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The Artful Traveler: Who Was the Real Cleopatra?

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By Bobbie Leigh

In the final gallery of  the Franklin Institute's  new show, "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt," we get the Liz Taylor and Claudette Colbert popular imagination version of Cleopatra.  More fiction than fact,  Hollywood  portrayed her as cunning sex kitten who seduced two of the most  powerful  Romans of  her time. But in all the preceding galleries of  Franklin Institute's show, you get a much more fleshed out  view of the Hellenistic queen (69-30 BC), Egypt's last pharaoh.  With artifacts and film, the other galleries create a context for some understanding of how and where Cleopatra lived  and new insight into how she died.


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The exhibition begins with a short dramatic film, followed by an audio tour narrated in first person by  an actress portraying Cleopatra who emerges as a  complex, ambitious diplomat, not just  the scheming, wiley young queen we see  mythologized in film. For a start, she was of Greek descent, was an accomplished linguist who spoke several languages and for a woman of a royal household was amazingly well educated when she came to the throne in 51  BC. She was also an  astute  politician who  navigated alliances with  Rome through her union with Julius Caesar and after Caesar's death with Marcus Antonius.  Some say she died of a broken heart after  he  committed suicide, but in this exhibition  it is suggested that the  snake bite that supposedly killed her might  have been an invention of the  Romans  as they went to great extremes to destroy her images and her reputation. A more likely explanation for her suicide  is that she took her own life to prevent the  humiliation of being paraded around Rome  as a war  trophy after her   and Antonius' crushing defeat at the Battle of Actium.  Her tomb has never been found, but  the exhibition documents Egyptian archaeologists' search for it at a Ptolemaic temple about 30 miles west of  Alexandria,

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After her death, earthquakes and tidal waves destroyed  her capital, Alexandria. Now, after some ten years of research  led by  French marine archaeologist  Franck Goddio and his team, we can  actually see in underwater  videos the murky images of her royal quarters submerged for centuries beneath the sea.  The videos of Goddio and his team of red-suited marine archaeologists make this show come alive.  We see them  in  under-water-videos  examining their discoveries amid silt and clay  and in some cases preparing them to be lifted out of the water, surfacing after nearly 2000 years.  The team's discoveries  of jewelry, coins, gold objects, household goods, and colossal statues once buried off the coast of the modern city of Alexandria and in the Bay of Aboukir  range from about the 7th century BC to the 8th  century. The two other ancient  cities investigated by the Goddio team are Heracleion and Canopus,   which like Alexandria, disappeared into the sea  as a result of natural disasters.

Perhaps the most stunning artifacts discovered by the team are two 16-foot tall colossal figures of a Ptolemaic king and queen from the Temple of Amon at Heracleion.  Another is a massive stone head of  Caesarion, said to be Cleopatra's first child and Caesar's son although never officially acknowledged  by him. Another favorite is an original papyrus document from Cleopatra's time with an inscription signed  in Greek by the ruler with the words "make it happen."

Keep in mind that this show is a production of Arts  and Exhibitions International.  Like the company's King Tut show  in New York, it is intended for a broad audience of all ages  with a glossy presentation that at times feels over-hyped and overproduced. 

On view through January 2, 2011, tickets are timed, dated, and range from $11-$29.50. Details at www.fi.edu and www.searchforcleopatra.com; 877-TFI-TIXS.   For information about hotel packages and travel, visit Philadelphia.

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