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Museum-goers move past the statues of a pharoah and queen. (Courtesy Franklin Institute)

Cleopatra’s reputation as a seducer of emperors—Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus)—and her suicide by snake bite have made her one of the ancient world’s most intriguing characters. Now she is the subject of Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

While Cleopatra’s name is on the marquee, she is largely absent from the show. The exhibition’s highlights are artifacts recovered from the harbor of Alexandria and the submerged cities of Canopus and Heracleius by an expedition led by businessman-turned-archaeologist Franck Goddio. These include a pair of 16-foot-tall statues representing a pharaoh and queen, a head of Caesarion (Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s son), and Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, portrayed as a sphinx. But these identifications are not very convincing and come with qualifiers such as “possibly” or “may be” attached.


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A papyrus document may bear Cleopatra’s handwriting. (Courtesy Franklin Institute)

Additional artifacts come from Taposiris Magna, a temple complex 30 miles west of Alexandria, where Egyptian archaeology chief Zahi Hawass is looking for Cleopatra and Antony’s tomb. He probably won’t find it there; the Roman biographer Plutarch says it was in Alexandria proper. An alabaster head from Taposiris Magna is said to be Cleopatra herself, but it is so badly eroded that it could be anyone.

So where’s Cleo? Neither Goddio nor Hawass has found her. Ironically, the exhibition’s most compelling link to Cleopatra is a papyrus, found between 1903 and 1905, on loan from a Berlin museum and unrelated to anybody’s “search” for her. On it, beneath a text recording tax breaks for one of Antony’s generals, is written, in another hand, the Greek word ginesthoi, or “make it so.” It is at least possible that this single word is Cleopatra’s own handwriting.

While the show is more about the search for Cleopatra than actually finding her, it provides a good introduction to the legendary queen, and the sculptures and papyrus make it well worth a visit. This exhibition is the first ripple in what may be a coming wave of Cleopatra mania. In 2011, Angelina Jolie will play her in a new feature film, filling the cinematic shoes of Claudette Colbert (1934), Vivien Leigh (1945), and Elizabeth Taylor (1963). Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt is at the Franklin Institute until January.

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