Inside the Middle East
July 12, 2009
Posted: 856 GMT

By Ben Wedeman

ABUSIR, Egypt (CNN) - Today, I met Cleopatra's lawyer. Well, not her lawyer but someone who is determined to defend the legendary queen against centuries of bad publicity.

Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, wants to mend Cleopatra's tattered reputation.
Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, wants to mend Cleopatra's tattered reputation.

Kathleen Martinez is a young archaeologist from the Dominican Republic who has toiled for three years on a barren hillside overlooking the coastal highway linking Alexandria with the Libyan border. According to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, it's here, at a spot known as Abusir, that the tomb of Marc Antony and Cleopatra might be located.

I met Martinez in a dusty tomb full of bones at the excavation site. She recounted to me that, as a young girl, she listened in on a scholarly discussion in her father's library about Cleopatra.

"They were speaking very badly about her and about her image," she recalled. "I got very upset. I said I didn't believe what they are saying, that I needed to study more about her."

Martinez went on to earn a law degree but continued to be fascinated by the saga of Cleopatra. Four years ago, she managed to convince Zahi Hawass, the untiring director of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, to allow her to start excavating at Abusir.

Her fascination with - and admiration for - Cleopatra is intense. The last queen of Ancient Egypt, she told me, "spoke nine languages, she was a philosopher, she was a poet, she was a politician, she was a goddess, and she was a warrior."

In short, Martinez believes, Cleopatra was a woman way ahead of her times.

And given that history is written by the victors - in Cleopatra's case, the Romans - her press was somewhat less than complimentary. It was "bad propaganda," in Martinez's words. For that reason, she told me, "I want to be Cleopatra's lawyer."

With Hawass, Martinez is now working on a book about Cleopatra to repair all that damage.

The tale of Antony and Cleopatra has fueled the popular imagination for centuries. Ill-fated lovers were a favorite theme for William Shakespeare, and the Roman noble and the Egyptian queen certainly fit the bill.

Marc Antony was a no less fascinating character than Cleopatra. In his youth, he led a life of heavy drinking and womanizing. According to the Roman historian Plutarch, Antony accumulated debts of 250 talents, the equivalent of $5 million, before reaching 20.

To escape his creditors in Rome, he fled to Greece, where he studied with the philosophers of Athens, before being called to join the Roman legions in the east, then serving under Julius Caesar.

After Caesar's assassination, Marc Antony became embroiled in a series of power struggles and eventually ended up in Egypt.

Egypt was the enemy of his former ally, Octavian, who would go on to become the Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

Octavian defeated Antony's forces at the battle of Actium in 30 B.C. Shortly afterward, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, he by his own sword, she by a poisonous asp.

Octavian, according to Plutarch, allowed them to be buried together "in splendid and regal fashion." But no one knows where.

The sudden focus on Antony and Cleopatra has also reignited an old debate over the latter's looks. Was Cleopatra a stunning beauty a la Elizabeth Taylor, or somewhat less spectacular?

Researchers from Newcastle University in England claimed in 2007 that, based upon coins found from the period, she was quite homely, with "a shallow forehead, long, pointed nose, narrow lips and a sharply pointed chin."

The same researchers didn't have a very flattering assessment of Marc Antony either, saying he had "bulging eyes, a large hooked nose and a thick neck." No Richard Burton.

This does contradict Plutarch's description of Marc Antony as having "a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose [that] were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Hercules"?

Hawass hasn't had much to say in defense of Marc Antony, but he claims the coins found in Abusir show Cleopatra was "beautiful."

At Abusir, he showed me one of the coins with Cleopatra's likeness. "The only thing you can see here is her nose is a bit big."

That's because, Hawass insisted, "when you draw a face on a coin you cannot draw the beauty of a queen, and therefore I think that the lady who captured the hearts of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony cannot have been ugly."

Egyptians, who are intensely proud of their country and its ancient heritage, may be forgiven for their insistence on this point.

I tend to take the middle ground on this one. Beauty is more than skin deep, and what seems to have captivated Julius Caesar and Marc Antony was not physical but rather inner beauty. Watch report from CNN's Ben Wedeman on Cleopatra »

Plutarch wrote in his "Life of Antony" that "for her beauty was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her." In other words, she was plain. Plutarch goes on to write, however, that she was intelligent, charming and has "sweetness in the tones of her voice."

The mystery of what Cleopatra really looked like may never be solved. In any event, it's just one of many mysteries in Egypt.

Others include the obvious ones: How were the pyramids built? Who built them? Why were they built? How old is the Sphinx?

Hawass dismisses with lusty contempt the people who espouse the more fantastic theories (that aliens built the pyramids, that the Sphinx is more than 10,000 years old), labeling them "pyramidiots."

But there are other historical mysteries out there that have yet to be answered.

Some archaeologists are trying to find the tomb of Alexander the Great (who died in Babylon but, according to some ancient historians, was buried in Egypt).

Others are searching for the remains of the lost army of Cambyses - 50,000 soldiers dispatched on a mission by the Persian Emperor to attack the Oracle of Amon (today's Siwa Oasis in western Egypt) only to disappear during a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert.

There has been plenty of excitement in the past few days over reports that Martinez and her team are about to find the long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra.

Alas, the enthusiasts are going to have to be patient.

The summer residence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is just down the road from the site. For security reasons, no one is allowed on the hillside where the excavations are taking place from May through November. So unless Mubarak decides to overrule his security detail, the solving of this mystery will have to be put on hold for at least another five months.

We've waited 2,000 years. I guess we can wait a few more months.

Filed under: Archaeology •Egypt

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Hope   July 13th, 2009 4:14 pm ET

Its always inspiring reading about someone pursuing their this case a young archaeologist from the Dominican Republic..Good luck finding the tomb of Marc Antony and Cleopatra and best wishes on her book. I'll be looking for it..

btw, the link "Watch report from CNN’s Ben Wedeman on Cleopatra »".. is linking to nowhere...

GLeigh   July 15th, 2009 12:08 pm ET

I'm on our old, slow computer with a strong firewall. My new computer, unprotected, took about 6-7 weeks to crash by the bad guys out there. I only visited sites that were either social, in a nice way, or classes, no bad sites. It was an experiment for me but happened sooner than I figured – not too surprising. The world is very odd. Cleopatra died long ago. Bottom line. It's history. But everyone wants their pic taken and to be on the news. I don't think that anyone who has crossed over worries a jot about their public image. I wouldn't. Who even cares now really, unless they are running for something? And if the vote is fixed, or predetermined like in Iran, they don't care anyway.

Hope   July 16th, 2009 9:56 pm ET

The young woman form the Dominican Republic could have chosen a deferent (safer) path in life.. A handful of kiddies..baking cookies..staining decks..tucked in a gated dominican republic community. But NOPE, non of that!!.. She rolled up her sleeves, and marched to different drum beat..Determine to find the tomb of Marc Antony and Cleopatra and to straighten up her legacy. How cool is that!!..My hat goes off to her..,though i like her hat too.. there a link to this or not? A visual video could help...I would think.

G.   July 18th, 2009 2:31 am ET

Ouch Hope. It really bugs you that I live in a gated community and stained my own deck. I thought it was funny in a way. I bought a power tool at Home Depot, a mouse sander to get close areas and sanded it before I stained it. My hubby died laughing. We have a bug guy spray every quarter and he thought it was great – the deck looked new again. Whenever he sprays the house, I am alone. My husband, for over twenty years, doesn't even think about it. Why would he? I'm a very trustful type of person. I like light colored carpet. It shows the dirt. If there is dirt, I want to know so that I can wash it. Hiding dirt is not good. If I were a guy, I would want to know if my wife loved me and I could trust her for that reason, even if one or the other messed up. Forcing fidelity negates the meaning to me. I told the husband, a few times, that if he ever messes up to explain it to me and I'd try not to freak out though I'd be disappointed. It's never happened, so far. I'd know.

G.   July 18th, 2009 2:33 am ET

I like her hat too. Cute pic. Hats remind me of Princess Di who always wore nice ones.

Hope   July 18th, 2009 4:36 pm ET

I share your grieve and frustration..First, we have an African American for a President, (whose wife is not a librarian!). Second, the possibility of a liberal Latina nominee for the Supreme Court.. And NOW..a female Archeologist from the Dominican Republic with a law degree who,–"wants their pic taken and to be on the news"..What is the world turning into!!! Amazing... btw, Home Depot is having a Saturday sale on their brand (End Cuts) lumber sealers, it has a white coating..supposedly superior in quality.

G.   July 20th, 2009 10:24 pm ET

What? Home Depot is doing what – never heard of lumber seals but oh well. I read that several times.

Beyond that, it is nice to see women moving forward. I realize some countries can't go there, but it is a good thing. It must be tough for the guys if they feel intimidated. Change takes time because it can be scary to some. History repeats itself. We always want open cultures, nice people so we don't have a repeat of WWII. Any cultures that doesn't allow world reporters from anywhere, like Myanmar, Iran, China, N. Korea, some others, worry me.

Doug   July 21st, 2009 2:23 pm ET

Why is it I always see on CNN anything, ie news, web, etc. the number of US service men and woman killed , but not how many of the enemy have been killed.
I as an AMERICAN would like to know this.

Liberal Media!

Goowdeniwes   February 16th, 2010 9:01 pm ET

I am reading this article second time today, you have to be more careful with content leakers. If I will fount it again I will send you a link

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