Visual Arts

Cleopatra exhibit in Cincinnati certainly is fit for a queen

A statue of Cleopatra stands near the start of the exhibit, which opens Friday and runs through Sept. 5.
A statue of Cleopatra stands near the start of the exhibit, which opens Friday and runs through Sept. 5.

CINCINNATI — Cleopatra would be so very pleased. That she, who loved this much drama and show, this much ado made about her — well, the legendary queen of ancient Egypt would have known how to respond.

First, she would have donned the finest gold earrings of the era — they're here — and she would have dipped her regal hand into the jar that held perfume — ditto — and she would have held her royal head high and walked past those two sphinxes that guarded her palace — one sphinx is on hand — and made the appearance for which so many had waited hours.

You can almost sense that she is around the next corner.

She is that close at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, an exhibit that will visit only five U.S. cities, debuts Friday and runs through Sept. 5.

It's a surprisingly fresh and intimate look at a hidden world that existed until the Romans, who hated Cleopatra, defiled it and before the earthquakes and tidal waves moved it — a world hidden by 10 to 50 feet of water in a coastal port for 2,000 years.

Billed as "the search for clues to tell her story," the exhibition is a showcase of 150 artifacts unearthed in that search. What is revealed is not so much the mystery of her life — that is the work of biographers — but the glorious, tangible, real, honest-to- goodness, she-was-here stuff of it.

One stenciled wall says it all: "I feel privileged to be able to touch the pavement on which Cleopatra once walked." Those are the words of French archaeologist Franck Goddio. He is the director of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, and in 1992, he began looking for the most famous woman on earth — who also happened to be the last queen and last pharaoh to rule Egypt — in all the right places.

For 14 years of that time, he has been underwater, mapping the port of Alexandria and outward toward the Bay of Aboukir, establishing exactly where Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) lived, worshipped and ultimately died.

The exhibit journeys through her life — with initial breathtaking effects that take the visitor, with the help of watery lighting and a glass see-through walkover — and Goddios' own experience of finding artifacts on the sandy inlet floor. The free audio tour that accompanies the exhibit is from the perspective of Cleopatra VII herself. It is nice that she gets to tell it, especially since her love for two of Rome's most powerful men, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, gave her four children and infinite power and complications.

Goddio, whose underwater work is shown in video throughout the exhibit, has found helmets, bullets, coins, jewelry, pottery, statues and perhaps the world's first astrological chart in the ancient port.

Goddio certainly hasn't found everything Cleopatra-related yet, but he has found plenty. Under layers and layers of sediment, he has revealed two ancient cities that she frequented: Canopus, a cross between the Vatican and Las Vegas, and Heracleion, where two 16-foot, 4-inch, 11,000-pound granite statues of Ptolemaic rulers bear witness to Egypt's greatness from 300 B.C. to the second century A.D. He also found the original port of Alexandria, and from there, he found a statue of Cleopatra's father and a mask of Caesarion, her son with Julius Caesar.

The highlight of the exhibit is, perhaps, an original papyrus document that experts think is in Cleopatra's own handwriting. Part of the inscription reads, in translation: "Make it done."

A small video presentation as the visitor exits explains how Zahi Hawass, Egypt's minister of state for antiquities affairs, is zeroing in on what he and others think are the graves of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. All the signs — coins, statues, shafts — have them excited about what would be one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

As a final treat, there's a little Liz Taylor on the way to the museum shop. It's not unwelcome or out of place.

The exhibition is organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International, with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. So not only is the work of the exhibit tantalizingly told, but it has the great virtue of pre- eminent scholarship. Yet it seems to understand that Cleopatra's enduring cultural hold does not come at the expense of her immense historical power.

The last queen of Egypt gets the last laugh.