Cleopatra’s World of Mystery
by Annie Shao, age 18
Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, ruled a land that was powerful, glamorous, and full of life. It’s no wonder that Roman emperor Octavian wanted to steal Egypt for himself.
Recently, fellow Free Press editors Adaeze Okoli, Deidre Green, Ashley Crawford, and I experienced Cleopatra’s world in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s exhibit called “Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt.” Among many other new things, we learned what Egypt was like under Cleopatra’s reign. The exhibit displayed many artifacts found by Franck Goddio, a leading Egyptologist studying the underwater ruins of Cleopatra’s empire. His findings and the exhibit’s annotations took us on a journey through Egypt’s major cities.
Alexandria, Canopus, and Heracleion, Egypt’s three major cities of Cleopatra’s time, made her empire a dominating world power.
Alexandria was the heart of Egypt—it was the capital and the home of Cleopatra’s palace. Alexandria was established when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 B.C.E. As the Greek king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great settled in Alexandria along with many of his generals and lieutenants. He also encouraged many Greek people to migrate to Egypt.
Alexander the Great appointed his most trusted general, Ptolemy I, to be the ruler of Egypt. Ptolemy I founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty, of which Cleopatra was a part. Ptolemy unified the two cultures’ religions by creating new deities called Greco-Egyptian gods. These gods became a significant part of Egypt’s life and politics.
Given its history, Alexandria looked very different from the rest of Egypt. The architectural and artistic styles were typically Greek, not Egyptian. For instance, many of the statues of Greco-Egyptian gods were made in the detailed Greek fashion that emphasized faces, rather than the less-realistic Egyptian style.
Alexandria was also the source of Egypt’s wealth and trade success. Egypt produced so much grain that it fueled the economy. In fact, Rome depended on Egypt for all its grain, in turn providing Egypt with military protection. The Ptolemies devised an ingenious way to facilitate trade—people entering Egypt were forced to surrender any money, and no one was allowed to leave Egypt with money. This encouraged traders to come to Egypt with goods instead of money they had, and leave Egypt with Egyptian goods.
If Alexandria was the source of Egypt’s luxury, then Canopus was the place Egyptians enjoyed their wealth. Canopus was known both as the City of God and the City of Sin. It was a religious center for praying to the Greco-Egyptian god Sarapis, but at the same time, people also indulged in Egypt’s wealth, luxuries and debauchery. These behaviors may seem contradictory to one who did not understand tryphe, the Egyptian way of repaying their gods. Demonstrating their wealth was their way of thanking their gods, a custom that many in Rome frowned upon.
The other major religious city was Heracleion, located on the Mediterranean coast. This was the gateway to Egypt. The Temple of Amon stood in Heracleion, where Egypt crowned their pharaohs. The new pharaohs, including Cleopatra, walked between the 16-foot-tall colossi, giant statues of major deities Osiris and Isis. According to their religion and tradition, pharaohs became living avatars of the gods upon coronation. Cleopatra became Isis, and her husband and co-ruler became Osiris. Goddio managed to find these statues—we even walked between them in the exhibit. We joked that by doing this, we became the new queens and goddesses of Egypt. The granite colossi not only played a role in the coronation of the pharaohs, they also watched over the city and protected its people.
By the time we left the exhibit, we were overwhelmed with fascinating information about Cleopatra. We also speculated about what happened to her after her death. Even after two thousand years, many details of Cleopatra’s empire remain shrouded in mystery. After Octavian usurped Cleopatra’s reign, the Romans destroyed every statue, sculpture, piece of architecture, and artwork depicting Cleopatra or the Ptolemies. This makes it hard for archeologists to learn about Cleopatra’s time. This obstacle hasn’t stopped Goddio—his team still searches the bottom of the sea for more clues left behind by Cleopatra. As Goddio and his team find more artifacts underwater, we learn more secrets about what kind of world Cleopatra ruled.
[Sources: Milwaukee Public Museum; National Geographic]