CAIRO, November 19, 2011―Questions continue to swirl about Cleopatra VII, the most famous queen of Egypt (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.). There are questions about her origin: Was she Egyptian, or Greek? There’s her suicide: Did she commit suicide because of Antony’s death, or was she killed after she surrendered to Octavian in 31 B.C? An interesting question is related to her beauty: Was she really the charming goddess who almost defeated the Roman republic? The most complete account of her appearance comes from the Roman historian Plutarch, whose descriptions served as the basis for Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” as well as Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
Plutarch was brutally unsympathetic when he claimed that Cleopatra was a “fat woman with a big belly and a big nose!” This claim is refuted by evidence of scenes from temples dedicated to Hathor – goddess of beauty, music and motherhood. In on one of the key scenes at Dendera temple, Cleopatra is identified with the goddess of beauty.
Defenders of her beauty, like the historian W.W.Tarn in the Cambridge Ancient History (Vol.10, chap. 2,3), believe that our modern image of Cleopatra as a “sex-mad Siren” is due to ignorance. In fact, all the stories of her sexual exploits, aside from her relations with Caesar and Antony, were almost certainly fabricated as part of the propaganda campaign of the roman historians to discredit her as well as Antony. Cleopatra used her body as well as her mind to achieve political ends. Her standards of conduct differed widely from Roman custom and law, and are generally repugnant to present day Europeans and Americans.
Her enemies banded together to defeat Cleopatra at Rome because of her intelligence and determination. Legend has immortalized her as a charming, feminine goddess. According to Egyptian folklore, she had the most charming voice, capable of putting any person under her spell. She also reportedly spoke more than 20 different languages fluently.
In Egypt, Cleopatra’s beauty was never questioned. Different cosmetic recipes are attributed to her, special natural soaps and oils are named after her. Famous facial masks as well as the famous “Cleopatra’s bath” are recommended to restore the beauty of the skin and the body. It is fun to know that some ladies even today consider this bath as a special treat. They fill a tub with milk and honey and stay for several hours.
Some Egyptian writers, especially Ahmed Shawky (the Shakespeare of Egypt), who wrote a play in Arabic called “The death of Cleopatra,” completely oppose the western view of Cleopatra. In Shawky’s play, she is portrayed as a legendary heroine who attempts to save her kingdom through manipulating the two Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Shawki praises her extraordinary efforts to revive the Ptolemaic kingdom through her forceful personality and political skill. Her tragic end is seen as a victory in the Egyptian version, since the asp (cobra) is believed to be a royal symbol of ancient Egypt, and what matters in the end is sending her spirit to eternity.
Cleopatra’s death was considered as a turning point in the history of Egypt. After it the country lost its sovereignty for centuries and was ruled by foreign invaders until the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Of this there is no doubt: Cleopatra’s beauty of mind was as powerful as the beauty of her body in the heroic attempt to preserve Egypt’s independence from Rome.
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