Egyptian experts weigh in on controversy over Cleopatra’s race ignited by upcoming Netflix docuseries

Nevine El-Aref , Friday 28 Apr 2023

Ahram Online spoke to a number of prominent Egyptian archeologists and historians about the ongoing controversy surrounding Queen Cleopatra’s ethnicity and race that erupted following the release of a trailer for the upcoming Netflix docuseries.

A statue showing the face of Queen Cleopatra.

The trailer released on 12 April features claims that Cleopatra had black skin with curly hair, with one historian saying “I remember my grandmother saying to me ‘I don't care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’”

In response, many Egyptians slammed the trailer, claiming that the historical records show that Cleopatra, who was born in 69 BC, was Macedonian-Greek. An Egyptian lawyer has even filed a case with Egypt’s Prosecutor-General demanding they block Netflix in Egypt.

Meanwhile, former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass condemned the appearance of Queen Cleopatra in the documentary and described it as “completely fake.”

According to Hawass, Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black. 

“Statues of Queen Cleopatra uncovered in Taposiris Magna in west Alexandria are the best evidence of her true features and her Macedonian origins,” he added.

“The ancient Egyptian civilization is not a black civilization. Scenes engraved on ancient Egyptian temples and tombs depict the pharaoh striking the enemies and in front of him are people from Africa, Libya and Asia, and we will not find any similarities between the pharaoh and the neighbouring people,” Hawass said.

“Netflix is trying to provoke confusion by spreading false and deceptive facts that the origin of the Egyptian civilization is black,” he added.

“I am not against black people at all, but I found it my duty as an archaeologist to clarify the facts and declare that Cleopatra was not black,” Hawass asserted.

Mostafa Waziry, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, confirmed that Netflix’s depiction of the heroine is a forgery and blatant historical fallacy, especially since the film is classified as a documentary film and not a dramatic work. He called on the show’s producers to investigate the matter and to rely on historical and scientific facts to ensure that history and peoples' civilizations are not falsified.

“It is necessary to consult archaeologists and anthropologists when making these kinds of documentaries and historical films, which will remain witness to the civilizations and history of nations,” he said.

There are many artefacts of Queen Cleopatra, including statues and depictions on coins that confirm her features, “all of which show the Hellenistic (Greek) features of Queen Cleopatra in terms of light skin, drawn nose and thin lips,” he added.

Waziry argues that his rejection of the docuseries stems from a defense of history, rather than racism, emphasising his respect for African civilisation.

Nasser Mekkawi, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Faculty of Archeology, Cairo University, explains that Cleopatra’s appearance in the docuseries contradicts the simplest historical facts and the writings from the time. Historians such as Plutarch and Dio Cassius, who recorded Roman history in Egypt during the reign of Queen Cleopatra, confirmed that she was light-skinned and had pure Macedonian origins.

Queen Cleopatra descended from an ancient Macedonian family that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years under the Ptolemaic Dynasty founded by King Ptolemy I in 305 BC, who was a leader in the army of Alexander the Great, he explained.

Ptolemy I married Queen Berenice I, also from Macedonia, and they gave birth to King Ptolemy II, after whom his sons and grandchildren continued to marry their female sisters according to the customs of this era, until Queen Elizabeth VII and her brother Ptolemy XIV, they maintained the purity of their Macedonian race during all this period of time.

Samia Al-Marghani, former director-general of the Centre for Research and Conservation of Antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that the biological anthropology and DNA studies that were conducted on ancient Egyptians' mummies and human bones confirmed that the Egyptians did not bear the features of Sub-Saharan Africans, whether in the shape of the skull, the width of the cheeks and nose, the widening and advancement of the upper jaw, nor the apparent shape of the hair, the proportions of body parts, height, distribution and density of body hair.

“The great diversity that we see in the features of Egyptians is due to the ancient construction of this land, the stability of its inhabitants and their melting of every stranger within their crucible,” she pointed out.

The inscriptions and statues left by the ancient Egyptians on their temples and tombs, she added, portray features that are as close as possible to contemporary Egyptians in terms of eye, hair and skin colour, the degree of smoothness and density of hair for men and women, even the colour of the skin and the presence of a proportion of coloured eyes.

“Even when some mummification techniques changed in the 21st Dynasty and they began to paint the mummy's skin to look as it did in life, they painted the skin in brick color and painted the woman's skin in light yellow, which confirms what was drawn on the walls.”

Catarina Martinez, head of the Dominican mission and worker at the Taposiris Magna Temple in western Alexandria, said that statues and coins left by the queen confirm her Hellenistic features. For example, a marble bust from the first century BC that is now preserved in the Berlin Museum shows her with almond eyes, a drawn nose and thin lips.

In addition, another marble bust preserved in the Vatican shows her with soft features while a number of coins show her in the same Hellenistic form.

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