Cleopatra was Egyptian — whether Black or brown matters less

The controversy over the queen’s skin colour in Netflix’s docudrama takes away from her powerful legacy.

The head of a statue depicting Cleopatra (69bc- 30bc), the last active pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, is displayed as part of the exhibition entitled "the myth of Cleopatra" on April 9, 2014 at the Pinacotheque in Paris. AFP PHOTO / ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP)
The head of a statue depicting Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt, is displayed as part of an exhibition entitled 'the myth of Cleopatra' on April 9, 2014 at the Pinacotheque in Paris [Eric Feferberg/AFP]

It’s just a two-minute clip. But the intense reactions to the trailer of Netflix’s upcoming Queen Cleopatra docudrama speak volumes about both Cleopatra’s enduring legacy and the strength of identity politics.

The trailer was met with immediate accusations of falsifying history. Social media hashtags and online petitions were followed by an Egyptian lawyer filing a complaint with the public prosecutor against Netflix, which for its part reportedly closed comments on the clip’s YouTube page.

Mine is the only Egyptian voice on the programme. My multigenerational Alexandrian background, on both sides, is key to my passion for Cleopatra. As an historian, I have spent endless days studying and contemplating the queen, not least when completing my book, Alexandria: The City that Changed the World.

Some things about Cleopatra are simply fact. That she was of Macedonian-Greek background is beyond doubt. That the Ptolemies intermarried and largely kept their bloodline Hellenic cannot be denied. That almost all of her ancestors would have been fair-skinned is also true.

But the largely binary racial terms being used today are anachronistic and can hardly be applied to Cleopatra’s context. With the exception of Jews, ethnicities weren’t really recorded in early Egyptian history. In Alexandria especially, there was no normative race: genetic makeup was varied as people from across the region, from Europeans to Nubians, lived and married on its lands.

To claim that Egypt had no dark-skinned people in it, or that the origins of Egyptian civilisations were fundamentally sub-Saharan African, are essentially both forms of erasure.

There are also some things about which we cannot be sure. We do not know for certain the identity of Cleopatra’s mother and the queen’s grandmothers on both sides. In fact, Alexandrians at the time referred to her father as “Nothos”, or “the Bastard”. All of this is important because the Ptolemies, including Cleopatra’s grandfather and father, were well known to have Egyptian partners and mistresses. There is a chance, therefore, that several of Cleopatra’s ancestors could have been Egyptian.

It is this enigmatic nature of Cleopatra’s grandmothers and her mother that suggests that Cleopatra may have had mixed heritage, which would have tanned her skin complexion. And as curly hair is a dominant gene, an Egyptian ancestor may have changed the Ptolemaic line in that way, too.

As I detail in my book, DNA samples recovered in Egypt from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period reveal that Egyptians had predominantly southern European and Near Eastern ancestry; sub-Saharan African ancestry didn’t exceed 15 percent in the ancient times and doesn’t exceed 21 percent in Egypt today. So it’s safe to say that even with some Egyptian heritage, in today’s terms she wouldn’t have been Black but biracial.

That the Library of Alexandria was destroyed and so much of the ancient city is underwater or underground means that limited material evidence exists. This lack of physical evidence of her life adds to the vacuum that has been filled through myth and speculation.

We do know that Cleopatra, the last pharaoh, was born in Alexandria where her family had been ruling for three centuries. It is an embodiment of Greek-Egyptian hybridity that allowed Cleopatra to become a powerful uniting figure: her mix of Greek and Egyptian attire, her proficiency in the Egyptian language, and her position as the incarnation of the goddess Isis.

But to the Romans, she was a foreigner at the heart of their civil war and biased Roman sources had to present a worthy enemy to justify how a woman was able to wield influence over two of their most prominent men — Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Over the centuries, Cleopatra has served as a conduit for people throughout history – and today is no different. Visual art tells us as much. During the Middle Ages, she was represented as blonde; during the neoclassical craze, stereotypically Hellenic; during colonialism, she lays passively in need of a European to save or conquer her; during slavery, she is a servant being examined by Julius Caesar.

It is no surprise that this continues through today as she is portrayed during a moment when systemic racism is being called out like never before.

Even my own perception might be influenced by my Egyptian roots. But that perception has also pushed me to empower Cleopatra by offering a different narrative to the one popularised in Shakespeare and Hollywood. A few years ago, I presented a BBC television documentary in which I attempted to understand her true nature.

The rationale was that Cleopatra has for too long been exoticised and sexualised and that this is a far cry from the queen I learned about as an Egyptian child: to me, as in many ancient sources, she was always a powerful, educated and dynamic woman.

I also curated an exhibition at Shakespeare’s birthplace showing how she has been presented in English literary archives in comparison to Egyptian perspectives. In both of these cases, reclaiming Cleopatra as an Egyptian queen was at the forefront of my mind. But her skin colour wasn’t.

When Netflix asked me to contribute, I was eager to provide an Egyptian voice on the show – and as it turns out, the only one. Contributors were approached before the actors were confirmed, details about actors were for a large period under embargo, and contributors were not informed about the other guests. My interview was completed after the acting was filmed, so the drama couldn’t fully utilise my views to inform its artistic project. I recall describing her barge as something of a superyacht with its colours and musicians and dancers on board but being told that this explanation couldn’t be included because that scene had already been filmed with a more modest boat.

Queen Cleopatra is a docudrama, not a fully-fledged documentary. Though they are interspersed, we must separate the drama from the documentary side. Unless we are expecting every detail to be entirely accurate in the acted segments, how can we treat those parts as anything but drama?

Cleopatra may indeed have had mixed heritage, but whether or not that was the case, the fact that she is portrayed by a biracial actor is a casting choice that shouldn’t distress us in this day and age. In the past, Cleopatra has been portrayed by white actors (not to mention by boy actors in Shakespeare’s time), and the end product remained successful.

Am I disappointed that the casting has since been politicised by the director (with whom I’ve never spoken)? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. Besides, what right does she have to tell Egyptians how to view themselves?

As for the documentary segments, which form less than half of the programme, I expect these to present different, and I hope intellectual, perspectives and interpretations. These include mine on the importance of recognising Cleopatra’s Egyptian-ness.

Obsessing over how a powerful woman looked is ironically reductionist and objectifying in itself, so the documentary part should shed light on her entire, fascinating life, not just how she may have looked.

Nonetheless, the trailer shows me saying that I imagine Cleopatra to have curly hair and a similar skin complexion to mine. It’s not too dissimilar to how Christians around the world present the historical figure of Jesus diversely. And in the fuller context, I say that the enigmatic natures of her ancestry and legacy – both of which I have detailed in my history of Alexandria – have long encouraged people to visualise her in different ways.

Like art, history is nuanced; it has the capacity to inspire and enrage. And the past is a mirror into our present. The heightened responses to this two-minute trailer say more about the historical moment in which we live. Here, we see how engaging with history has helped us learn about ourselves and what matters to us.

Scholarly enquiry, though, is based on weighing up the available evidence, and that shouldn’t be something controversial. Even Cleopatra’s foremost European biographer, Egyptology professor Joyce Tyldesley, writes that Cleopatra “possibly had some Egyptian genes” and that she is “most likely to have had dark hair and an olive or light brown complexion”.

So maybe what I imagine, as I say in the trailer, isn’t that far off – though of course, we will never know.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.