Museums: Cleopatra: The search for the last queen of Egypt

by Meg Marquardt
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cleopatra VII was the queen of Egypt. Even 2,000 years after her death, the last ruler of the great empire is still a focal point of worldwide fascination. Despite the number of movies and books that have centered on Cleopatra, most of her life and death remains a mystery. However, a new traveling exhibit called Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, currently at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pa., aims to finally set the record straight on her life — and perhaps reveal her final resting place.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt from Alexandria, a city on the Mediterranean coast in the lush Nile River Valley, from 51 B.C. until her death on Aug. 12, 30 B.C. During that time, she wooed two of the world’s greatest leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, having children with both of them. After she and her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion, Egypt’s last pharaoh, died during a Roman invasion of Alexandria, Egypt passed into Roman hands, signaling the end of the once-great empire.

The exhibit’s opening video gives a short overview of ongoing archaeological hunts for clues to Cleopatra’s life and death and introduces the key players: Franck Goddio is a French archaeologist who, since 1992, has headed underwater excavations of the cities where Cleopatra lived — Alexandria, Canopus and Hercleoin, which all disappeared in A.D. 365 beneath a tsunami triggered by a roughly magnitude-8.0 earthquake in the Mediterranean basin. Meanwhile, Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, is hot on the trail of Cleopatra’s tomb in Taposiris Magna, a collection of ruins almost 50 kilometers southwest of Alexandria.

Once the video is done, the projector screen lifts up to reveal a pristine statue of an Egyptian woman. It is just the first taste of the exhibit’s artifacts, some of the best that I have ever seen. The path to the first half of the exhibit is a raised glass walkway. Beneath the glass, nestled in a layer of sand, are pottery pieces, more statues and other artifacts. Everything is doused in blue light, creating the effect of diving into the ocean where the artifacts were found.

An audio tour provides museum goers with facts about the now-submerged cities, tidbits about everyday life in ancient Egypt, and the history of Cleopatra, her family and her rule. While listening to the narrator, visitors can wander around the room, which contains a scatter-shot of artifacts ranging from the very small, like earrings and tiny statuettes, to the imposing, such as a pair of 5-meter-tall statues that once guarded the entrance of the Temple of Amon where rulers were crowned.

For someone looking for the nitty-gritty details of underwater archaeology, this part of the exhibit falls short. There is no discussion of how Goddio located possible dig sites, what kind of technology he used to investigate them, or how geology and time might have compromised the artifacts. However, the exhibit does offer something unique. Because the expedition was funded by the National Geographic Society, cameras followed the scientists on many of their dives. Next to several display cases are televisions showing footage of artifact recovery. It’s an excellent opportunity to watch an archaeologist uncover a dog-sized sphinx on the seafloor and then study that same sphinx sitting on a display table only a foot away.

After moving through three sections filled with underwater artifacts, visitors will find a room with artifacts recovered from other archaeological digs, including jewelry that researchers think was likely worn by Cleopatra. This part of the exhibit also displays what is likely the most precious artifact: a letter signed by Cleopatra herself. The papyrus document grants a tax exemption to Publius Canidius, a friend of Mark Antony. Though the majority of the document was prepared by an Egyptian court scribe, Cleopatra’s touch is at the end, with the addition in Greek of “ginesthoi”—“make it happen.”

As visitors leave behind Cleopatra’s life, they are confronted by her death. The lighting turns from ocean blues to desert oranges as Hawass greets visitors in a short video detailing his hunt for Cleopatra’s tomb. He believes he’s found it at the ruins of the Temple of Isis at Taposiris Magna, about 48 kilometers southwest of Alexandria, based on coinage and statutes that appear to have Cleopatra’s visage. Finding Cleopatra’s tomb “would be the most important discovery in the world,” he says in the video.

This part of the exhibit is short, only a single room with artifacts found around the temple. It seems more like an afterthought, likely because the excavation is still under way in Egypt. The exhibit ends with a look at Cleopatra through the ages, in painting and cinema, including clips of the iconic portrayal of the queen by Elizabeth Taylor.

Though the exhibit contains exquisite examples of artifacts from Cleopatra’s time, there is little discussion of how the artifacts were discovered. It seems like an oversight. Given that the second half of the exhibit is so short, there is plenty of time to have some sort of discussion about the difference in techniques and strategies between land and underwater archaeology.

Despite that shortcoming, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt is a remarkable exhibit. The sea and silt of Alexandria Bay has kept the artifacts in pristine condition. Anyone intrigued by Egyptian life and Cleopatra should not miss a chance to catch the exhibit on tour. It will be at the Franklin Institute until Jan 2. If you can't make it to Philadelphia, future tour dates will be posted at the National Geographic Society’s Cleopatra exhibit page.

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