30 May 2011

Medieval Memorial Day for Cleopatra

Cleopatra as 'The Virtuous Scholar'

Who? Cleopatra? Do you mean our Cleopatra, divine queen of Egypt and lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony?  That Cleopatra?

Yes, the very same.

But better known to those who wrote about her scholarly temperament as Qilopatra, Qilpatra, Qalupatri, Qilawfatra, Qulfidar, Qarupa, Kilapatra, Elawpatra, Elawatra, and even Aklaupatr.  Not the ten little dwarfs but the queen's name in medieval Arabic.  All of which mean, or so we are told, 'The Weeping Rock' or 'The Weeping Woman'. 

Which makes a kind of sense, I suppose, if you were a medieval Arab historian looking for meaning in names.  But why should she weep?  According to their memories, she had nothing to cry about.

Memorial Day in Medieval Egypt

It all began with the Coptic Christian bishop, John of Nikiu (a town in the Nile Delta), who lived at the time of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the very fraught years 639-41 CE.  John wrote a Chronicle of the History of the World (in Greek, perhaps also partially in Coptic; now lost, it was translated into Arabic and survives today only in an Ethiopian translation from 1602 CE).  Though John was an Egyptian, his memory of distant history was foggy, to say the least.  Cleopatra, he tells us, was 'a very beautiful young virgin':
[Julius] Caesar fell in love with her and married her and begat a son by her. And he gave her the kingdom of Egypt. And he named that son Julius Caesar. He was also named Caesarion.
So far, so good (if you ignore her two previous marriages, possibly unconsummated, to her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and P. XIV). But Bishop John soon loses track of Julius Caesar and knows nothing of the Mark Antony episode nor of Octavian's defeat of Antony + Cleopatra.  Rather, the good bishop drifts off into a long aside extolling Cleopatra's courage and her strength, and lauding her building projects in Alexandria, the likes of which had never been seen before.  These, he says, included a magnificent palace built on an island -- with a causeway to reach it across the bay; the draining of a large area of sea which she turned into dry land; a contrary project of digging a canal and diverting a river so that ships could come right up to the city; and yet another water management project that supplied the city with an abundance of fish. 
And she executed all these works in vigilant care for the well-being of the city. And before she died she executed many noble works and (created) important institutions. And this woman, the most illustrious and wise amongst women, died in the fourteenth year of the reign of Caesar Augustus. Thereupon the inhabitants of Alexandria and of (lower) and upper Egypt submitted to the emperors of Rome.
Clearly, and despite centuries of Roman rule, native Egyptians as late as the 7th century continued to cherish Cleopatra's memory.  In fact, we know from a graffito on a temple at Philae that her divine statues were still being cared for at least as late as 373 CE, when Egypt, and indeed the whole of the Roman Empire was officially Christian.  By John of Nikiu's time, nonetheless, her history was grossly 'misremembered', and simply riddled with errors and omissions.  Yet that was the tradition, for better and for worse, that would be further shaped by Arab historians.

"Incomparably Above All Others"

The first Muslim to write about Cleopatra was the native Egyptian Ibn 'Abd Al-Hakam, in the early 9th century* -- about 150 years after the Muslim conquest -- and he got it spectacularly wrong on two counts.  He tells us that the world-famous lighthouse of Alexandria
was built by [Queen] Daluka... It is also said that the builder of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was Qulpatra, the queen who dug the canal into Alexandria and paved its bottom.
No one knows who this Queen Daluka is so we've no idea how she comes into the story (unless she is a doppelganger of Cleopatra).  According to Al-Hakam, the two queens were credited with building the Lighthouse -- although certainly neither did.  Equally, both ladies were supposed to have erected an entirely fictitious Great Wall around Egypt to protect it from invasion.  Real or imagined, Cleopatra's building projects continued to impress medieval Arab writers.  In a way, it's easy to understand: somebody had built the massive monuments that still dominated the landscape -- the pyramids, Sphinx, and ancient temples.  If the Copts and Philo of Alexandria (the Hellenized Jew who described her great Alexandrian temple as "incomparably above all others") agreed on Cleopatra, so be it. 

But what really turned them on was her devotion to alchemy and philosophy.

Yes, you read that right.
She was a sage, a philosopher who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.  She also wrote books on medicine, charms and cosmetics in addition to many other books ascribed to her which are known to those who practice medicine.
Those are the words of Iraqi-born Al Mas'udi (who died in Egypt ca 956 CE).  He was the first to tell us, too, about Cleopatra's interest in the higher and rarefied scholarly spheres, such as alchemy.  He might even have had in his library her reputedly great work on the subject, 'The Book of Queen Cleopatra', in the form of a dialogue between the queen and a group of scholars.  In it, the Muslim alchemists and fellow philosophers invite her to illuminate them with her knowledge on alchemical matters and, perhaps too, on secret symbols and devices that she invented for use in alchemical investigations.  Al Mas'udi called her "the last of the wise Greeks" -- and who would argue?  As time went on, still more learned books were credited to the queen, including one on poisons and antidotes, another on mathematics, and a legal tome entitled 'The Abridged Law of Cleopatra', described as "a simple law that is easy to understand."

Indeed 'A Virtuous Scholar'

Alchemist, accomplished mathematician, medical doctor, able monarch and a scholar who was comfortable among philosophers and men of science: that is the medieval Arab tradition of Cleopatra.  There is nothing of the hedonist, sexy seductress, nor a deceiving and over-ambitious queen.  In short, this is not the Cleopatra of our classical Graeco-Roman sources:
... a frenzied queen plotting ruin against the Capitol and destruction to the empire, with her polluted crew of creatures foul with lust -- a woman mad enough to nurse the wildest hopes and drunk with Fortune's favours  (Horace Odes I 37)
So, who is right?  Does the medieval Arabic memorial 'correct' the lascivious western tradition -- which descends all the way from Horace (sucking up to Augustus) right down to Liz Taylor?

First, it must be said that the contrast between Arabic and Graeco-Roman images of the queen is somewhat overdrawn: they are not entirely on opposite ends of the pole.  Even Horace admits her courage (waxing bolder as she resolved to die... no craven woman she!).  And Plutarch, who has left us the most detailed and relatively balanced story of her reign, declares that her irresistible charm had not so much to do with physical beauty but more with her character and "the persuasiveness of her discourse", and thus with her intelligence (Life of Anthony 27). 

What is Remembered?  What is Historical Memory?

As an Egyptologist put it, "Neither representation says much about the real Cleopatra."**

"It is not unusual for people faced with cultures which they experience as 'exotic', to stereotype these other cultures as either 'dark' (with barbaric bloodthirsty males and loose ensnaring women) or as 'paradisical' (with noble warriors and all-knowing priestesses).... 

"Such models say much of the ones who adopt them and hardly anything of the cultures that they are concerned with. That the Romans, for political reasons, picked a model of the first type (Cleopatra as a shrewd seductress) should not surprise us, nor that the Arabs, for esoteric reasons (alchemists wanting to see Egypt as the land of secret science and hidden wisdom), preferred a model of the second type (Cleopatra as virtuous scholar).

While medieval Arab historians were just as fascinated by Cleopatra as everyone since, their picture of Cleopatra was no more real than that of our Graeco-Roman tradition Alas, their story was not built on original Ptolemaic facts but rather on medieval fantasies that made sense to them. They had no privileged access to genuine ancient knowledge somehow preserved and transmitted to medieval seekers of ancient secrets.  In the end, their vision was no more factual than the  biased version of events spread by the Romans and beloved of Hollywood.  Why the Arabic sources chose to emphasize and exaggerate certain aspects of her 'life' -- already very cloudy and distorted -- is in itself a fascinating study. 

But that is for another post, another time.   My Memorial Day tribute to Cleopatra's memory is done.  R.I.P. Liz Taylor.

*The medieval Arabic image of Cleopatra was brought into scholarly discourse by Okasha El Daly, an Egyptologist at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.  His book, The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings," (2005) analysed previously untranslated Arabic texts referring to early Egyptian history.

>** Review of Okasha El Daly's Egyptology: The Missing Millennium submitted to the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (EEF) by A.K. Eyma, 28 June 2005. The whole review is available here.


Upper left:  A fanciful illustration of an Egyptian-Arab queen and her ladies, unknown source (perhaps lifted from a turn-of-last-century German book, thence let loose on the web); via BarefootSpringNet.  If anyone knows of a proper credit, I'd be glad to hear of it.

Centre left: From an exhibit at the British Museum, Cleopatra: From History to Myth, 12 April - 26 August 2001 (Via BBC News/Reviews, 11 April 2001). Introductory text by the show's curator, Susan Walker at Fathom, The Source for Online Learning

Lower left: Via University of Oregon: 'The Age of Caesar' website.


  1. A very interesting article -- thank you. The Daly book must be interesting, and I wish I could find a PDF copy online. There is a Google books preview I think, which is something. The link to the review is useful too.

    I think I'd tend to treat Daly's own conclusions cautiously; but he must have done us all a favour in making the raw material accessible, and all credit to him.

  2. A fascinating take on a fascinating history.


Blog Archive