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Cleopatra emerges from sands, seas of time

By Ford Cochran

A new exhibition traces the life, loves, and death of Cleopatra, Egypt‘s final pharaoh and one of history’s most compelling and enigmatic figures.


Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt,” which opens June 5 at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, explores what we know about the woman who descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals, tried to restore the might Egypt had known under some of its most powerful dynasties, saw her kingdom conquered by the Roman Empire, and enraptured both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The exhibition also raises an enduring mystery: Where are Cleopatra and Mark Antony buried?


A diver stares down a black granite sphinx believed to represent Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father. Archaeologists found the sphinx during excavations in the ancient harbor of Alexandria.

Photo by Jérôme Delafosse courtesy Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International, with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, the project reunites the team behind the extraordinarily popular “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.” Tickets for Cleopatra go on sale today to the general public.


A queen carved from black granite wears the robe that

typically identified the sovereigns of Isis incarnate.

Photo by Christoph Gerigk courtesy Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation

I spoke with archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fred Hiebert about the exhibition.

Tell us what’s important about this new Cleopatra exhibition.

This is a wonderful exhibition about two quests to search for Cleopatra, one an underwater quest searching for the ancient city of Alexandria, which actually submerged under the waters of the Mediterranean some hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Archaeologist Franck Goddio has actually found the pieces–giant statues and pieces of temples–of the city where Cleopatra lived.


Photo of Franck Goddio by Christoph Gerigk courtesy Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

The second quest is by Egypt’s famous Zahi Hawass, who is an Explorer-in-Residence here at National Geographic. He’s looking for the lost tomb of Cleopatra and Antony, which he thinks is located an northern Egypt and hasn’t been found yet.


Photo of Zahi Hawass by Kenneth Garrett

So it’s these two stories, interwoven in a wonderful exhibit that goes through the history of Egypt at the end of the Ptolemaic period, the last pharaohs of Egypt and the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt.

For those who know the names of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, probably everyone in the world knows these names, but they may not know why Cleopatra was so important. Why did she stand at a pivotal moment in history?

Cleopatra is both Egyptian and Greek at the same time. Egypt was part of the Greek world at that time and she’s sort of half Greek, half Egyptian…. She actually was pivotal in the changeover in Egypt from the Greek world to the Roman world. She ended up [the consort of both] Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and really helped create a new Egypt with a blossoming where Egypt became part of the Roman world. So it’s incredibly important in terms of the history of that part of the world.

What else makes this exhibition extraordinary?

It’s based on the treasures of Egypt, some of them objects that have never traveled outside that country before. It’s amazing to see artifacts from both the land and beneath the sea. You’ll see some of the largest pieces of sculpture ever found in Egypt, which were actually excavated from submarine sites. You’ll see images of the underwater archaeologists at work bringing up these massive sculptures with giant cranes. The quest for the artifacts is itself an amazing story.


Photo by Christoph Gerigk courtesy Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Learn more about “Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt” and buy tickets. Find other events and exhibitions from National Geographic.

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

More posts by Ford Cochran


  1. Auron Renius
    March 30, 2011, 11:13 am

    According to Plutarch, when Mark Antony first met Cleopatra, he tried to out do her extravagance, and failed miserably ( though I don’t think it bothered him much as he had found the love of his life.). Plutarch said;

    “On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.

    The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it, that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit, and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savored more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve”.