Saturday, August 27, 2005

Unmasking Cleopatra

Cleopatra has many faces, as diversified as all the artists who have represented her.

Over the last twenty years as Afrocentrism has attempted to establish a justified "black pride" in African linage, one of the predominent arguements is that "Egypt (or Kemet) is in Africa. Therefore, these African kings and queens have to have been black." Perhaps studies like the Genographic Project will do a better, more impartial answering of the question testing living and ancient DNA.

At present, however, are some interesting arguments regarding the question. Egyptologist Frank Yurco addressed the issue in a series of articles in the Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept-Oct 1989), starting with a lead article, "Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?" The focus of his article was around the bust of Nefertiti currently in Berlin. Yurco says in his article:

Was Nefertiti "black" or "white"?

The ancient Egyptians did not think in those terms.

The whole matter of black or white Egyptians is a chimera, cultural baggage from our own society that can only be imposed artificially on ancient Egyptian society. The ancient Egyptians, like their modern descendants, were of varying complexions of color, from the light Mediterranean type (like Nefertiti), to the light brown of Middle Egypt, to the darker brown of Upper Egypt, to the darkest shade around Aswan and the First Cataract region, where even today, the population shifts to Nubian. ...(24)

... From all the evidence extant, the Egyptians were not race conscious. Even enemies who fought them were conscripted into the army and thereby integrated into Egyptian society, regardless of their ethnic background. In utilizing Egyptian reliefs and painting to assess ethnicity and racial characteristics, a cautionary note is in order. In the Old Kingdom period (c. 2755-2230 B.C.E.), artistic canons governed the color for people shown in statuary, relief work and painting. Reddish brown was used for men, yellowish white for women.

... By the Middle Kingdom, and certainly in the New Kingdom, the color strictures of this artistic canon partly gave way. Often in these periods, people were depicted with their actual skin color, men and women (29) alike, and with distinctive facial features. (58) In their ability to ignore race and absorb foreigners, ancient Egyptians outshine our own achievements and should serve as our model. They also surpassed us in providing legal and social equality for women, guaranteed by "the Law of Pharaoh." How then can we be so presumptuous as to assign our primitive racial labels onto so wonderful a culture. (58)

Richard Poe in "Should Conservatives Believe in Black Egyptians?" cites a personal experience of Yurco and his Grenadian wife, who was accepted as full African by her looks, in spite of her actual African, Scottish, and English ancestry.

Yurco, in a response to a reader's statements in BAR (Mar/Apr 1990), finally says:

Let me close with a remark shared with me by scholarly associates about the ancient Egyptians' ethnicity. If someone like Amenhotep III or Tutankhamun or Senwosret II had entered an American café in the South in the 1940's-'50s, they
would have been refused service on racial grounds. Thus the social problem belongs with American, and not with the Egyptians. As I have stated in my initial article and in all subsequent comments, the pharonic Egyptians were Africans. And now, one may add the growing evidence of blood group studies that have been done on the modern Egyptian populations and are being done on mummies.

But where does that leave us with Cleopatra? Cecil Adams gives a pretty good explanation of the argument in his The Straight Dope: Was Cleopatra Black? (10 Nov 1999):

[Mary] Lefkowitz [author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996)] begins by noting that, until recently, it never even occurred to anybody to ask this question. The information we have identifies her as a Macedonian Greek. Her ancestors were Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander's generals. Cleopatra was a name traditionally given to women in the royal family, so, as you indicated, there
were in fact previous Cleopatras. The one in question here was Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII and his sister (ewww). Sticking with the tradition of keeping it in the family, she married two of her own brothers in succession (the first "died in suspicious circumstances, [and] she had the second murdered," which is definitely taking sibling rivalry to extremes). . . .

Lefkowitz does note that there is a slight possibility that Cleopatra might not have been a full-blooded Macedonian Greek, because we don't know the precise identity of her father's mother. Apparently, grandma was not the wife of gramps, but his mistress (maybe he wanted to taste the forbidden fruit of somebody outside his immediate family, like a cousin). The assumption has always been that grandma was another Macedonian Greek, because the Ptolemies were a bit xenophobic, and somebody would likely have written about a foreigner being that close to gramps (examples of such writings exist when it happened with others).

Lefkowitz notes that most writers who have raised the question at hand here haven't been ancient historians. She says the first American writer to suggest that Cleopatra had a black ancestor was J.A. Rogers, in World's Great Men of Color. Unfortunately, Rogers somewhat muddled Cleopatra's family history, claiming her father was Ptolemy XIII (nope, Ptolemy XII) and her grandfather was Ptolemy XI (nope, Ptolemy IX). Then he claimed that Ptolemy XIII (who was actually Cleopatra's brother and husband and cousin and, oh, you get the idea) showed pronounced Negro traits--although this claim doesn't seem to have any actual support.

Some of the evidence used to support the claim of Cleopatra's alleged African roots come from, of all places, Shakespeare. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare called her "tawny." Rogers and other supporters claim this was a 17th-century way to
describe mulattoes, and since Shakespeare obviously thought of her that way, she must have been.

The evidence of busts and reliefs from the Cleopatra's time period, don't seem to support the "black" image.

So is it this?

Or is it this?

Perhaps the final answer to the above depends upon the race of the viewer, each side claiming the other is either "Afrocentric" or "Eurocentric."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you also have to take into account that Cleopatra is of a Macedonian (Greek) her skin colour could be neither "black" or "white" but actually havev an olive complexion...