A most beautiful moment for me was when I received a young man at my office called Shehab Ahmed together with Yassar Abdel-Hakam and Sorra Sakr. They are making a documentary at their own expense that will compete with the Netflix series about the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
The Egyptian people are very upset about this Netflix series. We object to the portrayal of Cleopatra as black, much in the way that we would object were she to be represented as blonde. Cleopatra had Mediterranean features.
No one with even a little education could make a film showing Cleopatra as black. But the fact is that in May a US series will be shown on Netflix produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of actor Will Smith, and featuring the actress Adele James that presents Cleopatra in this way.
I myself met Jada Smith in 2006 when the US Time magazine chose me and also Will Smith as among the top 100 most influential people in the world. I went to an event at Lincoln Center in New York and at dinner sat at a table with Will and Jada. I invited them to come to Egypt, and he did 11 years later with most of the members of his family.
I cannot believe that a queen who originally was Macedonian was black, and if we look at scenes representing the queens and princesses of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, to which Cleopatra belonged, we can see that all of them had Greek features.
Let us look at the statues that are known of Cleopatra and even the last head of the queen that we (myself and Kathleen Martinez) found inside the Temple of Taposiris Magna during our search for her tomb. If you look at these statues, there are no black features about the head of Cleopatra.
Numerous coins were found during our excavation of the temple located west of Alexandria. The coins depict the face of Cleopatra, and there is nothing on them to justify the series that Smith has made. There is also a great scene of Cleopatra on the facade of the temple of the goddess Hathour at Dendereh, where she is shown with her son Caesarion, son of Julius Caesar, and again the depiction goes against what is shown in the Netflix series.
Many African-Americans believe that their origins lie in ancient Egypt. If this were true, I would accept it completely, but there is no evidence to prove the theory.
The scenes depicted on the ancient Egyptian temples all show the Pharaohs smitting the enemies of Egypt, among them the peoples of the countries of the region, such as Nubia, Libya and Mesopotamia. Look at their faces, and you can notice the difference between the ancient Egyptians and these other peoples.
One of the great scenes found during our excavation of the tomb of Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings shows hour number six from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Gates with the sun god on his boat and in front of him four Egyptians, four Africans, four Libyans, and four Asians. The sun god Re says in the text that he created all these peoples and all will go to paradise. But the scene shows clear differences among them.
An American comedian, Kevin Hart, recently announced that he would come to Egypt to do a show in Aswan. He is known for his statements that the ancient Egyptian civilisation was an African civilisation. I then read in the newspapers that this show has now been cancelled, which is not a good thing as there should be a dialogue between us on this and other issues. We should meet to explain that the people of Kush came to Egypt and ruled during the 25th Dynasty, in other words during the Later Period and not at the beginning of the Pharaonic civilisation.
I was also visiting Brazil recently and say a large parade in the city of Sao Paulo. This takes place every year, and people from all over the world come to it. During the parade I saw, there was a replica of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs and a person dressed as a Pharaoh with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt on his head. The parade was accompanied by music and dancing.
Again, the Kingdom of Kush, presented in the parade, was a kingdom that existed in what is now Sudan and came to prominence in the Late Period. There are famous kings of the 25th Dynasty, a Kushite Dynasty, such as Taharka who prefered to rule Egypt from San al-Hagar in the Delta. But this Dynasty did not add anything to ancient Egypt. Thousands of years before it, the ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife, built the Pyramids, and constructed their civilisation.
The pyramids in Meroe in Sudan are not the same in shape or structure as the ancient Egyptian pyramids.
IN THE US: A few years ago, I went to Philadelphia in the US to give a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The lecture was sold out, and the main question on the programme was about the origins of the ancient Egyptians.
I said there were three opinions. The first says that the ancient Egyptians were Semitic and Hamitic people, meaning that they came both from Asia and Africa. The evidence is the colour of the people of the Delta, who are Mediterranean, and the people of Upper Egypt, who are much darker. The grammar of the hieroglyphic script is similar to Arabic and Hebrew.
The second opinion is associated with Cheikh Anta Diop from Senegal, who said that the origins of the ancient Egyptians were in Africa. He produced a statue of Tutankhamun and Ramses II showing them to be black. He also said that the grammar of hieroglyphics was similar to some African languages. However, at a UNESCO conference in Paris held to examine this theory it was found that there is no evidence to support it.
The third opinion is based on excavations at Naqqada in Upper Egypt by Sir Flinders Petrie, a father of Egyptology. Petrie excavated a pre-Dynastic cemetery there and said that the people who were buried in it were the people who had made the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Looking further afield at ancient Asia and Africa, it is clear that the Pharaonic civilisation occured only in Egypt. The people who created this civilication came out of Egypt, and as they watched the sun rise and set and rise again, they formed their own beliefs about the afterlife. This was the reason they began to build tombs in the shape of pyramids and temples.
Egypt had everything necessary to build such monuments, including diorite from the south of the country, granite from Aswan, sandstone from Gabel al-Selsela, alabaster from Het-Nub in Middle Egypt, white limestone from Torah, turquoise and copper from Sinai, and basalt from Fayoum.
There was also plenty of gold. We have a letter sent to Amenhotep III by a neighbouring king who said that the gold in Egypt was like dust. Only two materials were not found in Egypt, silver from Palestine and Syria and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
Despite all this evidence, there are people who still try to change history by inventing false stories. A skeleton in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Cairo dated to 3500 BCE was found in a village called Nazlet Khater about 12 km from Tahta in the Sohag government, for example. This skeleton was found by a Belgian expedition, which studied it and said the person had lived in the Stone Age and had worked in a quarry to make stone tools such as knives and axes.
Later, some people on the Internet anounnced that this person had been black, claiming that there was a similarity between the skeleton and those of ancient African people.
A TV channel in Dubai called me to comment on this claim, and I called my friend Ahmed Ghoneim, the director of the museum. He said that two people from Brazil had come to the museum and taken photographs of the skeleton in order to spread this story. The TV presenter said he could not believe that people would create stories based on no evidence.
HISTORY OF CLEOPATRA: Returning to Cleopatra, when she took the throne after the death of her father in 51 BCE, Egypt was significantly in debt and experiencing high inflation. The Nile had flooded more destructively then usual, political power lay in the hands of Rome, and the feeling of the Alexandrians toward the Pharaoh had built to a fever pitch of anger and rebellion.
Cleopatra rose to the occasion through her strong character, sharp mind, and a feminine charm that she did not hesitate to use. She had had several private tutors who had prepared her to rule Egypt, but she also pursued interests of her own, including in science and philosophy. Unlike her forebears, Cleopatra learned the native language of Egypt as well as Greek.
“She could readily turn to whichever language she pleased,” wrote the ancient historian Plutarch, “so that there were few foreigners she had to deal with through an interpreter and to most she herself gave her replies without an intermediary.”
Of Macedonian descent, as were Alexander the Great and the other Ptolemies, Cleopatra chose to become Egyptianised in her dress and appearance. She linked herself with the goddess Isis, assuming her symbols as her own. She made strong connections with Rome and commanded loyalty among the Egyptians.
One of the most important periods for the entire Ptolemic Dynasty was when the Roman general Julius Caesar traveled to Egypt in 48 BCE. Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII had been plotting to seize control from his sister. Sensing the danger, Cleopatra went to Palestine. Like his father before him, Ptolemy XIII stopped at nothing to please the Romans, and he arranged for the murder of Caesar’s rival, Pompey, who had sought refuge in Egypt.
This rash act infuriated Caesar. Meanwhile, Cleopatra, according to Plutarch, secretly returned to Alexandria wrapped in a Persian carpet. A soldier presented the carpet to Caesar, and it was unrolled to reveal Cleopatra, who impressed the great Roman leader with her bravery and beauty.
The next day, Caesar sent for Ptolemy in order to decide which one, brother or sister, should hold the throne. When Ptolemy saw his sister side by side with Caesar, he threw his crown on the ground and ran into the street, calling her a traitor. Months of struggle ensued, with Ptolemy XIII and his young sister Arsinoe pitted against Cleopatra and Caesar for the control of Egypt.
As Cleopatra and Caesar remained barricaded in Alexandria, one of Arsinoe’s advisors poured seawater into the city’s cisterns, making the water undrinkable. However, then Roman forces arrived and faced off against the 50 Egyptian ships that attempted to control the port of Alexandria. Ultimately, the Roman forces won, burning the Egyptian vessels in a conflagration so immense that it reached the famous Library and destroyed many precious volumes.
Ptolemy XIII drowned, and Caesar captured Arsinoe and sent her to Rome. He proclaimed Cleopatra the queen of Egypt and ordered her to marry Ptolemy XIV, her brother, who was not yet 12 years old. Caesar then wintered in Egypt with Cleopatra, crusing the Nile and granting the island of Cyprus to her as a sign of commitment. In June in 47 BCE, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, whom he named Ptolemy XV Caesar, but whom the Egyptians called Caesarion, or “little Caesar”.
The three Ptolemies, Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV, and Caesarion lived in Caesar’s palace in Rome for more then a year. When the senators assisinated Caesar on 15 March in 44 BCE, they secretly returned to Egypt.
In Rome, Brutus and Cassius, who had plotted against Caesar, were defeated by Octavius and Mark Antony, who agreed to divide the empire between them. Antony acquired the eastern part, including Egypt. He arranged a meeting with Cleopatra, at which she is said to have arrived dressed as the goddess Isis. She quickly won him over.
In the name of his love for Cleopatra, Antony killed the queen’s sister Arsinoe IV and possibly also Ptolemy XIV, because as long as they were alive they were a threat to their sister’s rule. Foreign relations soon took Antony away from his life with Cleopatra in Alexandria, and when he returned, he had married Octavia, sister of Octavius, to secure political power.
In 37 BCE, Antony appealed to Cleopatra to support his campaign in Syria. Leveraging her lover’s desperation for a victory, she received Syria, Phoenicia, and Cyprus in exchange for the funds he needed. Antony’s offensive ultimately failed, but Cleopatra’s rule now stretched farther than ever before.
But in Rome, tensions were mounting. Octavius advanced into Persia, part of Antony’s eastern empire. Octavius accused Antony of giving Roman property and power to a foreign woman. Most Egyptians honoured Antony, but they wanted Cleopatra to live in Alexandria rather than Rome. Octavius clearly considered his rival to be not only Mark Antony but also Cleopatra.
After winning a battle against Octavius’s forces in Armenia in 34 BCE, Antony returned to Alexandria for a victory celebration where he sat on a throne of gold next to Cleopatra on a throne of silver.
The Egyptian people allied with Antony against Octavius and encouraged him to return to Rome. Cleopatra travelled with his army, even though the Egyptians wanted her to stay in Egypt. She persuaded Antony to divorce Octavia, which caused a scandal among the Romans and incited Octavius to declare war.
Octavius cast the war in terms of a campaign against Antony and his lover Cleopatra. Visiting the Temple of Mars, the war god, Octavius recited the traditional Roman declaration of war. Thus began the Battle of Actium, the ancient world’s last great sea battle.
The famous battle took place in September in 31 BCE. Octavius made war against Antony, whom he saw as a traitor who had raised his hand against his country for a woman. Octavius had 80,000 ground troops, 12,000 horsemen, and 250 warships. Antony faced him with at least 500 ships, 100,000 infantry, and 12,000 cavalry.
However, the Roman leader Agrippa cut off Antony’s supplies from Egypt and Syria. As disease began to spread among his troops, Antony was forced into a defensive strategy. Octavius, with smaller, more maneuverable ships, excelled in the sea battle, and Antony’s Roman allies began to abandon him soon after the battle began.
Cleopatra’s ships were in the rear, and when she could no longer bear to watch Antony’s defeat, she retreated to Alexandria. Antony fled to Egypt, but his troops, feeling abandoned, fled to Macedonia. Antony had lost his political stature, and the defeat left Cleopatra to contemplate the future of her empire.
In Alexandria, she led everyone to believe that she had been victorious in battle. She arranged festivals and did what she could to organise her people against Octavius, while at the same time she hid her treasure, fearing invasion or worse. Scholars believe that Cleopatra offered Octavius the head of Antony in order to confirm a new alliance between Egypt and Rome. He answered by telling her to give him Egypt and afterward he would decide her fate.
The last message Cleopatra received from Octavius stated that he would leave her the throne of Egypt and not kill her. But she could not melt Octavius’s heart as she had the hearts of two other Roman generals. Antony defeated Octavius’s forces in Aboukir in July in 30 BCE, but it was his last victory, for his soldiers continued to desert him.
He invited Octavius to fight, but Octavius refused. All Antony could do was sit in the palace and wait for Octavius.
DEATH OF CLEOPATRA: Legend has it that Cleopatra gathered her treasure, entered her tomb with assistants and slaves, and sent a message to Antony that she had killed herself. Antony, distraught, tried to kill himself as well. He did not succeed, and when the news came that Cleopatra was not dead, he went to die in her arms.
Alexandria was in dire trouble after the death of Antony, and Octavius continued to try to find a way to force Cleopatra to surrender. He sent men to negotiate with her. He feared she might attempt suicide, and he wanted to take her back to Rome, to show his victory over her and Egypt.
But Cleopatra decided to take control of her own fate. On August 12 in 30 BCE, Cleopatra’s servants were ordered to enter her room, one carrying a serpent in a basket. She left behind a letter to Octavius, expressing her wish that she be buried with her beloved Mark Antony. She chose a royal death, inflicted through the bite of a cobra, a sacred servant of the sun god and the protector of all kings. So Cleopatra followed Antony in death and maintained her sovereign dignity.
Some scholars believe that Octavius killed Cleopatra and that the stories of her suicide are mistaken. But the ferocious strength that this queen displayed throughout her life suggests that she would proceed courageously to her death, taking her own life to preserve the legacy of her homeland.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly