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Was Cleopatra Black? There's a Netflix Show Stirring Controversy

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TeaThe monumental legacy of Cleopatra, queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, is often overshadowed by more contemporary discussions over her identity. He has been variously claimed as Macedonian, Greek, Egyptian, and African.

The debate over Cleopatra’s “race” has been rekindled after Netflix released a trailer for its four-part docudrama queen cleopatra Last week, starring a black actor, Adele James. The series is also being narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who said she wants the show to “represent black women.”

This has inspired some, including prominent Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass To say again and again That Cleopatra, born in Alexandria, Egypt in 69 BC to the Ptolemaic dynasty, was of Macedonian Greek descent.

an Egyptian lawyer, Mahmoud al-Semri, Netflix was so incensed by the portrayal that it is taking legal action. At the same time, some Egyptians have raised concerns about racism and colorism in modern-day Egypt, an Arab country with its own black population.

But in reality, the debates surrounding Cleopatra’s racial identity are historical because they reflect contemporary ideas about race rather than how people were understood in ancient times. Some experts say that they reflect the modern concept of race that came into vogue during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, associate professor of classics at Denison University, told TIME, “Asking whether someone was ‘black’ or ‘white’ is anachronistic and tells more about modern political investment than trying to understand antiquity on its own terms.” Is.”

“If we want to be more historically accurate, we need to understand how ancient people perceived their ethnicity rather than universalizing and de-historicizing our own views,” she adds.

For more on Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and the discussions surrounding her identity, see here.

Who was Cleopatra?

Cleopatra VII The seventh, but most famous, to bear this name was the ruler of Egypt. She was the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty to rule Egypt after 5,000 years of Pharaonic rule; His reign lasted for 21 years before he died by suicide in August 30 BC.

Cleopatra was the second of five children born to King Ptolemy XII and his wife, Cleopatra V. Tryphonia. She learned philosophy, rhetoric and oratory alongside medical studies, and was believed to speak several languages ​​in addition to her native Greek. Cleopatra was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the native Egyptian, now extinct language that was spoken in Coptic descended from, (Egyptian Arabic is the most widely spoken language in Egypt today.)

After the death of her father, Cleopatra succeeded Ptolemy XIII, a younger brother of hers, in 51 BC. But he eventually claimed the so-called dual crown, replacing his brother as sole ruler.

Read more: Women enjoyed immense power in ancient Egypt. what they did with it is a warning for today

What do we know about his ancestry?

The Ptolemaic dynasty descended from Greek Macedonian roots and ruled ancient Egypt during its Hellenistic era, which usually consisted of marriages within the family. Dynasty founded when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 323 BC

subset of Cleopatra’s Bloodline It remains a secret that it belongs to his mother and grandmother. However, many experts say that there is no evidence that the woman was black.

Duane W. Roller, professor emeritus of classics at The Ohio State University, wrote for Oxford University Press blog In 2010, “However, assuming that Cleopatra’s grandmother was not of traditional Macedonian Greek stem, the question arises as to what she was. Sources suggest that if she was not Macedonian, she was probably Egyptian. So Cleopatra’s grandfather -By Grandma’s time, there may have been an Egyptian element.

“She could have been Greek, Macedonian, Egyptian, and Roman at the same time,” says Kennedy. She notes that the gaps on Cleopatra’s family tree leave room for people to misinterpret indigenous Egyptian identity as black.

“The reality is that one could say that the ancient Egyptians were what we would consider ‘Black’ today because they were non-Arab, non-Phoenician, African,” Kennedy says. She notes that references to black-skinned Egyptians do exist in ancient texts, but there is a gender element to this: “Ideologically, women were associated with pale or ‘fair’ skin and men with dark or ‘black’ skin. It is a gender division, not an ethnic or modern bio-racial one.”

Kennedy states that visual representations of Cleopatra that are more closely related to Egyptian rulers have historically been overlooked in favor of her likeness on coinage, which is more closely aligned to standard Greek iconography.

“These objects are meant for different audiences and reflect different aspects of Cleopatra’s identity. We should not separate them, but in our modern search for singular identity, we restrict Cleopatra to the way she lived her life.” Wasn’t banned,” says Kennedy.

Dirty debate on Cleopatra’s ‘caste’

Racial classifications as we recognize them today are largely a product of Western anthropological thought of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly during the European Enlightenment.

book publication sistema natura In 1735 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus classified the human race into four distinct “species”. Race began as a man-made shorthand to classify groups based on continent and skin colour.

Thus, these classifications were created too late to be accurately applicable to ancient civilizations. “There is a tendency in the modern world to fixate on famous figures from the past that represent civilizations,” says Kennedy. She says there will always be groups that want to level Cleopatra and claim, in one way or another, that her legend is in line.

But, says Kennedy, asking whether Cleopatra was black, white, or some other race is the wrong question because “it suggests that these are universal and not historically emergent categories.”

She adds: “It means that instead of learning more about how the ancient world perceived its identity, we continue to have the same conversations decade after decade.”

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write to Armani Syed at [email protected].