The young princess Cleopatra VII, known today as simply Cleopatra, became queen of Egypt in the year 51 BCE. Thrust onto the world stage by her father, Ptolemy XII, she ruled a country in tumult, one on the verge of crumbling under the mighty Roman Empire.
Only 17 years old when she took the throne, Cleopatra 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 Caesar and Mark Antony. Then, barely two decades after coming to power, she took her own life in a climactic act of defiance against the Romans, who were still hungry for her kingdom.
While we know these facts about Cleopatra’s life and times, much remains to be discovered. Who was Cleopatra? 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 the once-vibrant Alexandria to the desert remains of a temple where she may have gone to begin her journey into the afterlife, archaeologists today seek further evidence about the life, death, and world of Egypt’s last queen.
Cleopatra has remained shrouded in the layers of history, revealing just enough to captivate the world’s imagination.
Before the Ptolemies: The colossal Pyramids at Giza, now the universal symbol of ancient Egypt, had already existed for thousands of years before Cleopatra’s royal line, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, came to power.
These remarkable structures were built around 2600 BCE during a period of history commonly referred to as the Old Kingdom. After periods of instability, including a time when the Hyksos, an Asiatic people, ruled Egypt for 150 years, king Ahmose I became Pharaoh and initiated the New Kingdom, a golden age that saw Egypt come into its own as a powerful empire.
After almost 500 years, the empire held under the New Kingdom was lost, and Egypt moved into a new era of fragmentation, the Third Intermediate Period. In the mid-eighth century BCE, a dynasty from the Nubian kingdom of Kush, far to the south, conquered Egypt. At the beginning of the seventh century BCE, the Kingdom of Ashur (present-day Iraq) took Egypt from the Nubians and was immediately challenged by the native 26th Dynasty, inaugurating the Late Period.
During the 26th or Saite Dynasty, increasing numbers of Greek merchants entered Egypt and established trading posts in the Delta. With the new wealth from increasing Greek trade, Egypt’s king Psamtik began promoting Greek soldiers and merchants within the Egyptian army to help him establish and maintain his power. As the stability of Egypt increased, Psamtik cultivated relations with the Mediterranean world.
In about 525 BCE, the Persian influence in Egypt also increased. Persian king Cambyses defeated the Egyptians at Pelusium in the Sinai. In order to legitimise his reign in Egypt, he took the title of Pharaoh, even though he, and most of the Persian kings who followed him, did not respect the ancient Egyptian religion. Soon the Persians controlled all of Egypt. They were harsh rulers, scornful of local beliefs and customs, and their Egyptian subjects rebelled against them.
Persian rule in Egypt ended in November 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered Egypt. Alexander went to Memphis, Egypt’s oldest capital, where he mingled with the Egyptians and made offerings to their gods. Afterwards, he journeyed to the Delta, founding the new city of Alexandria, which then became Egypt’s capital.
Alexander understood that he needed to respect the local religion if he wanted loyalty from his subjects. According to the Egyptian religion, the last true god-king was Horus, the child of Re, the sun god. The Pharaoh represented Horus on earth, meaning that he or she was both a god and the child of a god. He or she was also a high priest, the only person who could connect with both the gods and the deceased.
These ideas of the divine right of kingship had existed since the Early Predynastic Period, and every Pharaoh’s power was deeply rooted in religion. According to tradition, the kings were gods who controlled the land, taught the arts of life, and established the rules of religion.
Eventually the Egyptians came to revere Alexander as they would have revered one of their own deities.
THE PTOLEMIES: After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy I, one of his generals, gained control of Egypt.
We do not know much about Ptolemy’s origins, except that he, like Alexander, was raised in the Macedonian court of king Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, and was a good friend of Alexander’s from the beginning of his life.
Ptolemy I designated Alexandria as the capital of Egypt. His reign represents the beginning of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which lasted from 304 to 30 BCE and ended with the death of Cleopatra, the last of Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers.
The Ptolemaic kings and queens were not native to Egypt. They were from Macedonia, the ancient name for a region in today’s northern Greece. Nevertheless, and unlike the Persian rulers before them, they respected the beliefs of the Egyptians, who believed that the Pharaoh was the source of life and owner of all the land.
The Ptolemies continued to fulfil this role, emphasising their rights as divine kings within that tradition. The Ptolemaic rulers became “Egyptianised” by worshipping Egyptian gods, supporting the temple priests, and donning the titles given to Pharaohs. Ptolemy I took two titles of the Pharaohs; beginning with Ptolemy II, the kings used all five of the traditional pharaonic titles.
Egypt’s foreign ministers under the Ptolemies focused on securing the country’s borders against attack from outside. Many people in the army and administration hailed from Macedon and Greece, and Jewish, Syrian, Phoenician, and Libyan immigrants all lived side by side with the Egyptians. Ptolemy I increased the wealth of Egypt and improved relations between the Greeks and the Egyptians. He won the Greeks over by building temples for Greek gods, giving them land, and deifying Alexander the Great.
Plutarch, one of the greatest of the Greek and Roman historians and an important source for the history of Greece and Rome up to the first century CE, recorded that Ptolemy I appointed a group of intellectuals to meet and found a new way for everyone to worship together. They created a sacred triad composed of the god Serapis (a later interpretation of Osiris), the goddess Isis and their son Harpocrates.
Isis was clearly an Egyptian goddess, and many believed that Serapis and Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, were the same. Harpocrates was the Greek form of the Egyptian Horus. Egyptians and Greeks alike joined in worship of this triad.
When Cleopatra came into power, she associated herself with Isis, the sole female in this sacred trinity.
Ptolemy I encouraged the spread of the Egyptian religion. He gave funds for the Festival of the Sacred Bull and rebuilt the holy of holies in the Temple of Karnak. His successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphos, built many temples to show his respect for the Egyptian religion, and documents reveal the care Ptolemy III and his wife, Berenike, later gave to the temples and the sacred animals, appointing priests and bringing back statues of the Pharaohs that had been stolen by the Persians. They also rebuilt important temples on the sites of earlier monuments.
The Ptolemies used Egyptian priests to keep the country stable, but they also looked for ways to control them and curtail their power. By placing the administration of the temples under the state, the Ptolemies could levy taxes on them, crippling their economic independence.
During the Ptolemaic period, Greeks held positions of power, while Egyptians were appointed only to lower-level positions. Greek was the language of the ruling elites, but Egyptians continued to speak their native tongue. At this time, there was one set of laws for Egyptians, another for foreigners, and a third for those who lived in Greek cities within Egypt. Each set of laws had its own courts and judges. Over time, as the Ptolemaic rulers grew weaker, the Egyptians gained more rights in the army, court, and administration, ultimately gaining enough power to revolt against their Ptolemaic leaders.
Agriculture, manufacturing, and trade supported the economy under the Ptolemies. The majority of the agricultural land was controlled by the king and rented to farmers. Temple complexes took up significant amounts of land as well, and Ptolemiac leaders began taking over that land in order to control the power of the priests. Oil, salt, and textiles were important industries, but the most important was papyrus, made for export.
From the time of Ptolemy II during the third century BCE, the Romans began importing Egyptian wheat, giving the Roman Empire a commercial incentive to ensure Egypt’s political stability. Rome played an increasingly large role in Egyptian politics during the Ptolemaic period, an important ally at some points, but a threat to independence as well. In 202 BCE, after the victory of Rome in the Second Punic War, a mission came to Egypt headed by Marcus Lidius, with rumours that he was going to be placed in charge of Egypt. But Rome only wanted to keep Egypt safe from the rule of others.
When Ptolemy VI Philometor took the throne in 180 BCE at the age of 15, Antiochus, the King of Syria, decided to attack. To prevent Syria from expanding its empire in Egypt, the Romans moved in: one more step in Egypt’s loss of independence.
From this point forward, weak Ptolemaic kings were controlled by Rome, paying half the country’s income in taxes and taking direction from the Roman Senate.
Instability thus pervaded Egypt when Cleopatra was born. Her father, Ptolemy XII, came to power after the king and queen before him were murdered. Commonly known as “Auletes”, or the Flutist, Ptolemy XII depended on the goodwill of Rome. He spent Egyptian money to bribe Rome, which infuriated the people of Alexandria to such an extent that they revolted against him in 58 BCE.
Ptolemy XII then fled to Rome, where he so ingratiated himself with certain powerful leaders that they eventually helped him return to Egypt and his throne.
Resuming his position of power, Ptolemy XII punished those Alexandrians who had rebelled against him. He had his daughter Berenice IV, Cleopatra’s older sister, put to death because she had ascended to the throne in his absence. Yet, he wanted to guarantee that his children would be his successors, and so in 51 BCE Ptolemy XII wrote a will granting the throne to 17-year-old Cleopatra and mandating that she share power with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, around 11 years old at the time.
The elder 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 Pharaoh of Egypt, the last of her line to do so.
CLEOPATRA’S WORLD: Four cities formed the landscape of Cleopatra’s world: Alexandria, Canopus, Heracleion, and Taposiris Magna.
Alexandria was the capital, the royal city, a place of importance not just for Egypt but for the entire Mediterranean world. Ancient Alexandria was designed to have five districts, each named with a letter of the Greek alphabet. Alpha was the royal area that included the palaces, temples, museums, libraries, and gardens. Beta was the area of the Greek aristocrats. Gamma was the area where other Greek citizens lived. Delta was for foreigners, among them Syrians, Jews, and Persians, and Epsilon was where Egyptian citizens lived.
The famous Lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was begun by Ptolemy I and finished in the reign of Ptolemy II. Made of limestone, granite, and marble, it stood more than 100 m tall on Pharos Island on the outer edge of the harbour and guided ships safely into port from tens, even hundreds, of miles away. A bronze statue of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, stood atop its dome.
At the time of Cleopatra, Alexandria had become a centre of politics and commerce, as well as the cultural capital of the Mediterranean. The Royal Library of Alexandria, founded during the third century BCE and a centre of literature and learning, contained books in Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Phoenician, and other languages. Scientists from all over the world flocked to Egypt’s capital, making this city a hub of scientific learning.
While Alexandria to this day commands an important place on the Mediterranean coastline, some of the more important cities of Cleopatra’s world have disappeared over time. Northeast of Alexandria lay the city of Canopus, recently located in the Bay of Abu Qir through the underwater archaeological explorations of archaeologist Franck Goddio, for example.
Canopus was a centre of spiritual life for the Egyptians, and many of the most important religious processions and rituals took place within the bounds of the city. At the same time, Canopus was infamous as the site of lavish festivals. Cleopatra and Mark Antony are said to have visited this city so that their love affair could blossom beyond the critical eyes of Roman and Egyptian officials.
Heracleion, another location lost in time and rediscovered through underwater archaeology, sat at the mouth of a major tributary of the Nile and served as a port of entry into Egypt. Cleopatra was likely crowned in the famed temple at Heracleion, a city whose Greek population made it one of the most important Greek trading centres in the Mediterranean.
More significant even than Alexandria in the days of Cleopatra, Heracleion was an inspiration to the last queen of Egypt, who developed it into an equally important flourishing commercial centre.
Standing nearly 47 km west of Alexandria, Taposiris Magna was an important religious centre in Cleopatra’s day. Founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BCE, it had become the site of a major temple to Osiris, husband to Isis, by around 25 BCE, based on reports by the Greek historian Strabo. Built along the coastal drive between the Mediterranean and a freshwater lake, the temple site, today called Abousir, was named Busiris by the ancient Greeks in another link to Osiris, whose body was believed to lie there.
In the search for Cleopatra, the four locations of Alexandria, Canopus, Heracleion, and Taposiris Magna hold the most promise. Excavations in all four areas are uncovering clues that give us ever clearer answers to the mystery of who she was and what her life and world were like.
From political history to religious customs, we have a rough sketch of the Egyptian world around the time Cleopatra entered it. We know the most important industries of Egypt’s economy, and the sacred triad of deities that Greeks and Egyptians joined together to worship.
We know which urban centres were most important, and we know of the terrible murders that caused this queen’s rise to the throne. We also know about the precarious political and economic plight of her country at the time. The more closely we examine this picture, the more we return to the questions that have been left unanswered, the questions that tantalise us with their ambiguity, making Cleopatra the charismatic, yet enigmatic, figure she is today.
We are searching for answers in the sunken city of Alexandria, in the remains of Canopus and Heracleion, and in the temple ruins of Taposiris Magna, which may prove to hold the tomb of the last great queen of Egypt.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly