No Cleopatra was not black — here are the facts

No Cleopatra was not black — here are the facts

No Cleopatra was not black — here are the facts
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The “docudrama” Queen Cleopatra, which purports to be a historically accurate account of the life and reign of the ruler of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt in the first century BC, will be released on Netflix on May 10.  

The series, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, the wife of American actor Will Smith, has already attracted much controversy for the decision to cast the black British actress Adele James in the title role.  

Cleopatra was not black. As well documented history attests, she was the descendant of a Macedonian Greek general who was a contemporary of Alexander the Great. Her first language was Greek and in contemporary busts and portraits she is depicted clearly as being white.  

The evidence for Cleopatra’s true heritage is overwhelming – and not, as Pinkett Smith has said in defense of the show, “highly debated.”  

The actress playing Cleopatra has offered this advice to the show’s many critics: "If you don't like the casting, don't watch the show." It is advice that I, and I suspect countless Egyptians, intend to take.  

There are many words that could be used to describe the falsehood at the heart of this series, and headlines in newspapers around the world – from the US to Egypt and Greece – have carried several of them, including “historical revisionism,” “cultural appropriation,” and “black-washing.”   

The protests are not motivated by racism. As the Egyptian lawyer Mahmoud Al-Semary, who has launched a legal bid to have access to Netflix blocked in Egypt, has pointed out, this is outrage provoked by a form of cultural identity theft.  

None of these statues, including the one we found, which was made of alabaster, gives any indication that Cleopatra was black.

Zahi Hawass

Al-Semary has accused Netflix of an attempt to "promote the Afrocentric thinking ... which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.” He makes a sound case.  

I met Pinkett Smith in 2006. At the time I was the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and she and I were named by Time magazine as being among “the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.”  

I went to the ceremony at the Lincoln Center in New York and, at dinner, sat at a table with both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. I invited Smith to come to Egypt and, 11 years later, in company with most of the members of his family, but not his wife, he did.   

That, as it now turns out, was a pity. As one talking head in the film says, “I remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black’.”  

But, as all the evidence shows, she wasn’t.  

One need only look at all the known statues of Cleopatra VII, such as the head of the queen that I and fellow archaeologist Kathleen Martinez found inside the Temple of Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria,  during our search for Cleopatra’s tomb.  

None of these statues, including the one we found, which was made of alabaster, gives any indication that Cleopatra was black.

During our excavation inside the temple, we also found a large number of coins bearing the face and name of Cleopatra. Again, not one of the depictions supports the decision of the producers of the series to portray their queen as black.   

There is a similar lack of evidence for Cleopatra having been black to be found in a depiction on the facade of the temple at Dendera, which shows her with the goddess Hathor and her child Caesarion, the son of Caesar.  

Why is this series appearing now? It is, perhaps, timed to take commercial advantage of the current contention among some in the black American community that their origins lie in ancient Egypt.  

An atrifact from about 50 B.C., depicting Cleopatra (69 - 30 B.C.), queen of Egypt and the last and most famous of the Ptolemaic dynasty. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I can’t say if this is true or not. If there were evidence to support this theory, I would accept it completely, but there is no such evidence.  

The truth as we know it can be found in the many scenes depicted in temples throughout Egyptian history. Here we see the pharaohs smiting the enemies of Egypt and, in front of them, all of the people of the surrounding regions, including Nubia, Libya and Mesopotamia.  

Luckily for historians and archaeologists, the ancient Egyptian artists were sticklers for detail – examine the faces, and the racial characteristics of each of the figures are clearly shown.  

This can be seen in one of the great scenes that was found during our excavation and conservation inside the tomb of Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings. It shows the sun god Ra on his boat and, standing in front of him, people of four clearly identifiable races: Egyptians, Africans, Libyans and Asiatics.  

In February it was announced that black American comedian Kevin Hart had cancelled an upcoming show in Egypt, because of controversy over Afrocentric remarks he had made previously, claiming that the kings of Egypt had been black Africans.  

I was unhappy about the cancellation because dialogue between all of us is very important. If we could have met, I’d have explained to Hart that the people from the Nubian Kingdom of Kush did indeed come to Egypt as conquerors who ruled for about a century, from 744 to 656 BC, but they were not, as has been repeatedly and wrongly claimed, the originators of pharaonic civilization.    

A few years ago, I went to Philadelphia to give a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on the origins of the ancient Egyptians and, such is the interest in this subject, the lecture was sold out. I said there were three opinions on the subject.    

Some scholars say that the first ancient Egyptians came from Asia and Africa. As evidence they cite the shape and color of the people in the Nile Delta today, who are white, while the color of the people in Upper Egypt is darker. They also suggest that the grammar in hieroglyphic script is similar to that in Arabic and Hebrew.    

There is a similar lack of evidence for Cleopatra having been black to be found in a depiction on the facade of the temple at Dendera, which shows her with the goddess Hathor and her child Caesarion, the son of Caesar.

Zahi Hawass

The second opinion was published by Cheikh Anta Diop, from Senegal, who claimed that the ancient Egyptians were of black origin, and pointed to statues of Tutankhamun and Ramses, which had been carved from dark stone. He also said that the grammar in hieroglyphic script was similar to some African languages, but a UNESCO conference in Paris attended by many Egyptologists dismissed the theory as lacking real evidence.  

The third opinion is based on the excavation of Naqada in Upper Egypt by the British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who is regarded as the father of Egyptology and a pioneer in systematic archaeological investigation. After excavating a predynastic cemetery, Petrie concluded that the remains buried there were of the people who had made the Egyptian civilization.    

If we look at the archaeological evidence from Asia and Africa, it is clear that this pharaonic civilization occurred only in Egypt. The ancient people of Africa, although blessed similarly with the bounty of the Nile and even better weather, left nothing behind them.    

Cleopatra was not black, and I would welcome the opportunity to teach Pinkett Smith about a woman whose achievements and story were sufficiently dramatic not to require politically motivated embellishment in the retelling of them.  

When Cleopatra took the throne in 51 BC after the death of her father, Egypt was severely damaged, significantly in debt and experiencing high inflation. The Nile had recently flooded more destructively than usual, political power lay in the hands of Rome and the feelings of anger and rebellion among the Alexandrians toward the pharaoh had reached fever pitch.    

Cleopatra rose to the occasion, entering the political arena with a strong character, a sharp mind and, it has to be said, feminine charms that she did not hesitate to exploit, as witnessed by her relationships with and manipulation of the Romans Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.   

Cleopatra had several private tutors who prepared her to rule Egypt, but she also pursued academic interests of her own, such as science and philosophy, and could be said to have been a pioneer in the field of women’s rights. Unlike her forebears, Cleopatra learned the native language of Egypt, as well as Greek and other tongues.   

Cleopatra, then, was many things, and well deserving of having her story told to modern audiences, but one thing she most definitely was not was black.  

It is a shame that Netflix has categorized this new series as a docudrama, rather than a pure drama, because no one who knows anything about ancient Egypt can possibly take it seriously.

  • Dr. Zahi Hawass is Honorary Chairman, Antiquities Coalition Advisory Council, Egyptologist and Former Minister of Antiquities of Egypt, a position he served twice. He is also the Director of Excavations at Giza, Saqqara, Bahariya Oasis, and the Valley of the Kings. He has been involved in several important archaeological projects. He led the search for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony on the premises of a Ptolemaic temple near Alexandria. (Source: Antiquities Coalition) 

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