Cleopatra, considered ancient Egypt’s great last pharaoh before that civilization fell to Roman conquest in the first century B.C., had a reputation for knowing how to present herself stunningly to outsiders. Legend has it she once sailed upriver in a gilded barge with purple sails to introduce herself to Mark Antony, the powerful Roman leader who became her new lover after an earlier one, the great Julius Caesar, had been assassinated.
Thus, she would be thoroughly pleased with the presentation of the show that bears her name, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, at Cincinnati Museum Center now through Sept. 5. It dazzles with its historical objects, including two 16-feet-tall granite statues of a Ptolemaic-era king and queen recovered from the ancient Egyptian city of Heracleion, where pharaohs were crowned. These originally flanked the doorway to the Temple of Amon. Cleopatra would have passed between these figures on her way into the temple to be crowned and again on her way out, having been declared divine. (The Ptolemaic dynasty, which had Greek origins, ruled Egypt for some 275 years, ending with Cleopatra. It was originally put in power by Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt some 300 years before Cleopatra’s rule.)
The exhibit features some theatrically conceived installations that offer showbiz flair. At one point, visitors walk over a glass floor covering what appears to be the bottom of the sea, with ruins half-buried in sand. An amphora is on its side and a broken sphinx is near the base of what once was a statue but is now reduced to a pair of feet.
All in all, it’s quite a show, although there are a few things I questioned. For instance, the audio tour — narrated by a woman purporting to be Cleopatra and which is provided to all visitors with the price of admission — seems unnecessary. The labeling and the gallery lighting (which gives the sense of being underwater) were adjuncts enough to the marvelous artifacts. There also is an omitted point or two about Cleopatra’s life that needs inclusion, like how she had her brother killed.
The exhibit tries to shed light on what’s known about Cleopatra’s life.
According to biographical information provided by the Museum Center, she was born in 69 B.C. and died in 30 B.C., inheriting the throne from her father at about age 18 and becoming one of history’s most powerful women. Ruling from the seaport of Alexandria, she sought close political and romantic ties with the Roman Empire. That worked until Caesar’s heir, Octavian, attacked Egypt. Rather than become his prisoner, Cleopatra took her own life. Her tomb has never been found, although one of the key points of this exhibit is that a search is underway.
That makes the exhibit somewhat of a progress report on ongoing efforts to discover more about this compelling if elusive ruler. It is organized by National Geographic and the private, for-profit Arts and Exhibitions International, with the cooperation of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology. As such, it presents objects discovered by excavations led by French underwater archeologist Franck Goddio in the depths of the Mediterranean, as well as by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities affairs, on land.
The Cincinnati showing is the second of five U.S. appearances. None of the material has been seen in the United States previously.
Visitors to the exhibit begin in a darkened room with a brief film about the ongoing archeological work. The screen rises to reveal a stone figure, a Ptolemaic queen who might or might not be Cleopatra. Chances are she’s not, as after Cleopatra’s death the Romans systematically destroyed images of the deposed queen, the last of her line. Just beyond the unnamed queen, after walking over the glass floor, one comes to a gallery devoted to the now-submerged city of Canopus, which seems to have been something of a classy Las Vegas combined with a religious center. We learn here about the blending of Greek and Egyptian religions and see artifacts like a little votive boat formed by a single, telling turn of metal, like a line drawing in the air.
In the next space is a large stone structure called “Naos of the Decades,” which celebrates the creation myth and is actually three different pieces — found separately — that were brought together for this show. The top is on loan from the Louvre, another section turned up in the Bay of Alexandria in 1940 and Goddio’s 1999 expedition found the third. Fitted together, they are impressive.
The curious question of Cleopatra’s looks (essentially, who really knows?) is dealt with in a gallery that also displays a stunning, headless statue of a queen lightly clothed who was probably a third-century B.C. ancestress of Cleopatra, as well as a papyrus document that might have Cleopatra’s handwriting. Inscribed on the wall are quotations attesting to her beauty from a book written 200 years after her death.
Next, Hawass’ explorations at the Taposiris Magna temple complex are introduced through a series of film clips, followed by a gallery showing coins, jewelry and other artifacts his search has produced. A stone head might, or might not, be the queen. It is this archeologist’s goal to find the tombs of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, who might be buried together.
The exhibition ends with a mash-up of images — from art as well as pop culture — that have portrayed the queen through the years. A panel shows varying depictions of the queen with asp (according to legend, she killed herself by having such a serpent bite her). A section of this gallery also shows (with film clips) how actresses like Theda Bara and Elizabeth Taylor played the doomed queen in the movies.
Recent events in Egypt make an inevitable counterpoint to the nearly 150 ancient objects on view. Who’s in charge in this crucial part of the world is not a new question or concern — it’s been a relevant question through the ages.
CLEOPATRA: THE SEARCH FOR THE LAST QUEEN OF EGYPT continues at Cincinnati Museum Center through Sept. 5. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.