The world of Cleopatra — I

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 29 Mar 2022

Zahi Hawass introduces the first in a four-part series of articles on the world of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra


When I was 16 years old, I joined the Faculty of Arts in the Archaeology Department of the University of Alexandria. I then asked Fawzi Al-Fakhari, professor of archaeology at Alexandria University, where the tomb of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was located. He said that he believed that she was likely buried in a tomb near her palace.

I have often wondered about this since and where the tomb might be located. I then graduated from the university and joined Egypt’s Antiquities Department. I began to be interested in Egyptology and forgot the Graeco-Roman Period and Cleopatra, but from time to time I like to revisit it.


BEFORE THE PTOLEMIES: By the end of the ancient Egyptian 26th Dynasty, the Persian influence in Egypt had increased and the kings of Persia had begun to conquer neighbouring lands, including Egypt.

The Persian king Cambyses defeated the Egyptians at Pelusium in Sinai, and in order to legitimise his reign in Egypt, he took the title of Pharaoh, even if, like most of the Persian kings, he did not respect the ancient Egyptian religion.

The Persians were harsh rulers, and the Egyptians suffered many insults and indignities from them. For example, Artaxerxes III Ochus, who drove the Pharaoh Nectanebo II to Nubia and became king of Egypt in 434 BCE, slaughtered the sacred Apis bull and ate it during a festival. As a result, these kings’ Egyptian subjects disliked them and rebelled against them often.

Persian rule in Egypt ended when Alexander the Great entered Pelusium in November 332 BCE. He went to Memphis, the oldest capital of Egypt and the centre of the worship of Ptah and the sacred Apis bull. He began to mingle with the Egyptians and make offerings to their gods. He journeyed to the Delta and founded the new city of Alexandria, appointing Dinocrat the Rhodian as engineer and Cleominos from Naukratis as supervisor of the construction.

Alexandria was laid out on a plan like a chessboard with two main axes. One long axis lay in the middle of the far eastern part of the town, known as the “door of the sun” and located in the area known today as Bab Shark. The other main axis was in the far west, known as the “door of the moon” and today being the customs area.

Ancient Alexandria had five small districts each named with a letter of the Greek alphabet. Alpha was the royal area that included the palaces, temples, museums, libraries, and gardens. The second was Beta, the area of the Greek aristocrats. Gamma was the area for regular Greek citizens, and Delta was for foreigners like Syrians, Jews, and Persians. Epsilon was for Egyptian citizens.

After the death of Alexander, the struggle for control of his empire began, and Ptolemy gained control of Egypt. He moved the Egyptian capital from Memphis to Alexandria, and the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled the country from 304 to 30 BCE. During their three-century rule, Egypt saw much expansion and temple construction.

Alexandria is now an important archaeological site containing the remains of the famous Library, the tomb of Alexander the Great, Roman cemeteries and the Roman theatre at Kom Al-Dikka, and the Temple of Abu Qir. The most important site is the famous Lighthouse, however, which was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.

Located in the southeastern part of Pharos Island, the Lighthouse was begun by Ptolemy I and finished in the reign of Ptolemy II. Made of limestone, granite, and marble, the fourth level of the building was topped with a dome and a bronze statue of the god of the sea Poseidon.


PTOLEMY I: We do not know much about Ptolemy’s origins, except that he was raised in the court of king Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, and that he was a good friend of Alexander’s from the beginning.

From his depiction on coins, we can see he had a very wide forehead, deep-set eyes, and a strong chin. His features show power and decisiveness. Ptolemy I was a genius in warfare and performed well with Alexander in Europe before entering Persia. We know that in 331 BCE he captured the area known as the Persian Doors, leading 3,000 soldiers against an opposing army of 30,000. Because of this great victory, he was promoted to the group of seven generals who made up Alexander’s personal guards and high council.

Alexander also gave him more important missions so he could demonstrate his bravery. The sudden death of Alexander caused a crisis among his generals, and the high commander of Asia and leader of the army, Perdiccas, divided the empire among the surviving generals. Ptolemy agreed to be the leader of Egypt, distancing himself from the struggle of the others and making Egypt into an independent country.