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Pharaoh sarcophagus

The hidden tomb of Cleopatra 

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Cleopatra’s dramatic life and death were so intense it verges on fiction, something that was noticed by literary giant William Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) and George Bernard Shaw (Caesar and Cleopatra). Indeed, for hundreds of years, she is influenced numerous creatives: she is regularly referenced in film, plays and opera and, in more recent years, has found new audiences through TV, advertising, and even video games.

And now a recent discovery has revived the hope that we are potentially closer than ever to finding the final resting place of Queen Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh. But who was she, and did Cleopatra herself have a hand in writing her legacy?

Cleopatra's life: An overview

  • Cleopatra VII Philopator was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 69 BC. She was the last Pharaoh to reign over the Ancient Egyptian Empire, which she did from 51 BC until she died in 30 BC.
  • For reasons of protocol, she had to marry her brother Ptolemy XIV after the death of their father Ptolemy XII Auletes. They ruled together for a period, but after he ‘died’, she became the sole Pharaoh of Egypt.
  • The Ptolemies spoke in Greek, but Cleopatra wanted to learn Egyptian so she could directly address her people, with the sole purpose of convincing them she was the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis, despite her Hellenic heritage.
  • Cleopatra had a relationship with Roman ruler Julius Caesar and nine months after they first met, she gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar in 47BC. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cleopatra had an affair with a Roman Politician, Mark Anthony and they had three children together.
  • Mark Anthony was opposed to Caesar's legal heir Gaius Octavius -also known as 'Augustus'- leading the Romans, and Cleopatra supported his opinion. This ultimately led to the Battle of Actium which ended with Mark Antony killing himself after losing against Augustus' army.
  • Because of this, Cleopatra -who allegedly bathed in donkey milk to preserve her beauty- killed herself aged 39 by offering a poisonous snake to her body. Emperor Augustus was now free to declare Egypt a Roman province and the rest, as they say, is history.

What happened to Cleopatra after she died?

It is believed that Emperor Augustus agreed for Cleopatra to be buried alongside her lover, Mark Anthony (and their three children spared and raised as citizens of Rome) which tells us something about how she was perceived, even by her enemies. It is also safe to assume that in accordance with her status as a Pharaoh, Cleopatra and her lover were mummified, a method of preservation that involves drying out the human remains to prevent them from rotting.

This process of desiccation was achieved by the liberal application of a salt-like substance called natron which has excellent hygroscopic properties, and by removing most of the internal organs without damaging the exterior of the cadaver: the brain, for example, was dragged out through the nostrils to prevent disfigurement and a hole was discreetly cut in the side of the body to remove the internal organs, save the heart (which the Egyptians believed was the key to the afterlife) during a period of painstaking embalmment that could take as long as seventy days.

These organs were either placed in canopic jars and buried with the corpse or preserved externally and put back into the body cavity. The body was then wrapped in linen and placed in a tomb with a selection of worldly possessions and sealed.

So, where is Cleopatra’s Tomb?

The location of Cleopatra’s tomb is slightly more contentious. It was initially believed by Egyptologist, and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawass, to be located just outside of ancient Egypt’s capital Alexandria, underneath the Taposiris Magna Temple, better known as the ‘Great Tomb of Osiris’.

In 2019, further evidence to support Hawass’ claim intensified by the discovery of mummies, figurines of Isis and coins bearing the images of Cleopatra and Anthony in the same vicinity by another Egyptologist (and minister counsellor in charge of cultural affairs at the Dominican embassy in Egypt) Dr Kathleen Martínez. However, in a twist to the plot, Hawass reneged on his hypothesis that the tomb is buried under the Great Tomb of Osiris by claiming that Egyptians used temples for worship, not as places of burial.

What is the latest on the location of the Tomb?

In early November 2022, Kathleen Martínez announced the presence of a six feet high tunnel about 43 feet underneath the Great Tomb of Osiris stretching for the best part of a mile, which she hopes is the entrance to Cleopatra’s tomb. But there is also evidence that this may be an aqueduct as the dimensions closely resemble the Tunnel of Eupalinos, a 6th century BC aqueduct located in Samos, Greece. It is also worth noting that a portion of the Temple tunnel is submerged beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, that does not mean to say it does not lead to Cleopatra’s tomb, and the discovery of related, localised objects (as cited above) lends weight to the argument that there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. But there is one small caveat.

Did Cleopatra want her tomb to be found?

Dr Martínez admits that Cleopatra "Outsmarted everyone [and] made sure that her human remains, and Mark Antony's, were hidden from the Romans and their descendants forever". There is no doubting Cleopatra's intelligence; she spoke nine languages, studied politics and mathematics and made allies with some of the most powerful individuals in the ancient world. But she also had a clear idea of how she wanted to be perceived: in life as a beautiful goddess, in death, as immortal and, pertinently, with her remains entombed and hidden forever. She may not be enjoying an Osiris-themed afterlife in the Field of Rushes, but for longer than Jesus Christ she thrived in our collective imaginations. This fascination with her has no signs of abating and, at the time of going to press, her tomb remains safely hidden from view.