Whose Queen? Netflix and Egypt spar over an African Cleopatra

The show is dragging an ancient queen into the middle of contemporary Western debates in which she has no real place, they argue.

“How can someone who’s not even from my country claim my heritage just because of their skin colour?” said Ms Yasmin El Shazly, an Egyptologist and the deputy director for research and programmes at the American Research Center in Egypt.

Ancient Egypt and its wonders have long been a trophy in Western culture wars.

In 1987, Martin Bernal’s book “Black Athena” argued that European historians had erased Egyptian contributions to ancient Greek culture.

Although many scholars agree that much of the evidence it cited was flawed at best, the book became one of the canonical texts of Afrocentrism, a cultural and political movement that, among other things, seeks to counter ingrained ideas about the supposed inferiority of African civilisations.

According to some Afrocentrists, ancient Egypt was the Black African civilisation that birthed not only African history and culture but also world civilisation until Europeans plundered its technologies, ideas and culture.

The pyramids and the pharaohs became sources of pride for these Afrocentrists – and Cleopatra, for all her Greek blood, a potential hero of the movement.

“Cleopatra reacted to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation as a Black woman would,” according to Hamilton College classicist Shelley Haley, a professor of Africana and an expert on Cleopatra who consulted on the Netflix show. She argued that Cleopatra’s potentially mixed background made her a person of colour: “Hence we embrace her as sister.”

This kind of thinking frustrates many Egyptians, historians and Egyptologists. Egyptians, too, are fiercely proud of the pyramids and the pharaohs, even if they are two millenniums removed, and they would like Afrocentrists who hold such views to back off.

Some historians say the modern fixation on whether Cleopatra looked more like Ms Taylor or Ms James would have felt alien to the ancients.

In Cleopatra’s time, Alexandria, the capital of her kingdom, was a cosmopolitan port city bustling with Greeks, Jews, ethnic Egyptians and people from all over who, Cambridge University historian David Abulafia said, largely saw themselves as part of the Hellenistic world. They identified by culture and religion, he said, not by skin colour.

“Race is a modern construct of identity politics that’s been imposed on our past,” said Ms Monica Hanna, an Egyptian Egyptologist. “This use and abuse of the past for modern agendas will just hurt everyone, because it’ll give a distorted image of the past.”

Seizing the chance to whip up Egyptian pride, government-owned media dedicated airtime on three different evening talk shows recently to slamming “African Queens”.

The same day, a government-owned media conglomerate announced that it would produce its own Cleopatra documentary. Its film, it pointedly noted, would be based on the “utmost levels” of research and accuracy. NYTIMES

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