Published: July 2011


Bas relief of Cleopatra at Dendera Temple

The Search for Cleopatra

Archaeologists search for the true face—and the burial place—of the “world’s first celebrity.”

By Chip Brown
Photograph by George Steinmetz

Where, oh where is Cleopatra? She's everywhere, of course—her name immortalized by slot machines, board games, dry cleaners, exotic dancers, and even a Mediterranean pollution-monitoring project. She is orbiting the sun as the asteroid 216 Kleopatra. Her "bath rituals and decadent lifestyle" are credited with inspiring a perfume. Today the woman who ruled as the last pharaoh of Egypt and who is alleged to have tested toxic potions on prisoners is instead poisoning her subjects as the most popular brand of cigarettes in the Middle East.

In the memorable phrase of critic Harold Bloom, she was the "world's first celebrity." If history is a stage, no actress was ever so versatile: royal daughter, royal mother, royal sister from a family that makes the Sopranos look like the Waltons. When not serving as a Rorschach test of male fixations, Cleopatra is an inexhaustible muse. To a recent best-selling biography add—from 1540 to 1905—five ballets, 45 operas, and 77 plays. She starred in at least seven films; an upcoming version will feature Angelina Jolie.

Yet if she is everywhere, Cleopatra is also nowhere, obscured in what biographer Michael Grant called the "fog of fiction and vituperation which has surrounded her personality from her own lifetime onwards." Despite her reputed powers of seduction, there is no reliable depiction of her face. What images do exist are based on unflattering silhouettes on coins. There is an unrevealing 20-foot-tall relief on a temple at Dendera, and museums display a few marble busts, most of which may not even be of Cleopatra.

Ancient historians praised her allure, not her looks. Certainly she possessed the ability to roil passions in two powerful Roman men: Julius Caesar, with whom she had one son; and Mark Antony, who would be her lover for more than a decade and the father of three more children. But her beauty, said Greek historian Plutarch, was not "the sort that would astound those who saw her; interaction with her was captivating, and her appearance, along with her persuasiveness in discussion and her character that accompanied every interchange, was stimulating. Pleasure also came with the tone of her voice, and her tongue was like a many-stringed instrument."

People have been puzzling over the whereabouts of Cleopatra's tomb since she was last seen in her mausoleum in the legendary deathbed tableau, adorned with diadem and royal finery and reposed on what Plutarch described as a golden couch. After Caesar's assassination, his heir Octavian battled Antony for control of the Roman Empire for more than a decade; following Antony and Cleopatra's defeat at Actium, Octavian's forces entered Alexandria in the summer of 30 B.C. Cleopatra barricaded herself behind her mausoleum's massive doors, amid stores of gold, silver, pearls, art, and other treasures that she vowed to torch lest they fall into Roman hands.

It was to the mausoleum that Antony, dying of self-inflicted sword wounds, was brought on the first of August so he might take a last sip of wine and perish in Cleopatra's arms. And it may have been in the mausoleum where, ten days or so after Antony's death, Cleopatra herself escaped the humiliation of defeat and captivity by committing suicide at the age of 39, reputedly with the venom of an asp. The Roman historian Dio Cassius reported that Cleopatra's body was embalmed as Antony's had been, and Plutarch noted that on the orders of Octavian, the last queen of Egypt was buried beside her defeated Roman consort. Sixteen centuries later Shakespeare proclaimed: "No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / a pair so famous."

And yet we have no idea where that grave might be. The wealth of attention paid to Cleopatra by artists seems inversely proportional to the poverty of material generated about her by archaeologists. Alexandria and its environs attracted less attention than the more ancient sites along the Nile, such as the Pyramids at Giza or the monuments at Luxor. And no wonder: Earthquakes, tidal waves, rising seas, subsiding ground, civil conflicts, and the unsentimental recycling of building stones have destroyed the ancient quarter where for three centuries Cleopatra and her ancestors lived. Most of the glory that was ancient Alexandria now lies about 20 feet underwater.

In the past few decades archaeologists have finally taken up the mystery of Cleopatra's whereabouts and are searching for her burial place in earnest. Underwater excavations begun in 1992 by French explorer Franck Goddio and his European Institute of Underwater Archaeology have allowed researchers to map out the drowned portions of ancient Alexandria, its piers and esplanades, the sunken ground once occupied by royal palaces. The barnacled discoveries brought to the sea's surface—massive stone sphinxes, giant limestone paving blocks, granite columns and capitals—whet the appetite for a better understanding of Cleopatra's world.

"My dream is to find a statue of Cleopatra—with a cartouche," says Goddio. So far, however, the underwater work has failed to yield a tomb. The only signs of Cleopatra the divers have encountered are the empty cigarette packs that bear her name, drifting in the water as they work.

More recently, a desert temple outside Alexandria has become the focus of another search, one that asks whether a monarch of Cleopatra's calculation and foresight might have provided a tomb for herself in a place more spiritually significant than downtown Alexandria—some sacred spot where her mummified remains could rest undisturbed beside her beloved Antony.

In November 2006 at his office in Cairo, Zahi Hawass, then secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, pulled out a sheet of Nile Hilton stationery. On it he had sketched the highlights of an archaeological site where he and a team of scientists and excavators had been digging over the previous year. "We are searching for the tomb of Cleopatra," he said, excitedly. "Never before has anyone systematically looked for the last queen of Egypt." This particular quest had begun when a woman from the Dominican Republic named Kathleen Martinez contacted Hawass in 2004 and came to share a theory she'd developed: that Cleopatra might be buried in a tumbledown temple near the coastal desert town of Taposiris Magna (present-day Abu Sir), 28 miles west of Alexandria.

Located between the Mediterranean and Lake Mareotis, the ancient city of Taposiris Magna had been a prominent port town during Cleopatra's time. Its vineyards were famous for their wine. The geographer Strabo, who was in Egypt in 25 B.C., mentioned that Taposiris staged a great public festival, most likely in honor of the god Osiris. Nearby was a rocky seaside beach, he said, "where crowds of people in the prime of life assemble during every season of the year."

"I thought before we started digging that Cleopatra would be buried facing the palace in Alexandria, in the royal tombs area," said Hawass. But in time, Martinez's reasoning persuaded him another theory might be worth exploring: that Cleopatra had been clever enough to make sure she and Antony were secretly buried where no one would disturb their eternal life together.

A child prodigy who'd earned her law degree at the age of 19, Kathleen Martinez was teaching archaeology at the University of Santo Domingo, but it was an avocation; she'd never been to Egypt or handled a trowel. She traced her obsession with Cleopatra to an argument she'd had with her father in 1990, when she was 24 years old. She wandered into his library one day looking for a copy of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Her father, Fausto Martínez, a professor and legal scholar normally quite careful in his judgments, disparaged the famous queen as a trollop. "How can you say that!" she protested. After an hours-long debate in which Kathleen argued that Roman propaganda and centuries of bias against women had distorted Cleopatra's character, Professor Martínez conceded that his opinion of Cleopatra might have been unfair.

From that moment Martinez resolved to learn everything she could about the queen. She pored over the canonical texts, particularly Plutarch's account of Mark Antony's alliance with Cleopatra. It seemed clear that the Romans had been intent on depicting her (at worst) as a decadent and lustful despot and (at best) as a manipulative politician who'd played the bitter factions of the emerging Roman superpower against each other in a desperate bid to preserve Egypt's autonomy. It was also possible that modern-day researchers might have missed important clues about where Cleopatra was buried.

"You cannot find anything in any ancient writing about where Cleopatra is buried," Martinez said. "But I believe she prepared everything, from the way she lived to the way she died to the way she wanted to be found."

In 2004 she emailed Hawass. She did not receive a reply. Unable to have herself smuggled into Hawass's office inside a sack—the famous stratagem by which the 21-year-old Cleopatra is supposed to have acquainted herself with Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.—Martinez assailed him with emails, upwards of a hundred by her estimate. Again, no reply. She headed for Cairo and eventually wangled an audience with Hawass through a guide who had worked for the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Hawass asked when Martinez arrived in his office in the fall of 2004. She did not explain that she was searching for Cleopatra, worried that he would lump her in with the nuts who believe aliens built the pyramids. "I want to visit places that aren't open to the public," Martinez explained. Hawass granted her permission to visit sites in Alexandria, Giza, and Cairo.

Martinez returned to Egypt in March 2005, calling on Hawass with the news that she had been appointed an ambassador of culture by the Dominican Republic. He laughed and said she was too young to be an ambassador. She told him she'd visited Taposiris Magna the previous year and wanted to go back. There were remnants of a Coptic church on the site, and Dominicans were interested in the history of Christianity. Hawass again said yes.

After she had photographed and walked the site, she again called on Hawass. "You have two minutes," he said. The time had come to drop the veil. Martinez explained to him that she wanted to excavate at Taposiris. "I have a theory," she said, and finally confided that she thought Taposiris Magna was where Cleopatra was buried.

"What?" said Hawass, grabbing his chair. A group of Hungarian archaeologists had just concluded excavations at the site, and French archaeologists had excavated Roman baths just outside the walls of the temple. Plans were pending to turn Taposiris Magna into a tourist attraction.

"Give me two months," Martinez countered. "I will find her."

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