Was Cleopatra a Black African Queen?

Egyptian social media rips into Netflix series for the pharaoh’s racial depiction

Was Cleopatra a Black African Queen?
Courtesy Netflix

Egyptian social media went into a state of meltdown earlier this week over a newly released trailer for the new season of the Jada Pinkett Smith-produced Netflix series “African Queens,” reportedly focusing on the life of Queen Cleopatra, which will air in May. The “historical docu-drama” had raised the ire of Egyptians because of both its portrayal of Cleopatra, who was of Greek descent, as a Black African woman, and having a Black female expert in the trailer insisting that “Cleopatra was Black. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.” 

While some are enraged by what they view as a gross historical inaccuracy, the majority of the voices view it as “Afrocentric” propaganda, which asserts the view that the rulers of ancient Egypt were Black and had no connection to modern-day Egyptians, who are in their way of thinking the descendants of racist Arab or Islamic colonizers who have erased Egypt’s true Black identity. For a lot of Egyptians, not only are such views considered historical and cultural appropriation of Egyptian history, they also alienate modern Egyptians from their heritage and history.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of “Afrocentrism,” it is a belief popularized by some African-American leaders, such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, that “African Americans suffer from a stolen legacy of cultural riches, of which white European racists have conspired over the centuries to keep them unaware.” Chief among them, so the theory runs, is the Blackness of Egypt’s pharaohs.

In their view, the lack of historical evidence to support their claims is due to a white conspiracy and thus should be ignored, with Afrocentrist proponents calling until the 1990s for an African-based view of world history. In short, this narrative is a clear reaction to centuries of dehumanizing racist practices and slavery: a rejection of the “uncivilized savages” historical identity projected on Black people by white slavers and an attempt to form a proud historical identity as the descendants of Black African kings “who built the pyramids” and “kick-started civilization.” This included the belief by some that Queen Cleopatra was Black and not of Greek origin.

Such Afrocentrist historical narratives have been debunked by many historians, so seeing a resurgence of those beliefs 30 years later and their adoption by Hollywood as a form of Black empowerment have angered Egyptian nationalists, if social media timelines are to be believed.

For many Egyptians who have taken part in the debate, this is just another attempt by Westerners and their pop culture to deny their link to their ancient ancestors and their accomplishments in order to deprive them of their glorious heritage. First it was the ahistorical claim that Jewish slaves built the pyramids, then it was aliens, and now the series is seen as the latest frustrating and disrespectful attempt by the Afrocentrists to deny Egyptians their history, cast them as historical frauds and destroy their national pride. The Egyptian nationalists’ attributing to malice what could be explained by ignorance was fueled by last year’s rumored casting choices of who should play Cleopatra in a new Hollywood movie, with the two names presented being Zendaya (who is half white and half Nigerian) and Gal Gadot (who is Israeli and Jewish). It’s the kind of Sophie’s choice in casting that would make Egyptian nationalists’ heads explode.

The Egyptian nationalist views, however, are not representative of the views of all Egyptians, with those opposing them pointing out that Egypt is an African country with its own Black population and culture, and accusing the nationalists of being motivated by racism and colorism, both of which are prevalent in Egyptian society. It doesn’t help that the current (and arguably future) state of Egyptian affairs has been so bleak under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and that the one point of national pride Egyptians collectively felt in the past nine years was the Pharaohs Golden Parade in April 2021, a nationally televised high-end production that involved moving 22 mummies from the Museum of Antiquities to the new Grand Egyptian Museum. When you feel your history is the only thing you have going for you at the moment, any attempt at revising it feels like an existential attack.

Meanwhile, Egyptian historians and Egyptologists have grudgingly joined the side of the Egyptian nationalists in this debate, but for a different reason. For years many of those Egyptologists have been attempting to have pharaonic antiquities returned from Western museums, claiming them as part of their national cultural heritage. They fear that the Afrocentric framing of modern-day Egyptians as nothing more than the descendants of Arab invaders can be used as an argument to deny their claims by those Western institutions and excuse their continued theft of Egyptian antiquities. To their credit, not a single self-respecting Egyptologist ventured into the Black Cleopatra debate, because they know that Cleopatra was not even Egyptian, let alone African.

This historical reality is what makes Egypt’s nationalist anger over the Black Cleopatra TV series so intriguing. Cleopatra governed Egypt, yet she was not Egyptian; rather, she was the last descendant of Greek colonizers. So, historical accuracy and accusations of racism/colorism aside, Egyptian nationalists’ protectiveness over the representation of a Greek conquering tyrant is somewhat ironic.

At the risk of sounding reductive, Cleopatra was a foreign occupier who cared only about maintaining her hold on power. She (allegedly) had sex with a brother whom she later killed, brought in Roman forces to secure her throne, murdered her sister for opposing the invasion and had her dead body paraded all over Rome. Furthermore, her claim to historical infamy was partially based on seducing two Roman generals, causing one to be murdered and the other to kill himself. What is there to be proud of here? 

This fight over Cleopatra may be indicative of something deeper: how modern-day Egyptians process the generational trauma of their colonization.

Modern Egypt is peculiar in that it has endured some 2,400 years of nearly uninterrupted colonization. Not only are those years lumped together with the rest of Egyptian history as part of the post-1952 military coup nationalist narrative proclaiming 7,000 years of civilization, but none of those occupiers seem to trigger the appropriate feelings of hostility they deserve. If anything, modern-day Egyptians seem to have developed a collective Stockholm syndrome-esque sense of affinity toward the foreigners who occupied and ruled us, both as rulers and as nations.

This affinity shows its face in the many Egyptian proponents of both the pan-Islamist and pan-Arabist identity movements, in Egyptian upper and middle-class pride in white ancestry (whether Ottoman or Western European in origin), and even in the outpouring of social media mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the same monarch whose army four years into her reign waged war on Egypt during the Suez crisis. It may seem baffling that the subjects of brutal colonization may develop such feelings for their colonizers, but after 2,400 years of multiple uninterrupted colonization, what is national identity?

Of course, not all colonizers are viewed with equal reverence. Napoleon, for instance, couldn’t hack it. He commands little respect or affinity, having fled the country after just three years of attempting to occupy it. Nonetheless, the French campaign’s cultural colonization of Egyptian intellectuals remains highly influential to this day, with many Egyptians proudly identifying as Francophiles.

The French are not unique in this. The Turkish Ottoman occupation’s end is regretted by Islamists as the time of the last caliphate. Soviet influence over Nasser’s regime in the 1960s? A time of power and unity with a “sister country” that many hope would return. The British are not particularly maligned despite decades of colonization. This phenomenon is not particularly unique to Egypt, and shades of it may be found in other nations that endured colonization in the Global South, the focus of those complicated emotions is usually the last occupying power. Egypt is unique in claiming the legacy of all its colonizers.

This is what makes the rise of anti-American sentiment among the Egyptian population during the Hosni Mubarak years so fascinating. For decades, and to this day, many Egyptians viewed the United States as the ultimate example of imperial power, a view that preceded the Iraq war by decades. This is rather puzzling since the Americans never occupied Egypt. I suspect that if we can figure out this puzzle, we might just begin to understand why Egyptians care so much about a Greek occupier being portrayed as Black.

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