The Curse of Cleopatra?

The Osiris temple at Taposiris Magna, Ptolemai...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve really got to stop reading email … every time I open it, it seems, there’s something about Cleopatra’s tomb and it’s presented in such a way that I feel I HAVE to respond to it. The latest comes from the venerable Al-Ahram, whose reporter seems (as will be made clear later) to have been at the same news conference/presentation/whatever as our National Geographic correspondent from t’other day. We’ll begin this one a few ‘graphs in, whence comes the title of this post … seems Dr. Hawass was being lowered down one of the shafts at Taposiris that we’ve been hearing about. Ecce:

By this time Hawass, in his Indiana Jones hat, was enclosed inside a red iron cage hung on an anchor which suspended him on a thick wire from an electronic engine. Hawass went downwards, and when he had almost reached the bottom he gave the order for the engine to stop as he had found subterranean water covering the bottom of the shaft. After a few moments of thought, and under the spell of his passion for archaeology, Hawass decided to take the plunge because, he said, he believed that underneath the water there would most probably be a monument or a collection of artefacts. However, when the team on top resumed their drilling, the engine refused to operate and Hawass was trapped inside the cage which swung bashing Hawass against the rough sides of the stony shaft. This went on for 20 minutes until, following several failed attempts, workmen pulled the cage out manually.

“It’s Cleopatra curse!” one of the workers cried out. Hawass laughed, and said that it was not the first time he had been in such a position. “I always face circumstances like this when I am up to something special,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “When I was digging inside the Valley of the Golden Mummies I got an electric shock from a lamp I was holding. The shock threw me two metres away and I hit the floor of the tomb. And an hour before my lecture at the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition in the United States, the light of the gallery went out and the computer didn’t work. “I think this wasn’t the Pharaohs’ curse but Hawass’s curse,” he said with a huge grin.

If nothing else,  you have to admire the guy’s sense of humour. The report goes on:

He went on to say that the ancient temple site might hide the tomb of the legendary lovers Queen Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony as it was a perfect place to hide their corpses, especially since Egypt was in a very bad political situation at the time of the war with Octavian — later the Roman Emperor Augustine.

… we’ll forgive the typo; they get it right later on … but again we see the ‘hiding the corpses’ scenario. It continues:

“Searching for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony is very exciting,” Hawass said. He pointed out that his fondness for Cleopatra blossomed in his early youth, when at 16 years old he began to study Graeco-Roman archaeology in the Faculty of Art’s Greek and Roman Department at the University of Alexandria. He once asked Fawzi El-Fakharani, professor of Greek and Roman archaeology, about the place that he thought might be the location of the tomb of Cleopatra. Fakharani told him at the time: “To our knowledge and information Cleopatra was buried in a tomb beside her palace, which is now submerged under the Mediterranean Sea.”

Hawass relates that he forgot about the issue until four years ago, when Dominican archaeologist Martinez came to pay him a visit and tried to convince him of a theory that Cleopatra and Anthony were buried in Taposiris Magna, near Alexandria.

“When actually you look at such a temple and remember the Osiris myth, you will be convinced by such a theory,” Hawass said. He explained that the temple was dedicated to the worship of the god Osiris, who according to ancient Egyptian myth was killed by his brother, the god Seth, who cut his corpse into 14 pieces which he spread over the Earth. Egypt has 14 temples dedicated to Osiris. Each temple is known in hieroglyphics as Per Oser, or the place of Osiris, and each contains one of these pieces. And that, according to Hawass, is why such a temple could be a perfect resting place for the legendary lovers. We know from the Greek historian Plutarch, he says, that the pair were buried together.

I don’t get it. Yes, the place does sound like a perfect place for burials — and as will be seen below, it clearly was — but again (and again and again) we have to ask why would Tony and Cleo have any special connection to this place?  And if it’s such a great place for burials, why don’t we hear of other pharaonic types being interred in such milieux? And as long as we’re claiming Plutarch as a source, we should confirm that in the life of Marcus Antonius 84 we read (via Lacus Curtius):

But Caesar, although vexed at the death of the woman, admired her lofty spirit; and he gave orders that her body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion. Her women also received honourable interment by his orders.

Again, we stress that it is Octavian directing the funerary matters here and, if the reader does explore the section of Plutarch dealing with Cleo’s final days (book 80 and following) there is no indication of any of the events happening anywhere other than Alexandria and although an argument e silentio, I think we might reasonably expect at least one ancient source to mention the burial site if it were in an ‘irregular’ place. But even if we avoid such arguments (as I’d prefer to do)   as before, we can again wonder whether the body of one or both would have undergone mummification — I have had no enlightenment in regards to the burial practice of the Ptolemies and the sources seem confused in regards to the treatment of Antony’s remains. Timelines for ‘traditional’  mummification may or may not have been possible. Now we can skip a bit and bring up something that occurred to me while stuck in traffic today … writing about that recent statue find:

The statue is very well preserved, and is was one of the most beautiful statues ever found carved according to the ancient Egyptian style as it bore the traditional shape of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh wearing a collar and kilt. “I believe that the statue may have been an image of King Ptolemy IV, the founder of the temple,” Hawass suggested. Inside the temple, Hawass continued, the mission found a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, mythical sister and wife of Osiris.

One of the things that always seems to be brought up as evidence that Tony and Cleo were buried here are the various statues and coins we mentioned quite a while ago. By that same logic, should we not think/postulate that Ptolemy IV is buried here?

Skipping a couple of graphs:

The mission began excavating at Abusir five years ago with the goal of discovering the tomb of the famous lovers Cleopatra and Anthony. According to Hawass, there is evidence to prove that Cleopatra was not buried in the tomb built for her beside the royal palace — which now lies under the waves in the Eastern Harbour on the Mediterranean coast of Alexandria.

And what is that evidence? Apparently that very statuary, along with something WAY more interesting:

Hawass pointed out that over its years of excavations the mission had unearthed a number of headless royal statues, which might have been destroyed during the Christian Byzantine era. A number of heads featuring Cleopatra VII were also uncovered, along with 24 metal coins bearing an image of the queen’s face and one of Alexander the Great. All these objects suggest that Queen Cleopatra once built a religious chapel for her cult inside the temple of Osiris at Taposiris Magna. Outside the temple, at its back courtyard, a necropolis containing mummies from the Greek and Roman eras has been discovered. Hawass describes it as the largest ever Graeco-Roman cemetery to be found, stretching for more than half a kilometre. “Up to now the mission has succeeded in uncovering 22 rock- hewn tombs with stairs inside the necropolis,” Hawass told the Weekly. He went on to explain that skulls and mummies were also unearthed inside, two of which were gilded. On the west side of the temple another cemetery was located. “Early investigations show that the mummies were buried with their heads turned towards the temple, which indicated that the temple housed the tomb of a significant royal personality,” Hawass said, pointing out that if this were not so nobles would not have dug their tombs near the temple because, according to ancient Egyptian traditions, nobles always built their tomb near their kings and queens as demonstrated in the Valley of the Kings and Queens on Luxor’s west bank.

So it is the statuary. Outside of that, though, we’ve had hints that there were other burials here, but I don’t think we’ve heard of  how huge this necropolis is or anything about these ‘gilded mummies’ before (perhaps we have and I’ve missed/forgotten about it … we did hear about the rock cut tombs etc. a year ago last summer). That said, we have to ask: did any “nobles” have tombs near the mausoleum of the Ptolemies? Do we have any evidence that burial practices in Ptolemaic times mirrored those of Valley of the Kings times?  Or better, let’s ask: What pharaoh is buried at the Bahariya Oasis where all those gilded Greco-Roman mummies were found — they’re clearly “nobles and dignitaries”? It’s interesting that Dr Hawass makes no suggestion of pharaonic burials at Barhariya in any of his pages about the site. It’s even more interesting that he believes (probably not unreasonably) that  the Greco-Roman burials were in that area because of their proximity to a temple to Alexander the Great. Should we not be using the same logic as we’re using at Taposiris Magna and suggest that Alexander is buried at Bahariya? (and no, I don’t think Alexander is buried there).

We then get something similar to what was said in the National Geographic piece:

A radar survey carried out in the area revealed three anomalies or locations inside the temple, and it is possible that one of them could be the entrance of a tomb that goes down 20 metres below ground. “We are hoping that it could be of Queen Cleopatra and Mark Anthony,” Hawass said. “But as I always say, archaeology is based on theories and here we are experiencing one of them. If we succeed in discovering such a tomb it will be the discovery of the 21st century, and if not we still unearth major objects and monuments inside and outside the temple which shed more light on the history of the era and this mythical queen.”

After a few paragraphs with Kathleen Martinez reiterating that ‘political situation in Egypt’ claim, the journalist lets his imagination run a bit in his conclusion (note the leap in logic in regards to the gilded mummies; I wonder if that’s what Martinez was alluding to in July of 2009):

Hawass promises that next week he will travel to Alexandria in an attempt to explore the shaft. But first the water must be pumped out of it. As for now, searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra and her beloved Mark Anthony is still in full swing, but can the mission find the tomb of the legendary lovers who, according to Plutarch, took their lives in 30 BC after losing a power struggle between Mark Anthony and his rival Octavian, who later, as Emperor Augustus of Rome, ordered that Cleopatra be buried in a splendid and regal fashion along with Anthony? The question is, where? Could the gilded mummies recently found of a man and a woman have been the two lovers? Or perhaps the three shafts found inside the temple will reveal their tomb; or does it house more anonymous skulls and bones? Nothing is in hand, and we must wait and see what the days hold.

via: So where are Anthony and Cleopatra? | Al Ahram

I suspect we all really know why there’s all this hype and this desire for a ‘big find’ in the next week or so … on June 5th, the Cleopatra exhibition is opening at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Interesting, though, that Action News is heading to the harbour at Alexandria … Okay … now unless Hawass and Martinez find something REALLY spectacular when they pump out that tunnel, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on anything related  Taposiris Magna for at least the long weekend.

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8 thoughts on “The Curse of Cleopatra?

  1. I don’t get it. Yes, the place does sound like a perfect place for burials — and as will be seen below, it clearly was — but again (and again and again) we have to ask why would Tony and Cleo have any special connection to this place?

    This is only a general answer: On one of the Dendera reliefs there’s the birth of Horus with Isis as an eagle being impregnated by a resurrecting Osiris. In that time Isis and Horus were commonly associated with Cleopatra and Caesarion, so Osiris (especially the dead and resurrected Osiris) is Julius Caesar here. Furthermore, Antony was flamen Divi Iulii, highpriest of the deified Julius Caesar. So there would be a kind of logic to Cleopatra (Isis) and Antony (highpriest of Caesar) being interred in a temple of Osiris (Julius Caesar).

    • By the way: here you quote Hawass who stated that “Cleopatra could [represent] Isis and Marc Antony could be Osiris”. However, the sources are clear that Antony was Dionysus (or rather the “New Dionysus”), while Cleopatra-Isis was logically associated with Aphrodite in this context, his consort. But the father of Caesarion/Horus (and therefore Isis’ “husband”) was Caesar, i.e. Osiris. I guess Hawass is wrong here.

    • rogueclassicist says:

      Perhaps … but again, we have to remember Octavian is directing matters funerary and the Romans don’t have a tradition of ‘in-temple’ burial …

      • Both arguments are incorrect. From Plut. Ant. 86.4 we cannot deduce that Octavian was “directing” the funeral. We only know that “he gave orders that [Cleopatra's] body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion”.

        It is obvious that Cleopatra had already arranged for her death and their funeral: She tested poisons for her suicide, she and Antony founded the “Society of Partners in Death”, for themselves of course and for their friends who would die together, had a couple of last suppers etc. (71.3), and it would be highly implausible if they hadn’t also arranged for their funeral ceremony, and to be buried together as “partners in death”. They had even begun to build their mausoleum (Suet. Aug. 17.4). Octavian’s role was only in choosing whether they would be buried in shame as defeated subjects or in an appropriate fashion for Isis-Aphrodite and her Dionysus. Octavian “ordered” the latter and allowed the completion of the burial site. So this “regal fashion” would surely have meant a burial like that of previous pharaohs, which is why it is also illogical to assume that Cleopatra and Antony were buried in Alexandria, because the pharaohs were not buried in the cities either, but in tombs or temple-tombs outside of the cities, mostly built for the occasion—very common by the way (cf. also King Herod’s tomb 15 km south of Jerusalem).

        In any case, it is generally incorrect to argue with the absence of a Roman temple burial tradition: (a) the argument is false because the Romans did indeed know temple-tombs (cf. Toynbee), one prominent example being the tomb of the Haterii; (b) Cleopatra was not Roman, so it’s illogical to assume a Roman funerary custom in the first place. She would have arranged for her funeral and tomb to accord to Egyptian-Hellenic tradition, and to include her former partner in life and now “partner in death” Antony. Octavian apparently only ordered to proceed with the plans unaltered. By the way, the “regal fashion” also implies a close vicinity to the burial sites of the other Ptolemies and Alexander. Cf. Suet. Aug 18, where Octavian visits Alexander’s grave and refuses to see the tombs of the other Ptolemies, saying: “My wish was to see a king, not corpses.” As Suetonius reports this was “about [the] time” when Cleopatra and Antony died, so we can assume that their burial place was connected to those of the other Ptolemies.

  2. rogueclassicist says:

    Directing is, perhaps, too strong a word, and I have to admit I agree with what you say at the end of your post about the burial place being connected with the other Ptolemies. For we read in Strabo’s Geography (17.8 … the initial description of Alexandria … I’ve culled this from Lacus Curtius):

    “The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house, in which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum. This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar. The Sema also, as it is called, is a part of the royal palaces. This was the enclosure which contained the burial-places of the kings and that of Alexander; for Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, forestalled Perdiccas by taking the body away from him when he was bringing it down from Babylon and was turning aside towards Aegypt, moved by greed and a desire to make that country his own.”

    … I’ll check on the temple burial claims when I get time; we should remind folks, however, that heroons are well-attested in the Greek-speaking parts of the empire.

    … so we can add Strabo to the list of ancient sources needing to be explained away as well (just in case people weren’t aware of it already … it was alluded to in my post of May 15, quoting an item from Dr. Hawass’ blog).

    • Interesting. Thanks for Strabo’s description. (I wasn’t aware of it.) This would indeed mean that the Ptolemies were buried in the city. In any case, the funeral of Cleopatra will not have been Roman, but Egyptian, plus a burial near (or even with) the other Ptolemies, which would probably make it a separate mausoleum within that “sema” complex. Otherwise the “regal fashion” in Plutarch wouldn’t make any sense. And if we can believe Strabo, why then is Hawass looking elsewhere? To my mind an Osiris temple on its own is not enough reason.

      (FYI: The small chapter on the Roman temple-tombs is in Toynbee on page 130–32. I guess it’s clear that they were not a majority tradition. Toynbee herself connects them to the Greek heroons in the first sentence, but extends it to include “some […] Roman tombs” explaining it with the Roman di Manes tradition.)

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