Israeli actress Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot has been cast in a new movie to play Queen Cleopatra, so predictably, lots of people who know nothing about history are upset. Former Miss New Jersey, Bernie broad, RT correspondent and an occasional Stalin fangirl, Sameera Khan, got the ball rolling, soon to be followed by an avalanche of standard social media hate:
Most people, particularly the younger generations, have little idea about modern history – the world of their parents and grandparents – so it would be unrealistic to expect them to know much about ancient history in the first century BC, but nevertheless, Professor Google is only a few clicks away and it’s better to read up, even Wikipedia, for a few minutes instead of making a fool out of yourself for a lifetime.
In a nutshell: Cleopatra was not Egyptian.
Cleo was a descendant of a dynasty established in the late 4th century BC by one of Alexander the Great’s generals and “successors”, Ptolemy. Ptolemy was a Macedonian, and Macedonians in turn were the Greeks’ poor northern country cousins. Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt married within their family, so even after a dozen or so generations, Cleopatra, while inbred, was still ethnically Greek (though some historians think there might have been a smidgeon of Persian blood some way back). She was certainly culturally Greek, even if she was the first of her dynasty to learn to speak the language of the people she ruled over.
As for the ancient Egyptians themselves, the modern historical consensus seems to be they were neither black nor white in the modern sense of these terms, but largely related to other peoples of the Near East, though with skin getting darker the more up the Nile you got towards Nubia and other African kingdoms. To what extent they might have looked like modern-day Arabs is an interesting but for the present purposes irrelevant question. Cleopatra simply wasn’t a “woman of colour”.
My personal concern with casting Gadot as Cleopatra is that it perpetuates the Hollywoodification of history where all the male protagonists are handsome and all the female protagonists are beautiful. Granted, movies being largely a fantasy escape from everyday reality, most people don’t go to cinema to look at ugly or average-looking people, but the truth makes for a more interesting story. By all contemporary accounts (and images), Cleopatra was not a particularly attractive woman (more Golda Meir than Gal Gadot), and yet she captivated two of the most powerful men of her times, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She must have had plenty of charisma and personality – though being the ruler of the wealthiest kingdom in the Mediterranean world no doubt played some part in the attraction – and that will likely get lost in the movie.
Below: some of the contemporary or near contemporary depictions of Cleopatra. She was a gal, but not Gal.