Cleopatra

Limestone sculpture of Hatshepsut which resides in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BC, was the second female Pharaoh of Egypt. Her name, in Egyptian, literally meant “The Foremost of Noble Women”. Even at a very young age, she was noticed by her family, and especially her father, as a very capable tactician and politician in the royal courts. However, Ancient Egyptian society was patriarchal and women were often not allowed access to power without proving themselves first.

Her father, Thothmes I (also a Pharaoh) appointed her co-ruler of Egypt after noticing her aptitude for both politics and strategy. Her half-brother Thothmes II died before he could inherit the throne from Thothmes I, despite his pending inheritance to the throne. As Thothmes III (Thothmes I’s grandson and son of Thothmes II) was too young to rule, Hatshepsut assumed her role as regent of Egypt. However, she soon disliked this position and assumed full sovereignty over Egypt for the next twenty years.

As the second ever female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut fought against many social norms of her day. She destroyed the stereotype of weak and incapable women. She often dressed as a man, donning the fake beard and headdress used by other Pharaohs. She appointed her half-nephew, Thothmes III, as the general of her armies. Ancient documents contain possible evidence that at close to the end of Hatshepsut’s reign, Thothmes III had planned a coup against his half-aunt and had subsequently ordered her assassination as Thothmes III had grown much older and had the backing of the army to seize the throne.

Although she is not known today as a major Pharaoh due to her gender and the distant era in which she ruled, she is majorly responsible for enabling the formation of trade routes in and out of Africa. The first Greeks to land in Egypt considered her a goddess and she made Greece a valuable trade partner across the Mediterranean Sea. She also sent a naval trade expedition to the Land of Punt (pronounced Pwent).

A map of where the land of Punt could be located

While the exact location of Punt is unknown, ancient sources indicate that this place was south of Egypt, either on the north-eastern coast of Africa (in modern-day Sudan, Eritrea, or Ethiopia) or on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Her massive trade networks extended west into modern-day Libya and into the north-western portions of Sudan. Through these trade connections, Egypt later saw a boom in commerce and trading, serving as the major middleman between Europe, Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the rest of Africa, later enabling the formation of the Silk Road.

Her other major contribution was to Egyptian architecture and art. While she had many temples built, there are only a few remaining today. The Temple of Karnak, also known as the Chapelle Rouge (Red Chapel in English) in the Precinct of Mut was one of the largest temple complexes built during her reign. The Djeser-Djeseru was the most elaborate, complex, and massive structure built during her reign. While this structure has other names such as the Temple of Pakhet or the Speos Artemidos, its original name (Djeser-Djeseru) means “Sublime of Sublimes,” referring to its size, detail, and complexity. When the Greeks sailed to Egypt and saw this temple, they were amazed and asked to become trade partners with Egypt (at least, that is what the ancient sources say). Built as Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the temple complex is perfectly symmetrical, which was unusual during the 1500s BC, and was one of the inspirations for Greek temple construction, and eventually European architecture. Obelisks and other smaller relics created during her reign have been transported to and displayed at many museums around the world.

An artist’s rendition of the Temple of Karnak

The Djeser-Djeseru, which still stands today

Under her rule, artisans flourished and architects were highly valued; in fact, her chief chancellor was the head architect of the Djeser-Djeseru. She united a majority of Egypt as well as portions of the Arabian Peninsula, Libya, and Sudan using Egypt’s military might. She enabled an age of Egyptian flourishing through the early trade networks. Long after her unfortunate death, she is still recognized as the longest reigning female Pharaoh who had sole sovereignty on the throne (there were female co-regents and co-rulers who had longer reigns, but never truly held power).

The first great woman of whom we are informed. – James Henry Breasted, Egyptologist

In 69 B.C., a girl was born in the beautiful coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt. She would grow up to become the very last of a long dynastic rule, but her position as Pharaoh of Egypt would be remembered forever. This girl would be named Cleopatra. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII, who was a descendant of the founder of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt (History.com Editors). Since Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent, she probably had very little, if any, Egyptian blood, but she took it upon herself to learn Egyptian. She became the first member of the Ptolemaic line to learn the Egyptian language for her country. Cleopatra spoke a dozen more languages, and was educated in subjects such as mathematics and philosophy. She also styled herself to be a living embodiment of a newer version of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Cleopatra’s beauty wasn’t her biggest advantage, but also her intellect and her “irresistible charm,” as the ancient writer Plutarch says (Andrews).

Image courtesy of Ägyptischer Maler um 1360 v. Chr. portraying a mural of the winged goddess Isis in the tomb of Seti I

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Once her father died in 51 BC, the throne was passed to her ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, and eighteen-year-old Cleopatra. Being about eight years older, Cleopatra quickly became the dominant ruler, until her brother and his advisers pushed her out. Cleopatra fled Egypt, garnered an army of mercenaries, and returned to face her brother in a civil war in Egypt’s eastern border Pelusium (Tyldesley). While this is happening, Julius Caesar is after one of his rivals Pompey, who is murdered in Egypt with the help of Ptolemy XIII. Julius Caesar is then welcomed in Alexandria. Cleopatra, realizing she needs all the help she can get in regaining her position, reportedly sneaks into the royal palace where Caesar is staying to plead her case. He requires Egypt to repay debts from Cleopatra’s father, and she needs the help of Roman reinforcements to defeat her brother and take back the throne. This is exactly what happens, and Roman soldiers arrive the following spring to help in the death of Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra and Caesar became lovers and Cleopatra was restored to the throne with her newly wed younger brother Ptolemy XIV.

Image courtesy of Pietro da Cortona showing Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne

In 47 B.C., Cleoptara gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar, who was ultimately believed to be Caesar’s child. Cleopatra was said to be on a visit in Rome in 44 B.C. when Caesar was murdered. When Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIV died, leaving her and her infant son to rule (Tyldesley). Mark Antony, one of the new heirs fighting for the throne in Rome, sent for Cleopatra to explain her role in the assassination of Caesar and aftermath. She sailed to the city of Tarsus in an extravagant golden ship with purple sails, dressed in the robes of the new Isis. Antony was immediately mesmerized and would vow to protect Egypt, and Cleopatra’s place on the throne (Andrews).

Image courtesy of Lawrence Alma-Tadema showing Cleopatra on her journey to Antony

Cleopatra and Antony spent the following winter of 41-40 B.C. together in Alexandria, where they formed a drinking society called “The Inimitable Livers.” The group had feasts, wine-binges, took part in games and contests, and played pranks on Alexandria’s residents (Andrews). In 40 B.C. Cleopatra had twins with Antony, whom she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Mark Antony then had to return to Rome, where he was to make a diplomatic marriage with Octavian’s half-sister Octavia. In 37 B.C., Egypt was prospering. Antony then came back to ask for funds for his military campaign against the kingdom of Parthia, and Cleopatra asked for a return of much of Egypt’s eastern empire. In 36 B.C., Cleopatra had another son with Antony who she named Ptolemy Philadelphos. The Parthian campaign was a failure, which led Antony to return to Alexandria. While together, the celebration “Donations of Alexandria” took place, in which Mark Antony announced that Caesarion would be the rightful heir, and awarded land to all of Cleopatra’s children. Back in Rome, Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and personal heir, declared Antony was under the spell of Cleopatra and would eventually give her all of Rome. In late 32 B.C., Antony’s titles were all taken away by the Roman Senate, and Octavian declared war on the lovers. The naval Battle of Actium then took place in 32 B.C., where Cleopatra personally led a fleet of Egyptian warships alongside Antony’s fleet. They were no match against Octavian’s navy (Tyldesley). They both deserted the battle and fled to Egypt, where Antony stayed back to battle. He then received false news that Cleopatra died, and decided to take his own life. In 30 B.C., Cleopatra then buried her lover, and commited suicide also. The means of her death are uncertain and unknown. Cleopatra and Antony were buried together, and with them was buried the last queen of the Macedonian dynasty and the dreams of the Roman Republic (Tyldesley). 

Image courtesy of Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images portraying Cleopatra with Antony in his final moments

Out of the many hundred queens ruling before her, Cleopatra’s story would not be forgotten, and would eventually be portrayed in plays and films decades later, including the 1607 play Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare, and the costly 1963 film “Cleopatra,” directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Andrews). Even though she is widely remembered for her affairs and her use of sexuality to take control of neighboring leaders, there is much more to her. She was a political strategist, doing what she had to do to not only take care of her country, but to watch it prosper. Cleopatra fully embraced the Egyptian culture: learning the language, embodying the Egyptian goddess Isis, and exhibiting her care for the safety of her people against foreign threats. She was a true heroine in the history of Egypt.

https://beyondthesinglestory.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/elizathe-taylor-cleopatra-ftr-1.jpg?w=1024Image courtesy of Getty Images portraying Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra”

Featured image courtesy of John William Waterhouse

Works Cited

Andrews, Evan. “10 Little-Known Facts About Cleopatra.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 12 Aug. 2015.

History.com Editors. “Cleopatra.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/cleopatra.

Tyldesley, Joyce. “Cleopatra.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 July 2019.

Bunson, Margaret. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, p. 161.

Clarke, John Henrik. “QUEEN HATSHEPSUT (1500 B.C.).” QUEEN HATSHEPSUT (1500 B.C.). Ed. Phillip True, Jr. DuBois Learning Center

Njoku, Raphael Chijioke. The History of Somalia. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2013. 29-31. Print

Sullivan, Mary Ann. “Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.” Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Bluffton University

Image Sources:

#1 : A limestone sculpture of Hatshepsut now residing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/29.3.2/

#2: Aerial View of the Temple of Karnak http://www.natgeocreative.com/ngs/photography/gallery.jsf?l=tbxMXVxysas=

#3 Frontal View of the Temple at Pakhet / Djeser-Djeseru https://africaday.se/2015/03/26/egypt-women-in-the-history-of-egypt-hatshepsut/

#4 Map of the Possible Location of the Land of Punt https://www.ancient.eu/punt/

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