Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Mystery of History: Where is Cleopatra?

by Julia Buckley
A news update here suggests that archeologists may have found the final resting place of doomed lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, generally assumed to be a beautiful and clever ruler, was the last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt; though her love affair with and marriage to Mark Antony was the stuff of legend, she was first married to her own brothers (Ptolemy VIII and Ptolemy VIX) and was the mistress of Julius Caesar, who was more than thirty years her elder. With Caesar she conceived a son, Caesarion. She also bore three children to her husband, Mark Antony. Caesarion was later executed by the ruler Octavian, but the three children she bore to Mark Antony survived their parents' deaths and were protected, ironically perhaps, by Antony's former wife.

Today's publicity agents could only dream of keeping their clients in the public consciousness for as long as Cleopatra has fascinated the world--and all without representation. :) Of course, Cleopatra had historians on her side, and her legend was recorded by writers like Pascal and Plutarch. It is generally thought that because she was able to charm and manipulate men and to stay alive amidst much violence and chaos, that she was beautiful. Today a general picture of Cleopatra has emerged--based more on Elizabeth Taylor's performance in Cleopatra than on any sense of reality.

Her affair with Mark Antony was immortalized by Shakespeare in his play, Antony and Cleopatra. His character Enobarbus, convinced that Antony's love for her is dangerous, describes her this way:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."

Now Zahi Hawass, an archeologist who dresses like Indiana Jones, is trying to lure the world to his latest site by drawing on the continuing fascination with Cleopatra. The AP's Paul Schemm hints that perhaps people shouldn't yet get their hopes up. Says Schemm in the linked article, "Hawass' claim is the latest spectacular announcement by the archaeologist, who continues to capitalize on the world's fascination with ancient Egypt. He regularly unveils discoveries that are often met with skepticism and bemusement by Egyptologists abroad."

Still, the most interesting thing about this story is that it is a story at all, and that after 2000 years a woman's bones are potentially as compelling as her living self. What is the lure of Cleopatra, of Antony, of history?

Why do we cling to the mysteries that can never be solved to our satisfaction? Is it because they cannot be solved that we love them?

Your thoughts?

Cleopatra photo link here.


Paul Lamb said...

I think the story of Cleopatra has been embellished over the ages exactly because the true story can never be had. So we like mysteries that can't be solved because we can impose our own desires and fantasies on them.

Lisa Bork said...

I think it's true that inquiring minds want to know, but all the endless speculation is also a lot of fun.

Julia Buckley said...

Good point, Paul. I guess that's why I love the legend of Loch Ness. :)

Lisa, it really is endless speculation--and yet finding a mummy--even though the world would make a big deal of it--wouldn't really change much.

Jess Lourey said...

This is such a great line: "she makes hungry...Where most she satisfies." Hot stuff. But beauty does fade, and it can be common. I think it's more likely she was brilliant--she had to have been to have survived through so much.

Thanks for the post, Julia!

Jeanine said...

What about Van Gogh's ear? Another mystery .... I prefer to think he did it himself. And wasn't it actually just the lobe?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

"Why do we cling to the mysteries that can never be solved to our satisfaction? Is it because they cannot be solved that we love them?"

I think you hit the nail on the head here, Julia. It's like having an ongoing puzzle with many possible solutions. A toy, so to speak, that keeps us occupied long after the box is thrown away.

On reading this, I immediately thought of Amelia Earhart, the topic of another one of your great posts, and another enduring lady of mystery.

Cricket McRae said...

Beauty is so subjective, too, especially as times change (and Barbie dolls are invented). I agree Cleo must have been brilliant and clever.

Speaking of the mystery of Van Gogh's ear, apparently the story now is that Gauguin cut it off in a fight:


Alan Orloff said...

Julia, Cricket, with all your tales of unsolved mysteries and missing appendages, you've inspired me to come clean and confess.

When I was a kid, I cut the ear off one of my sister's Barbie dolls.

Julia Buckley said...

Alan, I resent you in the name of all girls with Barbies.

Jess, you're right of course. But intelligence is beautiful, right? That's why we all fall for brainy men.

I'm not sure about Van Gogh's ear--it's more sad to me that he shot himself and lingered on for a long time before dying.

Sue Ann, I so agree--these really are the toys they can't take away. And why I'm such a history buff--so many mysteries buried there.

jbstanley said...

Boy did I love this post! Some mysteries become legend because the characters are so powerful. With the exception of Nefertiti or Hatsepshut, no other Egyptian woman possessed the mystique of Cleopatra. I think at some level, we long for a few mysteries to remain unanswered. Kind of romantic, no? For me, it's the Arthurian legends - the Grail, Excalibur, even the Lady of the Lake.

Julia Buckley said...

I think that's true--although it's a paradoxical mixture of wanting them to remain mysteries and perhaps wanting to be the only person who finds out the truth. :)