By Ford Cochran
Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt as its final pharaoh, and she ruled the hearts of at least two powerful Romans: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Today, more than two millennia after she took her own life rather than suffer humiliation following defeat by her enemy Octavius (soon to become Augustus Caesar), Cleopatra returns to captivate the city of Philadelphia.
Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt opened this morning at the city’s Franklin Institute museum. The exhibition features artifacts recovered over the last two decades by marine archaeologist Franck Goddio from Cleopatra’s palace and the great port city she knew, now submerged in the harbor of the present-day city of Alexandria, Egypt.
It also showcases the quest of archaeologist Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, to locate the lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra.
“Our project started 20 years ago in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt and with the support of the Hilti Foundation,” said Goddio, describing the work on display in much of the exhibition before a preview tour on Wednesday. “Our goal was to survey, rediscover, and map three specific sites, two in Aboukir and one in the Bay of Alexandria, to rediscover the great port of Alexandria. Those three sites have totally disappeared under the sea because of natural catastrophes.”
For four years, Goddio explained, “we performed surveys with sophisticated equipment. Then we started to dive and to map specific sites. In Alexandria, we were fortunate. The Bay was absolutely untouched. There, we were able to map the ancient port of Alexandria, the famous Portus Magnus where Cleopatra used to be. We discovered a sunken island … and on that island the foundation of the palace and a small temple to the goddess Isis where [Cleopatra] used to go, I’m very confident.
“We now have a clear picture of the site where Cleopatra lived in Alexandria. In the Bay of Aboukir, it’s a totally different story. We have proven that a piece of land of nearly 100 square kilometers sank under the sea with two cities…. We found the city of Canopus and the city of Heracleion. Canopus was known for its [libertine] way of life. Cleopatra was accused by the Romans because she was so fond of, and closely associated with, Canopus.
“The city of Heracleion was something special where all the pharaohs of the late dynasties had to come in order to become a pharaoh. Cleopatra must have been the last queen of Egypt who came to that site in order to receive the title and her power. We discovered here fantastic statues that are in the exhibit.”
Cleopatra and the Roman emperor Julius Caesar bore a son together, Caesarian. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., his general and one of the triumvirate who ruled in the succeeding power vacuum, Mark Antony, would marry Cleopatra in a ceremony recognized in Egypt, but not in Rome. They had three children together before conflict with Octavius led to Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat at the battle of Actium. Believing Cleopatra had committed suicide, he took his own life by falling on his sword. She followed suit a few days later–some say by the poisonous bite of an asp.
“National Geographic has held this fascination for Egypt for more than a century,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s Executive Vice President of Mission Programs. “We wrote our first article about the country of Egypt in 1901, and we have been telling the story of ancient Egypt and its cultural artifacts and treasures, of the remarkable civilization that occupied what is now present-day Egypt, to countless readers and viewers of National Geographic ever since.
“This is a special event for us. There’s something about an exhibit that is very different. You can tell a story in a magazine or on television, but an exhibit is to that what a live concert is to listening to a CD. There’s an intimacy and an engagement that you can only experience by actually going through the exhibition and coming face to face with the objects.”
The new exhibit reunites Arts and Exhibitions International, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, and National Geographic–the collaborative team behind the popular King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs–along with the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology and the Hilti Foundation. Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt will be on display in Philadelphia until January 2, 2011. Purchase tickets to the exhibition here. Learn more about the exhibition here.
Photos by Ford Cochran
Ford 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.