On Thursday, Egypt’s antiquities ministry insisted that Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics” in an ongoing row over a Netflix drama-documentary showing the famed beauty of antiquity as black.
Queen Cleopatra, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith and starring Adele James, is set to be released on the streaming platform on 10 May.
“As Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra fights to protect her throne, family and legacy in this docudrama featuring reenactments and expert interviews,” the Netflix site says in promoting its upcoming production.
But even before its release, Queen Cleopatra has already caused a storm of controversy in the north African nation.
An online petition accusing the production of rewriting history has already garnered more than 40,000 signatures.
There have previously been calls for Netflix to be banned for content deemed offensive to Egypt or “its family values”, and MP Saboura al-Sayyed has again urged parliament to ban the platform.
On Thursday, the antiquities ministry weighed into the dispute, publishing a lengthy statement that included statements from experts it said all agree: Cleopatra had “white skin and Hellenistic characteristics”.
“Bas-reliefs and statues of Queen Cleopatra are the best proof,” the statement said, embellishing its text with illustrations showing Cleopatra with European traits.
For Mostafa Waziri, head of the Supreme Antiquities Council, depicting the famous queen as black is nothing less than “a falsification of Egyptian history”.
He says there is nothing racist in this view, which is motivated by “defending the history of Queen Cleopatra, an important part of the history of Egypt in antiquity”.
Commentators in Egypt often decry campaigns among mostly African American groups claiming the origins of Egyptian civilisation.
“Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” wrote Queen Cleopatra director Tina Gharani in Variety last week. “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white? Her proximity to whiteness seems to give her value, and for some Egyptians it seems to really matter.”
Some experts have said that such debates are ahistorical because both sides reflect contemporary views about race, rather than how race was understood in ancient times.
“To ask whether someone was ‘Black’ or ‘white’ is anachronistic and says more about modern political investments than attempting to understand antiquity on its own terms,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of Classics at Denison University, told Time magazine.
“There is nothing wrong in casting Cleopatra as black,” Kenan Malik wrote in the Observer this week. “The problem lies in the resonances that flow from that. James is no more and no less authentically a Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor was. Ancient commentary on Cleopatra reveals little interest in discussing her identity in the way the modern world obsessively does.”
Cleopatra belonged to the Macedonian Lagides dynasty descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty on the banks of the Nile.
While legend hails the queen born around 69BC as a great beauty, her appearance and the colour of her skin are largely open to interpretation.
A BBC documentary in 2009 claimed that Cleopatra had African blood, an assertion that passed without incident.
The notion that ancient Egypt was not Black is utter nonsense. Ancient Egypt known as KEMET boundaries stretched from North Africa and into deep Northern parts of East Africa, the land of Nubians. They were AFRICAN/ BLACK ⚫️
Just Google, you don’t have to be a professor.