The world of Cleopatra — II

Zahi Hawass
Tuesday 19 Apr 2022

Zahi Hawass continues his four-part series of articles on the world of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra

The Ptolemies, of whom the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was one, considered themselves to be the lords of Egypt, and in order to legitimise their rule they emphasised their rights as divine kings. They also respected the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, unlike the Persian rulers of the country before them.

They began to become Egyptianised by taking the epithets of the Pharaohs, respecting the religion, and paying attention to relations with the priests. According to the ancient Egyptian belief system, the Pharaoh was the source of life and owned all of the land, and the Ptolemies continued to fill this position. Ptolemy I took two titles of the Pharaohs, nsw-bity and sa-re. Beginning with Ptolemy II, the Ptolemaic kings used all five traditional titles.

Ptolemy I also began to spread the ancient Egyptian religion. He gave funds for the Festival of the Sacred Bull and rebuilt the shrine in the Temple of Karnak, as Ramses II had done before him. Ptolemy II Philadelphos built many temples to show his respect for the religion, including a Temple of Isis at Philae along with a small Imhotep Temple and a great pylon for the Temple of Isis.

The religious policies of Ptolemy III, as recorded in the Canopic Document, reveal the care he and his wife Berenike gave to the ancient Egyptian temples and sacred animals, appointing priests and bringing back statues of the Pharaohs that were taken by the Persians. This document tells about their good works and also about the respect of the people for the Ptolemaic kings and queens, who were given titles like “the good god and goddess”.

All the priests of the temples took the title of “priest of the good god and goddess” beside their other titles. Ptolemy III also built Isis Temples at Aswan and Esna and the great entrance to the Temple of Khonsu north of the Montu Temple at Karnak.

The first three Ptolemaic kings depended on the Greeks to build their military forces, but when they began to see their weakness, they turned to the Egyptians. Ptolemy IV was the first king to be crowned in the Egyptian style, and he was the first to order the drawing up of official documents in hieroglyphics and the demotic, showing his respect for Egyptian religion and culture.

Ptolemy V also showed his care for the Egyptian religion through the Rosetta Stone, which bears a decree concerning the priests of Memphis that was issued in 196 BCE. It tells us that Ptolemy V provided great services to the gods and the temples, giving them an income of wheat and renewing their rituals.

Ptolemy VI did not leave an inscription stating what he gave to the temples, but we know he built the Sobek and Horus Temples at Kom Ombo and added to the Ptah Temple at Karnak.


PTOLEMIES AND ROMANS: In 202 BCE, after the victory of Rome in the Second Punic War against Carthage, the Romans began to look to the east.

A mission came to Egypt headed by Marcus Lidius, and a rumour began to spread that Lidius was going to be placed in charge of the country. However, at this time Rome just wanted to secure Egypt from the rule of the Syrians and Macedonians.

When Ptolemy VI Philometor came to the throne of Egypt, he was only 15 years old, prompting Antiochus, the king of Syria, to attack Egypt. The Romans then made their move, as they did not want to see other countries trying to expand their empires.

Rome sent a mission to the camp of Antiochus near Alexandria, asking him to withdraw. They drew a circle in the sand around the king and told him not to leave it, and he was forced to agree. Protests then arose against Ptolemy VI in Alexandria and in many other parts of Egypt, but he was able to maintain stability. However, when his brother began to work against him, Ptolemy VI was forced to flee to Rome, showing how weak the Ptolemaic kingship was at this time.

The kings then lost their independence and began to be in the hands of the Roman Senate. Ptolemy VI asked for help from the Senate to regain his throne, and it assisted him.

Rome was also connected to Egypt economically. It imported Egyptian wheat from the time of Ptolemy II, and this relationship gave Rome the power to interfere in Egypt, as it was in Rome’s interest to keep the country stable.

The Ptolemaic kings began to be under the Romans thumb, and Egypt began to be part of Roman politics. One Ptolemaic king wanted Rome to declare him the legitimate king of Egypt, so he paid half the country’s income to Rome and gave it Cyprus in order to accomplish this. He also took out a loan from an individual in Rome, but he had no way to pay it back when he came to Egypt, so he appointed him vizier instead, giving a Roman complete control over the economy.

The Egyptian people were unhappy and wanted to kill him, but the king was able to help him to escape.

However, the Ptolemaic kings retained an important source of their power in its religious roots. The idea of the divine right of kings had existed since the Predynastic Period, saying that the kings were the gods who controlled the land, taught the arts of life, and established the rules of religion.

According to the ancient Egyptian religion, the last true god king had been Horus, but the Pharaoh represented Horus on earth as the son of Re. This meant that the Pharaoh was seen as a god and as the son of a god, and he was the only one who could connect with the gods. He was thus the high priest and the connection between the people and the gods, as well as with the deceased and the gods of the afterlife.

The Egyptian belief that the Pharaoh was the divine Horus emphasised to Alexander the Great how he must have good relations with the gods of Egypt in order to legitimise his rule when he conquered the country in the late fourth century BCE. He travelled to the Siwa Oasis and the Amun Sanctuary to show his respect for the ancient Egyptian religion.

Ptolemy VIII showed his care for religion through his decree of 118 BCE mandating that the royal treasury would pay for the care of the sacred bulls. He gave land to the Temple of Edfu and decorated it, and he built a chapel at Karnak and added to the Medinet Habu Temple. Ptolemy IX and X gave to the Temple of Edfu and other religious buildings.

The Ptolemies tried to keep the Egyptian priests on their side, because they held a very important position in the country. The Ptolemies used them as a tool to keep the country stable; although they did not want to change the system, they looked for ways to control them and to curtail their power.

The way they did this was economic by placing the administration of the temples under the control of the state and taxing the temples and their products. The decree granting the state this power was issued in the 23rd year of the reign of Ptolemy IL. If the temples had continued to enjoy the taxes from their land and products, they would have grown too powerful, so the Ptolemies took away the source of their income and crippled their economic independence.

Ptolemy I increased the wealth of Egypt and improved relations between the Greeks and the Egyptians by combining Greek and Egyptian religious elements so everyone could worship freely. He won the Greeks over to his side by building temples for the Greek gods and giving them land and deifying Alexander the Great.

The ancient historian Plutarch describes a group of intellectuals appointed by Ptolemy I meeting in order to create a new way for everyone to worship together. They created a sacred triad of the god Serapis, the goddess Isis, and their son Harpocrates. Isis was clearly an Egyptian goddess, and Harpocrates was the Greek form of Horus. Some people believe that Serapis was a manifestation of Osiris or Apis, or a combination of the two. This triad was worshiped by Egyptians and Greeks alike.