Cleopatra show unveils new archaeological treasures

PHILADELPHIA Fri Jun 4, 2010 10:46am EDT

A papyrus document signed by Cleopatra granting tax exemption from sales of imported wine to the Roman businessman Publius Canidius, a friend of Mark Antony, in an image courtesy of the Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung. REUTERS/Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

A papyrus document signed by Cleopatra granting tax exemption from sales of imported wine to the Roman businessman Publius Canidius, a friend of Mark Antony, in an image courtesy of the Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.

Credit: Reuters/Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - In a glass case at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute two fragments of papyrus feature the handwriting of Cleopatra, the last Egyptian pharaoh whose legendary beauty has inspired artists and film makers.

The document with the Greek inscription, "make it happen," refers to a tax break for a friend of her husband Mark Antony. It is one of 150 artifacts in an exhibition featuring the latest discoveries in an intensifying search for her long-lost tomb.

Some of the items in "Cleopatra - the Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" which runs until January, have never been on public display.

"The story of Cleopatra has drama, trauma, sex, murder and war," said John Norman, president of the show designer Arts and Exhibitions International. "What could be better than that?"

The artifacts have been unearthed from the Egyptian town of Taposiris Magna. More recent recoveries are from deep in the Mediterranean Sea from the ancient cities of Heracleion and Canopus, where Cleopatra's palace was destroyed by earthquakes and tidal waves some 2,000 years ago.

Visitors can view two 16-foot-high, red-granite statues of a king and queen from Cleopatra's Ptolomaic dynasty. Nearby, a video shows pieces of the statues being lifted out of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of modern-day Alexandria.

Gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, a sculpted head of the son of Cleopatra and her lover Julius Caesar and slingshot bullets that could have been used by the Roman armies that ended Cleopatra's reign from 69 to 30 B.C. are also on display.

The exhibition tells the story of the woman who wooed two of the most powerful men in the Roman world, who won the loyalty of the Egyptian people by melding their traditional gods with those of her Greek culture, and who became educated in mathematics, medicine and foreign languages.

It also describes her eventual suicide -- an end she chose rather than submit to public humiliation at the hands of the Romans who defeated her.

The exhibition is divided into two parts -- the underwater operation and the excavations at Taposiris Magna, the town 30 miles west of Alexandria where Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is leading the search for Cleopatra's tomb.

Hawass hopes his work will lead to the tomb, which would be "one of the most important archaeological discoveries in history."

Cleopatra's enduring grip on the popular imagination is shown in artistic depictions of her over the centuries, and by Hollywood renditions of her story. Movie clips include Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra in 1963, and Vivien Leigh in the same role in 1945.

Cleopatra is also credited as a model for women's liberation, according to a commentary in the final section of the show.

"The last of the pharaohs emerged as an emancipated modern woman - beautiful, intelligent, accomplished, powerful," it says.

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