“Nefertiti is a face without a queen, and Cleopatra is a queen without a face,” was the way author André Malraux explained it in the 1960s. And indeed since her death in 30 B.C., nearly everything has conspired against Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies. Among history’s losers, she was a Macedonian woman whose story would be written by Roman men. Tidal waves and earthquakes obliterated her Alexandria. No shred of papyrus survived that city’s humidity. Later another force of nature blew in, courtesy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz: the faceless Cleopatra became Elizabeth Taylor. The end result is the ultimate make-your-own-legend kit, a half-told story replete with illicit love affairs, an exotic landscape, an early, sensational death, and a wild animal. Joan of Arc can keep her talking angels.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of ‘Cleopatra: Search for the Last Queen of Egypt’
_LacosteAd_ Since 1992, a Frenchman named Frank Goddio has been mapping and exploring the harbor of ancient Alexandria. In a feat of underwater archaeology, he has discovered two lost cities to the east. And along with a team of divers he has salvaged an extraordinary collection of gleaming gold and polished statuary, dating from the 7th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. Those pieces have been exhibited—a show called Egypt’s Sunken Treasures toured Europe several years ago—but never before in America. With 500 artifacts, the exhibit was too big. It had no obvious hook.
More recently, a Dominican archaeologist has reopened excavation of a temple 30 miles west of Alexandria, at Taposiris Magna. Other teams had dug at Taposiris, but Kathleen Martinez—with the backing of über-archaeologist Zahi Hawass—is the first to do so on the theory that the Isis temple is Cleopatra’s final resting place. (Classical sources imply that she was buried in her mausoleum, which would today be under the modern city, not far from Alexandria’s new library.) The case remains unsolved, but in the meantime Taposiris has yielded up plenty of Ptolemaic treasures, from beads to busts to bronze vessels. Hawass had the brilliant idea to combine the two searches in an exhibit that would highlight the exploration as much as the discovery. The resulting show, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, opens this weekend in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute.
Two-thousand-year-old artifacts can’t be asked to speak for themselves, and these aren’t. The buried treasures arrive in the U.S. with bells and whistles: theatrical lighting, sultry music, 17 video screens, and an audio in which Cleopatra introduces herself to us. (“Hi, I’m Cleopatra VII, Queen of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and the goddess Isis.”) I could have lived without the initial video, but Hellenistic Egypt does require an introduction. And I’ve watched fifth graders watch the reenactors. Eleven-year-olds do not wince as Cleopatra, in Egyptian dress, discusses hieroglyphs with a scholar, or frolics in a hot tub with Mark Antony.
Among Goddio’s finds are Cleopatra’s ancestors in colossal form, a 16½-foot royal couple in pink granite, discovered in jumbled fragments, together, on the ocean floor, as well as a diorite masterpiece of a Ptolemaic queen, larger-than-life and exquisitely carved with transparent, shimmering drapery. Underwater footage gives some idea of the thrill of discovery but not of its ardors. Goddio told me that last week the visibility in the Alexandrian harbor was about 27 inches.
Most of these pieces predate Cleopatra VII but give a stunning sense of her Alexandria. Family members too make an appearance; from the harbor Goddio has lifted a colossal head that likely represents Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s teenaged son. Beside him stands a sphinx who looks suspiciously like Cleopatra’s father. These have been supplemented by jewelry from the Cairo Museum and with a 33 B.C. papyrus, on loan from the Neues Museum in Berlin. The royal ordinance exempting one of Mark Antony’s top generals from Egyptian taxes—the privilege extends to his tenants as well—is signed with a single word, meaning “Let it be done.” There is a chance that word is in Cleopatra’s hand; even if it isn’t, it’s a document she would have known and may well have touched. It reveals something of the history no number of sphinxes can: How did a canny queen manage to hold off an aggressive, ascendant Rome, a power that had extended its borders very nearly to hers?
A video of Zahi Hawass transports us to the Taposiris dig. A collection of collars, lamps, busts, and incense burners have emerged from that sacred ground, along with an assortment of Cleopatra’s coins. They are here displayed together for the first time. The spotlight is as much on our heroic explorers as on the found artifacts. The trail has gone cold for 2,000 years, we are told, and Goddio and Hawass are determined to set the record straight. That may require more than a Howard Carter moment, but the exhibition fits a stunning face to Cleopatra’s world. If it doesn’t solve the mystery, it palpably enhances it.
The show winds up with a collage of the images we have devised for our faceless queen, from reproductions of 15th-century portraits to clips from Rome, the HBO miniseries. Inevitably, that gallery delivers you directly to the gift shop, which puts the Cairo Museum’s to shame, and where—among the magnets, coloring books, shotglasses, and sphinx ties—you can buy your budding young archaeologist a Zahi Hawass hat. She’s going to want one.
Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography; Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Her latest book, Cleopatra: A Life, comes out from Little, Brown in November.