Cleopatra the VII, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of ancient Egypt has again been put in the public limelight but for reasons which she would probably have bemused over. Recently, the Netflix company produced its own version of Cleopatra as a documentary, bringing in various “experts” to support its controversial claims which I will address. First and foremost is the documentary’s depiction of Cleopatra and her family as sub-Saharan Africans which has triggered an international furore. To furnish this claim, the British black actress Adele James plays the Egyptian Queen. More on her later.
Never have I seen so many inaccuracies in a documentary that it is difficult to know where to begin. In a scene which is more comic relief than historic auctoritas, Afro-American Professor Shelley Haley, a Netflix chosen expert to comment on Cleopatra tells us that her grandmother had once advised her that Cleopatra was black. Haley also notes that in a dream Cleopatra emboldened her to tell the Queen’s story. As the Americans say, you just can’t make this stuff up.
So let us dissect this claim. Firstly, historical texts note that Cleopatra belonged to the Graeco-Macedonian Ptolemaic line who had ruled Egypt from 332-30 BC. Ptolemy I Soter, who had been a friend and general of Alexander the Great began the dynasty which ended with the death of Cleopatra. The Ptolemaics continued the Pharoanic custom of incestual marriages which prevented them from marrying outside their Graeco-Macedonian blood line. This is where it gets interesting. While we know that Cleopatra’s father was Ptolemy XII Auletes, it is unclear to who her mother was. This critical detail has been played up by Netflix historians to mean that Cleopatra’s mother was possibly of sub-Saharan origin, just like Professor Haley’s now famous grandmother had said. Cleopatra’s mother was more likely to have been the Ptolemaic Cleopatra Tryphaena who was mother to Cleopatra’s sister Berenice. Even if Cleopatra Tryphaena had some Egyptian blood, as the historian Duane W. Roller notes, this does not mean that Cleopatra was black African. This argument can be quickly demolished by the plethora of representations of Cleopatra depicted in sculpture, paintings and coins which show her having a Mediterranean appearance. Next, we have a written account by the Roman philosopher statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero who had met Queen Cleopatra when she had travelled to Rome in 46 BC to meet her lover Julius Caesar. Cicero refers to Cleopatra as ‘the graecula’ meaning ‘Greek woman’ in Latin. There is no mention of her being black African. Case closed.
Another point of contention of the Cleopatra documentary is its Afro-centric influence. The word “Afrocentrism” was first coined in 1962 to describe an ideological movement which focuses on the historical achievements and contributions of Africans. The movement took pace in the mid 20th century in order to challenge the dominance of European misconceptions and distortions of African societies. While its initial motivations were moral and right, Afrocentric thinkers went on to write their own distorted version of history. For example, a leading Afrocentrist Cheikh Anta Diop argued that the Egyptian civilisation was a black African civilisation – the first to develop science, farming writing, arts and the calendar. Apart from the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC) which was ruled by black Kushite kings, all other Egyptian Pharoanic dynasties were not sub-Saharan Africans. There is no compelling evidence to support Diop’s claim. On the contrary, extensive archaeological research reveals that it was the older Sumerian civilisation in Mesopotamia which had developed the first writing and numerical systems, the plough, irrigation and farming and the wheel.
Afrocentric revisionism has been further dismantled by a recent genetics study of Egyptian mummies in the journal Nature, which found that ancient Egyptians shared more genetic similarity with people from the near-east than present day Egyptians. However, any evidence to the contrary is quickly dismissed by modern Afrocentrists who perpetuate the myth of an original all black Africa. Therefore, any culture which does not fit into this racial category are considered to be cultural appropriaters of ‘African’ civilisation. Based on this logic, the Graeco-Macedonians and Muslim Arabs who had entered Egypt in the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD, respectively, were invaders, as are their present-day offspring. To counter this claim, when Alexander the Great marched into Egypt in 332 BC, not only was his army welcomed as liberators by the Egyptians for ridding them of the Persians, but he was proclaimed the new Pharoah and son of the god Amun. However, this piece of history does not matter. So when both the Egyptian people and government took offence at the documentary’s many distortions, its main actress Adelle James called them out as being ‘racists’. Just as nonsensical was the documentary’s director Tina Gharavi who was dumbfounded why people should object to having a melanated Cleopatra. It is as though the opinions of present-day Egyptians and Greeks do not count. This may also be the reason why Netflix did not seek advice for the documentary from Egyptian archaeologists and historians, but instead relied on non-Egyptians who parroted the Afrocentrist narrative.
To sum up, the moral of this story is do not try to ‘wokewash’ Egyptian and Greek history. It won’t work. Both cultures are fiercely proud of their ancient past and will not tolerate any trans-Atlantic revisionism. Period.