The theft of Egyptian and Greek history

Ioannis Kotoulas
Tuesday 2 May 2023

The Netflix docudrama on the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra is a clear case of ideologically motivated cultural appropriation, writes Ioannis E Kotoulas


The recent dispute about the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra highlights the importance of historical truth and scientific validity in our perceptions of the past. The misrepresentation of historical facts about Cleopatra is equal to the theft of Egyptian and Greek history.

Netflix’s series Queen Cleopatra, set to premiere on 10 May, is classified on the company’s website as a docudrama and not a work of fiction. It presents a Sub-Saharan Cleopatra as a historical fact, not as a work of fiction, and that is the root of the problem. The series is a clear case of historical revisionism that is equal to falsification, cultural appropriation, and scientific fallacy.

The presentation of Cleopatra in the series has caused intense protests in both Egypt and Greece. Many Egyptians and Greeks have decried it as falsifying history. Secretary-General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri has explained that presenting Cleopatra as a woman of Sub-Saharan origin is a falsification of Egyptian history. 

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has issued a lengthy statement on social media accompanied by images of Cleopatra in statues and on coins. Former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass has described the Netflix film as “falsifying the facts” and presenting a “completely fake” image of the past. Commentators in Greece have also highlighted its unscientific claims.

What are the historical facts about Cleopatra? Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE), the last ruler of the ancient kingdom of Egypt, was undoubtedly of Greek origin and descended from Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was Greek, as all historical data from ancient sources, such as the ancient writers Plutarch and Dio Cassius, and her representations on ancient coins and statues show. 

The Ptolemies performed marriages among themselves for dynastic reasons, so their bloodline was exclusively Greek. The ancient Egyptian civilisation that preceded Cleopatra’s Greek dynasty was also not of Sub-Saharan origin but had its own distinct features according to historical, archaeological, and anthropological studies. Much like modern Egypt, ancient Egypt had a character of its own.

How have the historical inaccuracies contained in the Netflix series come about, and why do they matter? Afrocentric ancient history is in essence a political agenda imposed upon the past, an agenda of identity politics disconnected from factual reality and historical methodology. Afrocentrist ideas came to the forefront in the late 1980s with the pseudo-historical work Black Athena (1988) by US writer Martin Bernal. Bernal’s unfounded ideas were discredited by the work of distinguished US Wellesley College classicist Mary Lefkowitz in her books Not out of Africa (1996) and in the collection of academic essays Black Athena Revisited (1996). 

However, Afrocentrist notions continued to influence media perceptions of the past, as the recent case of Netflix’s production demonstrates. 

Using political arguments as supposed facts, Afrocentrism is an ideologically driven movement that has become an excuse to teach myth as history and distorted narratives as realities. The past is thus distorted and adjusted to create a sense of self-entitlement. While identity awareness is an admirable goal, this should not be done at the expense of the real history of other nations and cultures, in our case at the expense of Egyptian and Greek history and culture. 

Each nation and culture deserve respect for its own historical trajectory. If we encourage students and viewers to accept unfounded claims as facts, we are not helping them to feel better about themselves; instead, we are encouraging them to deny the principles of academic research and deductive reasoning. 

Historical objectivity should be the guiding principle of research and media representations of historical events, not arbitrary reinterpretations that in the case of Cleopatra are equal to the theft of Egyptian and Greek history.

* The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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