Egyptian Authorities Push Back on Cleopatra Portrayal
The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (to be precise, Dr. Mostafa Waziri) has accused Netflix of the “falsification of Egyptian history.” They are pushing back, hard, after a new Cleopatra documentary portrays the legendary ruler of ancient Egypt as a black African woman. The Council said this is “blatant historical fallacy”.
A Blatant Historical Fallacy
According to a press release from Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, “Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.” This was in response to Netflix portraying her as a black woman in a new documentary series which will air on 10th May. The Council added that all of the statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best evidence of her true features, and they all confirm “her Macedonian origins”.
Dr. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said Queen Cleopatra VII, is portrayed in the new series “with African features and dark skin.” And by noting her ancestry and depictions from the time would indicate she was pretty fair skinned, he described the appearance of the historical figure as “a falsification of Egyptian history and a blatant historical fallacy”.
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If this was a fictional movie based on Cleopatra’s life , perhaps the Egyptian Council would have less to say. However, the trouble arises because Netflix has classified the film as “a documentary.” The press release says those in charge of production should have been committed to presenting “historical and scientific facts, so as to ensure that history and civilizations are not falsified”.
The Supreme Council uses these and other contemporary depictions of Cleopatra VII to back its position. ( MOTA)
Dr. Mostafa Waziri added that many antiquities of Queen Cleopatra, including statues and depictions on coins, show her with “fair skin, a drawn nose and thin lips”. And trying to counter the inevitable forthcoming waves of accusations of racism, Dr. Waziri added that the Council’s pushback on the Netflix production is “far from any ethnic racism.” He said he has “full respect for African civilizations and our brothers in the African continent that unites us all”.
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Defending Egypt’s Fair Skinned Queen
Mostafa Waziri said the ruler was an “important and authentic part of the ancient history of Egypt.”
Dr. Nasser Makkawi, Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University, said that the representation of Queen Cleopatra in the forthcoming film, “contradicts the simplest historical facts.”
Makkawi says the film flies in the face of historians such as Plutarch and Diocassius, who both recorded the queen as being “light-skinned with a Pure Macedonian ancestry.” Therefore, the Council’s rejection of the film, before it comes out, is inspired by a sense of “defending the history of Queen Cleopatra VII,” according to Dr. Waziri.
Many classic modern depictions of Cleopatra from the 19th/20th century have her as very fair skinned. From Top left clockwise: Cleopatra and Caesar (1866). Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme; Cleopatra greeting Antony (1906) by Faulkner. ( Public domain ) ;‘The Death of Cleopatra’ by Jean-André Rixens by 1874. ( Public Domain ) Cleopatra (1888) Waterhouse. ( Public Domain )
These were likely based on contemporary images that existed of Cleopatra, ie what she commissioned as her likeness on coins, or even from images of her from the time.
Coins portraying Cleopatra VII from the time, and several images of Cleopatra portray her with red or light hair, which was not beyond possibility - Alexander the Great’s hair was reported as ‘yellow’. (YouTube Screenshot/ ©Royalty Now )
Egyptians Were Different To Sub-Saharan Africans
Dr. Makkawi explained that King Ptolemy I of Macedonia was a leader in Alexander the Great’s army, and that he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty after the death of Alexander, in 323 BC. Ptolemy I married Queen Berenice I of Macedonia, and they gave birth to King Ptolemy II, whose sons and grandchildren all married their female sisters. And in keeping with this custom, Cleopatra married both of her adolescent Macedonian brothers, each of whom served as her ceremonial spouse and co-regent during her reign.
However, Tina Gharavi, director of the Queen Cleopatra docu-series writing in Variety Magazine, describes the family history as this:
“The known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family — the Ptolemaic lineage — intermarried with West Asia’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely. After 300 years, surely, we can safely say Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was no more Greek or Macedonian than Rita Wilson or Jennifer Aniston. Both are one generation from Greece.”
Dr. Samia Al-Mirghani, former Director General of the Center for Research and Conservation of Antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said:
“biological anthropology studies and DNA studies that were conducted on ancient Egyptian mummies and human bones confirmed that the Egyptians did not bear the features of sub-Saharan Africans”.
There do exist statues from Egypt that present a different image of Cleopatra, one of her depicted as the goddess Isis.
Cleopatra’s Fairness “Is Beyond Any Doubt”
This push back against the new Netflix film was supported by Dr. Catharina Martinez, the head of the Dominican mission, and an employee at the Taposiris Magna temple in western Alexandria. Martinex said that despite the existence of conflicting opinions about her race, “it is certain that she (Claeopatra) was born in Egypt in the year 69 BC of Macedonian origin.”
Dr. Martinez referenced a 1st-century BC marble bust of the controversial queen, that is preserved in the Berlin Museum. Depicting the queen wearing a royal wreath, she is featured with “almond eyes, a drawn nose and thin lips.” This professor concluded that “it is beyond any doubt” that Cleopatra had Hellenistic features.
Top image: Ancient Roman sculpture of Cleopatra VII in the Antikensammlung Berlin (Sailko/ CC BY 3.0 ) ; Netflix Queen Cleopatra played by English Adele James (Netflix); Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse. ( Public Domain )
By Ashley Cowie