Pharaoh & lovely, Queen of the rile

Pharaoh & lovely, Queen of the rile

It’s enough to make Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi exclaim ‘Aswan damn!’ in outrage. Netflix (no relation to Asterix and Cleopatra) is scheduled to release this week a docudrama series about Cleopatra, who reigned over Egypt from 51 BCE to 30 BCE. The series, Queen Cleopatra, portrays the ruler, played by Adele James, a British actress of mixed heritage, as being of African descent.

Egyptian scholars are up in arms at what they claim is a blatant case of lese-majeste – your high-end crime committed against a sovereign power. Which is literally all Greek to them, as Cleopatra the 7th Philoprator, to give her, her full name, was of Grecian origin, being a descendant of Ptolemy the 1st Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and a campaign comrade of Alexander.

With social media pitching in, the issue has assumed black-and-white overtones, those protesting against the TV show vociferously denying that Cleopatra was Black, and insisting on White pedigree. An Egyptian lawyer has reportedly filed a plea that legal measures be adopted to stop the airing of the series in Egypt as it violates the country’s media laws.

The waters of the Nile could be further muddied if, referring to the anecdote that Cleopatra stage-managed her intro to Julius Caesar by having herself unrolled from a carpet, Ankara claims that not only was the rug in question of Turkish origin, but so was its occupant. Taking into account the historic antagonism between Greece and Turkey, such an eventuality might not be off the cards.

Turkey apart, Athens doesn’t see aye-to-aye with neighbouring North Macedonia. Macedonians lay claim to an autonomous identity and lineage from the Greeks, which includes Alexander of Macedonia, and his buddy Ptolemy the 1st, Cleo’s dad. If North Macedonia – a region in Greece understandably north of the region of Macedonia in Greece – were to enter the fray, Cleopatra’s ethnicity could well become a four-ring circus.

Just how stale-proof Cleopatra is in popular culture is attested to by no less than four Hollywood stars – Theda Bara, Vivian Leigh, Claudette Colbert, and perhaps most notably Elizabeth Taylor – portraying her on the silver screen. The British comedic ‘Carry On’ series featured her in the 1964 Carry On Cleo as the main squeeze of Caesar who, just before his comeuppance at the hands of Brutus and the other conspirators, famously expostulates, ‘Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got it infamy!’

In the early 1900s, Don Marquis gave literal endorsement to the Egyptian queen’s reputation of being one of history’s cool cats by reincarnating her in his daily column in the New York paper, The Evening Sun, in the form of Mehitabel, a streetside feline, whose chequered past is recorded by her friend, Archy, a cockroach with a poetic streak who composes verses on a typewriter but is unable to use the capital letters and punctuation.’…being cleopatra was/ only an incident/ in my career/…the things that/ have been said/ about me archy/ exclamation point/ and all simply/ because i was a/ live dame/ the palaces i have been kicked out of/ in my time/ exclamation point/ but wotthehell/ little archy wot/ thehell/ its cheerio/ my deerio/ that pulls a/ lady through/ exclamation point’.

Despite the press she’s received over the centuries for being the femme fatale, Cleopatra was no bimbo bombshell. Though Roman historian Dio Cassius called her ‘a woman of surpassing beauty,’ Plutarch, describing her a century after her death, wrote, ‘Her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.’

However, he noted her ‘irresistible charm’ of manner and presence, which enraptured both Caesar and Mark Antony. Following Antony’s defeat in battle against Octavian, both he and Cleopatra committed suicide, though she through poison and not the bite of an asp, as legend has it. Annalists claim that her image as a temptress was a canard spread by Octavian to distract from her notable aptitude for administration that enabled Egypt to reach its peak of glory.

Paint her whatever colour, black, white, or wanton scarlet, had she a magical looking-glass, well might she have asked it with regal assurance, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall/Who’s the pharaohest of them all?’

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