilion–cloth of gold, of tissue–/O’er picturing that Venus where we see the fancy outwork nature.”

    My very favorite Shakespearean play. But not history, obviously–I’d love to see this exhibit, but it’s unlikely to make it to the midwestern collegetown backwater where I live. Alas. Would that I could, Cleopatra and Picard-like, make it so.

    1. Perhaps it will wing its way closer to you once it goes on the road. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it makes it down South.

      I’ll update you once they announce the stops.

      1. I’ve been searching all over the web, and can’t find the announcement. Naturally, they want everyone to come to Pennsylvania, which we won’t do if we know it will come nearer to us…

        Sounds like a wonderful show, though.

  2. What reason is there to think that these hated and apparently disrespected suicides, in a time of civil war, would be granted or permitted ritualistic burials and proper tombs? Need we suppose that Caesarion too was given the proper rituals and put in a prestigious tomb somewhere?

    There might be good reason to conjecture otherwise, but in the absence of such good reason, and given Octavian’s generally no-nonsense approach to establishing his sole authority in the civil war and its aftermath, I can’t see having any expectation that Cleopatra or Antony (or Caesarion) were given more than minimal pauper’s burials. They might well have been given less. Octavian was not in the habit of honoring or indulging his enemies, to my knowledge, at that particular time.

    1. The Roman sources — Plutarch, Cassius Dio and Suetonius — all say that Antony and Cleopatra were buried together in the mausoleum. It’s described as a great act of magnanimity on Octavian’s part, and culturally speaking it fits. Remember Julius Caesar was devastated when Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII decapitated Pompey. Romans were supposed to respect Romans, even enemies in defeat, and Octavian was consciously modeling himself after Caesar.

      Also, Mark Antony had been his brother-in-law, and although Antony treated Octavia like crap, he was still the father of Octavian’s nieces. It was Octavia who would raise all of Antony’s surviving children, including 3 by Cleopatra. I think it would have been socially and religiously questionable to dump the bodies of family and royalty in a ditch somewhere. Plus, there was a general respect for suicide as a means of preventing opprobrium.

      As for Caesarion, there are no sources on his burial, and precious little on his death. Dio says he was strangled on his way to Ethiopia. He may have survived on the lam, for all we know.

      1. Points well taken, all.

        I’m not sure how much stock to place in the details of the biographies, to be sure. How Plutarch could have written with much more (justified) confidence about a tomb whose location he seems not to have known than he did about the fine details of Octavian’s state of mind regarding Cleopatra’s will to live, 100 years after the fact, is just not clear to me. But the fit with Roman attitudes towards family, other Romans, suicide, etc., is significant, I agree. I was thinking of the treatment of Caesarion (and of Antyllus, for that matter) more as reflecting Octavian’s lack of appetite for symbols around which opposition could rally. Seems to me an ostentatious tomb for A&C could be such a thing, on a local scale at least, so why risk it? But perhaps he feared living rivals more than mere symbols, and perhaps he saw little risk of rebellion coalescing around the memory of A&C in the absence of living heirs on the scene.

    2. I also thought of this, and do not think, at that time, they would have ever been given a proper burial or a mummification ritual.Unless, servants of Cleopatra secretly , took the time and had them buried together. This is the only thing I can think of as to Cleopatra and marc Antony having a proper burial, and being buried together.It would be extraordinary if they were to find them, but I doubt they ever will.According to Dr.Martinez and dr. Hawas, they think they have found the burial sight, due to certain anomalies and artifacts, coins, statues, etc.. I am unsure and do not understand why Dr. Martinez and Dr. Hawas think they have found the final resting place of cleopatra and Marc Antony.

      1. As I wrote above, there are perfectly reasonable political reasons for Octavian to have allowed proper burial, not to mention religious ones. There’s no reason to assume it could only have happened if the servants did it on the sly.

        1. I still do not believe Octavian would care less where C and M were buried, and if he did( out of any kind of respect, or religious reasons) He most likely told servants, to bury them any where they could find a place. Octavian was not a caring person by any means! Regardless that he was related, and had nieces and nephews by Octavia) The servants were most likely the one’s responsible for where they are today. Plutarch say’s they were buried in “together’ in a mausoleum, but why are there no details as to where? or why? Also, having no heirs , of age to make sure they were given a proper burial, to me, seems they were just thrown anywhere, and we will never know where they are buried.Even if they ever did find them, they will have no mummy for protection, and the only thing they most likely will have are a few things of cleopatra’s put there by a few who cared about her. It’s sad, but most likely, true. I do hope they find C and M, I am waiting for Dr. Hawass to make some sort of announcement soon, as I believe they have started or will start soon, the dig at Taposiris Magna, in which they believe C and M might be buried.Is It does not seem that Taposiris Magna is mausoleum, but just a burial sire where a few of cleopatra’s things have been found.

  3. I absolutely loved the Cleopatra exhibit. I went last night and I was blown away. They found statues that were about 5X the size of me!! But then again…I am very short (5’1″). When I first learned about the ancient Egyptian days back in 6th grade, I completely fell in love with it. I even considered becoming and archeologist in Egypt! But of course I couldn’t do that because of my phobias…. I still like to learn about those ancient days and was very excited when I heard they found Alexandria. 🙂 Maybe someday I’ll be able to be in a movie about Cleopatra or possibly write a song about her. Maybe.

  4. Has anyone thought of the face that most started working on a tomb unpon taking the thron? Seems there would be at least partial tomb somewhere right?

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