There is a group of 25 foreign ambassadors in Egypt that I consider to be the “ambassadors of queen Cleopatra”. Members of the group meet once or twice a month, and they choose, on the basis of rotation, one of their number to be president and one to be vice president. The success of the group has been wonderful, and even as ambassadors come and go the Cleopatra Group continues to live.
The idea of the group came about when Dragan Bisenic, the ambassador of Serbia to Egypt, came to my office in 2015 as he had some of my books that he had wanted me to sign. We became good friends and used to have dinner together almost every week, sometimes inviting other ambassadors to join us. We used to invite Kathleen Martinez from the Dominican Republic, who started to work with me at the Temple of Taposiris Magna west of Alexandria in the search for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
She had a theory that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were buried inside this temple dedicated to Isis and Osiris 45km west of Alexandria near Borg Al-Arab. The religious and political significance of the temple, along with its location, would have made it a logical burial place for Cleopatra since during her reign she associated herself with Isis and Mark Antony with Osiris.
However, the ancient Roman historian Plutarch states that Cleopatra and Mark Antony were buried together in Alexandria, and for years archaeologists believed Plutarch’s conclusion. The historical evidence suggests that Cleopatra built a tomb for herself near the royal palace in the city, and so most scholars reasoned that her tomb had sunk beneath the ocean floor where it has been lost with the rest of ancient Alexandria.
The Temple of Taposiris Magna was also described by Plutarch as being resplendent with Osirian mystery. The historian Strabo recorded that Alexander the Great stopped at this temple on his journey to the Siwa Oasis when he was in Egypt, making it an important place for Cleopatra in life and perhaps also in death.
I was not convinced that Martinez’s theory was correct, even though I agreed to start the excavation of the site because no one had ever attempted to search for the tomb of the queen before and because I thought the excavation could generate important publicity for Egypt.
There were some interesting discoveries, the most important being a large cemetery extending to the east and west of the temple. All the tombs were oriented towards the temple, indicating that the cemetery was likely constructed around it. Inside the tombs, we found mummies covered with gold and coins bearing the face and name of Cleopatra. One coin depicted Alexander the Great, and a mask was found that had a cleft in the chin. Kathleen Martinez asked me if the mask could have belonged to Mark Antony. I laughed and said no, it belongs to the British actor Richard Burton.
Another significant discovery was a hole in the northwest corner of the temple containing three small stelae saying that it had been constructed during the reign of the Pharaoh Ptolemy IV between 221 and 205 BCE. Another important find made before the end of 2015 was a stela dated to the reign of Ptolemy V. Written in two languages, it was a decree dedicating land to the priests of Isis at the Temple of Taposiris Magna and made two years before the Rosetta Stone.
By following the sunset and observing the way the sun sat on the horizon of the temple pylon, we knew that the temple and the cemetery had to be linked to one another. Some believe that the cemetery came about because the ancient Egyptians wanted to be buried near Isis, but the cemetery may also have been constructed for people who wanted their final resting place to be near an important person, such as a king or a queen.
After I left my job as minister of antiquities, I ended my cooperation with this excavation and started my own dig in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor to search for the tomb of another queen, Nefertiti.
Elizabeth Taylor as queen Cleopatra and the head of the real queen
SEARCH FOR CLEOPATRA: More recently, an article published in a UK newspaper has predicted that the tomb of Cleopatra will soon be found. In my opinion, the tomb will never be discovered as there is no evidence whatsoever that indicates the existence of a tomb.
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Egypt, answered the claims of this newspaper last week, saying that there was no evidence that the tomb would be found and adding that a theory could not stand in for a discovery. I believe that Cleopatra was buried in a tomb built next to her palace in Alexandria that is now under water.
The young princess Cleopatra VII, known today as simply Cleopatra, became queen of Egypt in 51 BCE. Thrust onto the world stage by her father, Ptolemy XII, she ruled a country in tumult and one on the verge of crumbling in the face of the mighty Roman Empire.
Only 17 years old when she took the throne, she quickly became one of the most powerful rulers Egypt had ever known. She bonded personally and politically with two of ancient Rome’s most powerful leaders, Julius Cesar and Mark Antony. Then, barely two decades after coming to power, she took her own life in a climatic act of defiance against the Romans who were still hungry for her kingdom.
While we know these facts of Cleopatra’s life and times, much remains to be discovered. Who was she really? What and whom did she hold dear? Was she the exotic beauty depicted by modern artists and filmmakers, or did she lure her famous lovers with her intelligence and power?
From the underwater ruins of once-vibrant ancient Alexandria to the Temple of Taposiris Magna where she may have gone to begin her journey into the afterlife, archaeologists today seek further evidence about the life, death, and world of ancient Egypt’s last queen. Yet, Cleopatra has remained shrouded in the layers of history, revealing just enough to captivate the world’s imagination, including my own.
Instability pervaded Egypt when Cleopatra was born. Her father had come to power after the king and queen before him had been murdered. Commonly known as “Auletes”, or the flutist, Ptolemy XII depended on the goodwill of Rome and spent Egyptian money to bribe it, so infuriating the people of Alexandria that they revolted against him in 58 BCE. Ptolemy XII fled to Rome, where he ingratiated himself with powerful leaders who eventually helped him to return to Egypt and his throne.
Resuming power, Ptolemy XII punished those who had rebelled against him. He had his daughter, Berenice IV, Cleopatra’s older sister, put to death because she had ascended the throne in his absence. Yet, he also wanted to guarantee that his children would be his successors, and so in 51 BCE he wrote a will granting the throne to the 17-year-old Cleopatra and mandating that she share power with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, around 11 years old at the time.
The older ruler kept the original will in Alexandria and sent a copy to Rome, asking his Roman friends to enforce it if need be. Thus, upon his death, Cleopatra VII, 13th in the line of the Ptolemies, became the P.haraoh of Egypt, the last of her line to do so. Since then this influential queen has taken the world by storm.
I will never forget the late journalist Kamal Al-Mallakh, the discoverer of the Pharaoh Khufu’s solar boat at Giza, inviting the actress Elizabeth Taylor to visit Egypt. She had played Cleopatra in the 1963 epic film of the same name opposite Richard Burton as her lover Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. These three were immortalised together in this film. Al-Mallakh brought Taylor to Giza to see the Pyramids for herself, and here he introduced her to me. She also arrived dressed as Cleopatra.
Dragan Bisenic used to ask me about Cleopatra, and when we had more ambassadors attend our dinners I suggested that we should create a new group called the “Cleopatra Group”. He would be its president, and I would be its invisible co-president. We also agreed that during every meeting of the group we would ask an ambassador to be the speaker. For example, when we had a dinner at the residence of the Argentinian ambassador Eduardo Antonio Varela, we heard a lecture by the Argentinian team working on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor.
In response to Bisenic’s questions about Cleopatra and her achievements, I told him that this queen had been very devious and that she would betray anyone, or even kill anyone, to get what she desired. Her younger brother and co-ruler, as well as her sister, were executed on her orders, for example. I also believe that Cleopatra was selfish and that she wanted to rule the world. In order to achieve her goal, she had to capture the hearts of the most powerful men in the world at the time, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
The entrance to the temple
She seduced the much older Caesar and even had a son by him whom she called Caesarion. When Caesar died, she set her sights on Mark Antony, with whom she had three children. After the next Roman leader Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, a message reached Mark Antony that she had died, because of which he tried to kill himself. Wounded, he was brought to her mausoleum to die with her. Though Cleopatra then attempted to seduce Octavian, she found that her tricks would not work with him. In order to avoid being paraded through Rome in chains, she committed suicide.
My personal opinion is that Cleopatra was very ambitious and wanted to rule the world from Egypt. Moreover, I have discovered that some women I have met today believe in reincarnation and even believe that they “were” Cleopatra in the past. Funnily enough, most of them have the same character as the ancient Cleopatra.
Hawass on site
CLEOPATRA’S AFTERLIFE: During the excavation at the Temple of Taposiris Magna, some strange accidents happened to me.
The first was when I was cleaning a statue next to the temple wall about two metres higher than my head on top of which there was a large stone. Suddenly, this large stone fell on my head. I felt dizzy and took a car to Cairo. My assistant Nashwa Gaber made me an appointment with an eye doctor, who told me that I had a macular hole that needed surgery. I went to the Pasken Palomar clinic where Dr Semedy operated on me. Even so, it took two surgeries and having to look down for two weeks even when sleeping for the treatment to be a success. I later had to take a train to Philadelphia for the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition when I was in the United States because I could not fly.
The second accident took place when there was a shaft at the temple that I wanted to enter, so the excavation team arranged for me to be put inside a basket connected to a machine. I went down for about 15 metres and then asked the team to pull me up. However, the machine broke down, and they could not pull me out. I stayed inside the shaft for hours, looking down at the water below and above me people screaming. Later, they were able to fix the machine, and I was rescued from the shaft.
At that time, there was a group of Latin American ambassadors in Cairo visiting the temple. I received a telephone call from Farouk Hosni, the then minister of culture. I told him the story, and he told former president Hosni Mubarak. On my way to Cairo, I received a call from Mubarak’s office, informing me that he would call me himself at 7pm. The president then asked me about the story of the shaft, and he inquired about the tomb of the magical queen.
While we have to admit that Cleopatra is not buried in the temple, the Cleopatra Group has continued, with Khaled El-Enany, the minister of tourism and antiquities, becoming a member. Dragan then had to leave Egypt, as he had filled his position for more than six years, during which he had practically became Egyptianised and was loved by all Egyptians.
We chose Michael-Christos Diamessis, the ambassador of Greece, as the next president. He was wonderful president for the Group, and we call his time in office its golden age. He had a lovely sense of humour, and we all miss him. The vice president at the time was Ruy Amaril, the ambassador of Brazil, somebody we all miss also. But the time came when we had to say goodbye to these two excellent ambassadors who really elevated the Cleopatra Group. We had many dinners and lectures during their time in office as well as trips to archaeological sites with El-Enany.
The next president of the Cleopatra Group was a lady, Sibille de Cartier d’Yves, the Belgian ambassador in Cairo. The vice president was José Octavio Tripp, the ambassador of Mexico. D’Yves did her best to continue the success of the Cleopatra Group. I always say that though we have had many ambassadors in Cairo who have come and gone without leaving any impact, we have also had many others that will never be forgotten because they loved Egypt and the Egyptians loved them.
I went to a Ramadan dinner at the house of my friend Amr Badr earlier this year, for example, to which he had invited Stéphane Romatet, the French ambassador, as the only foreign person there. Romatet left the dinner early, and when he did so everyone present said that while we had had many French ambassadors in Egypt, Romatet was really the best of all. He had been proud to say that the recent exhibition of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun had been seen by over 1,300,000 people during its recent visit to France as an “ambassador of Egypt”.
The names of the ambassadors of the Cleopatra Group will be engraved in golden hieroglyphic letters because of their love for this country. Every ambassador in the Cleopatra Group deserves to be named, but I want to say to all of them that we are proud to have you in Egypt, and we hope that you will be able to start new chapters of the group in the countries you will serve in next. If I discover the tomb of Nefertiti in the Valley of the Kings during my excavations, we will have to change the name of the group to the Nefertiti Group, putting the ancient and modern Cleopatra behind us.
The sad news is that our beloved D’Yves left Egypt in July for another post, and we will miss her as much as we missed Diamessis and Amaril. While we wanted to have a Cleopatra Group meeting to wish her farewell, the coronavirus restrictions stopped us. We are all using WhatsApp instead to wish her success in her new post.
According to the rules, the group’s committee has met and chosen José Octavio Tripp, the Mexican ambassador, formerly vice president, as its next president. Jan Thesleff will be the new vice president. It is to be hoped that the coronavirus restrictions will soon be lifted, so that we may all gather joyously once more.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly