Nortina’s Egyptian Travel Diaries (#AtoZChallenge): “Q” is for Queen Cleopadrat

Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Lover of Julius Ceaser and Mark Antony. Powerful ruler and strategist. One of the most infamous queens of the Nile and one Hollywood has a particularly creepy obsession with, as there’s a movie or series made about her every generation, and it always stirs up controversy…

We actually didn’t learn much about Cleopatra on our trip. Our tour guides had a wealth of knowledge regarding the histories of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt and only occasionally mentioned the Greco-Roman period, particularly the influence in the architecture of the later temples we visited: Kom Ombo, Philae, and the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

Columns inside the Temple of Horus at Edfu

Something new I learned about Cleopatra is that she wasn’t the only “Queen Cleopatra” of Egypt. She was actually the seventh. In fact, all the queens of the Ptolemaic Dynasty were named either Cleopatra, Arsinoë, or Berenice.

I did bring a piece of Cleopatra back home with me (figuratively of course). At the Philae Essence Palace in Aswan, one of the many essences Mom and I purchased there was called Milk of Queen Cleopatra. And no, it’s not actual perfumed milk (though apparently, Cleopatra used to bathe in that). It’s more of a cream-based oil that’s supposed to be good for clearing freckles, blemishes, dark spots, and dark circles around the eyes. It’s considered to be the best oil to make your skin soft and smooth.

I actually don’t see my freckles as blemishes. I adore them, I embrace them, and I never want to lose them. These acne scars, on the other hand, can go, so I definitely will be slathering my face with “milk.”

At the Temple of Philae, we also saw a column bearing Cleopatra’s name inside a cartouche, which lead to another new fact we learned about Cleopatra. According to the hieroglyphs, that’s actually not how you spell her name.

When you translate the hieroglyphs to their corresponding letters in the alphabet, what you get is “Cleopadrat.” Now, I won’t say that this was what Ancient Egyptians called her (though we English-speaking folks are known for renaming people whose names we can’t pronounce), but I will say that I listened closely to how the sales agent and the essence store in Aswan pronounced her name as he described the benefits of the milk. He said Cleopadrat.

So, that’s what I will be calling her from now on!

I asked AI to create for me an image of “Cleopatra.” This was one of the results.

Since we’re on the subject, I suppose I should address the elephant in the room…

Dear Black people, it’s time we accept this hard truth, because there is way too much factual historical evidence out there for us to still be harping on this subject…

Cleopadrat was NOT Black!

Yes, I’m referring to the upcoming Netflix docuseries that has a Black actress portraying the queen. People are not happy about this, especially Egyptians and Greeks, and they are accusing Netflix and Jada Pinkett Smith, who is the executive producer of the series, of blackwashing history.

The same way we accuse Hollywood of whitewashing it. I admit, it does look pretty hypocritical.

I think a lot of people (at least in America) assume Cleopadrat was Black because of her proximity to Africa. And because Black people have historically been disenfranchised—we were stripped of our land, our culture, and our language in slavery and have been gaslit for years by Eurocentric accounts of history—we are constantly searching for our roots, anything that can connect us back to Africa. So of course we would want a powerful African ruler we can claim as our own, someone for whom we can say, “You can’t steal this away from us!”

But Cleopadrat ain’t it, y’all.

She wasn’t even ethnically Egyptian. The Ptolemies were Macedonian Greek. Ptolemy I Soter, the first pharaoh of this dynasty, was actually one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The last native Egyptian dynasty to rule Egypt was the 30th Dynasty, ending with the overthrow of Nectanebo II in 343 BC, three centuries before Cleopadrat came to power. Additionally, like the dynasties before them, the Ptolemies practiced inbreeding to keep their familial line pure. So not only was Cleopadrat white, she was whiter than white. She was lily-white.

She might have been born in Egypt. She might have even embraced Egyptian language and culture. But she was not a native Egyptian. She was the Rachel Dolezal of Ancient Egypt.

So what does this mean for the Netflix series? Well, you could make the argument of inclusivity as to why a Black actress should still be allowed to play her. If it was anything like the Broadway production Hamilton—which didn’t necessarily purport that Alexander Hamilton was non-White, just that he was an immigrant, so why not present the story of the founding of America using the descendants of the immigrants who truly built this country—it could work. We have seen diverse casts for roles that have historically gone to White actors, such as Whitney Houston and Brandy’s Cinderella or Shonda Rhimes’ short-lived Romeo and Juliet drama, Still Star-Crossed, and then, of course, there’s Bridgerton. So there’s a way to do it without it feeling like tokenism (such as the Anne Boleyn series from 2021) or a personal/political agenda to rewrite history, which was the vibe I got from the trailer for Netflix’s Cleopadrat series.

She wasn’t Black. And it’s pointless to continue with this argument that she was. Especially, when there were great native queens of Egypt who we could easily make a movie about instead.

Hatshepsut – My personal favorite, she was the woman pharaoh who had herself illustrated as a man to legitimize her rule. She was a prolific builder and oversaw the large-scale construction of such temple complexes as Karnak and her mortuary temple in the Valley of the Kings. She also built the tallest obelisks in the world at the time, which were positioned at the entrance of Karnak. 

The Unfinished Head of Nefertiti

Nefertiti – Her bust is the most replicated image from Ancient Egypt. She’s synonymous with Ancient Egyptian imagery. You can’t walk into an Egyptian souvenir shop without seeing her likeness! She was possibly the mother or stepmother of King Tut, and she was queen to (and possible co-ruler with) the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten. Did she agree with her husband’s religious beliefs or did she secretly conspire against him? Or was she the one to convert him? Like Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Let’s see a movie about her!

Nefertari – The favorite out of 200 wives of Rameses the Great. How did she rise to that status? Was it her looks? Her intellect? Did she influence the pharaoh in any of his policies? How was her relationship with his other wives and children? Was she conniving? Vindictive? Were there a lot of plays for power in the Ramesside court? Did the other consorts plot against her to gain power and influence over the king? This could be quite an interesting love…polygon.

Cleopadrat is so overdone, and to be honest, I’m bored with her. I would much rather see a film or series about these queens.

Now, were any of them definitively Black? Well, I think we’ve really got to stop looking at Ancient Egypt through the scope of modern-day race. Race was a construct created by White European explorers looking to exert their superiority over the lands and people they were conquering. But in Ancient Egypt, having dark skin was viewed as a good thing. Their most widely worshipped god up until the rise of Christianity was Osiris, and he had dark skin, which represented fertility and rebirth. The King Mentuhotep Nebheptre (11th Dynasty) had a statue constructed of himself with painted black skin, fashioned after Osiris. There were also Nubian pharaohs of Egypt, and Nubians are characterized as having darker skin complexion.

Mentuhotep Nebheptre at the Egyptian Museum

Personally, I feel the Ancient Egyptians likely resembled how Egyptians look today: a range of skin complexions from light, sandy brown to deep ebony. And that’s really all we need to know, because White or Black, their history is still fascinating.

I asked AI to create for me a “Black queen of Egypt.” Here’s one of the better results.


“A” is for Arrival
“B” is for Buyer’s Remorse
“C” is for Cruisin’ the River Nile
“D” is for Delays, Delays, Delays
“E” is for Empty Tombs
“F” is for Fragrance
“G” is for Great Pyramid of Giza
“H” is for Hatshepsut
“I” is for Island Temple of Philae
“J” is for Just Engaged!
“K” is for Kom Ombo
“L” is for Luxor
“M” is for Museums and Mummies
“N” is for Nefertari
“O” is for Osiris, Set, and Horus: Gods of Egypt
“P” is for Pizza Hut Fail

This April for the A to Z Challenge, I’m sharing my experience of traveling to Egypt last month. These posts likely won’t be in chronological order, depending on what memory each letter strikes up, but if you’d like to follow me on this journey, subscribe below.

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