No Netflix production has ever stirred up such controversy in Egypt as the TV drama Queen Cleopatra, which is set to premiere on May 10. Depicting the famous monarch as a black woman, the series, part of the so-called Afrocentric movement, seeks to purge Egypt’s pharaonic history of its mixed heritage and transform it into something purely African.
As one of the experts featured in the docudrama claims: “Cleopatra, contrary to popular belief, was black.”
In doing so, the docudrama contradicts historical facts, as Cleopatra was of Greek descent. As a result, many Egyptians perceive the series as a falsification of history and an attempt to disseminate an alternative view on the pharaonic civilization.
Even before being aired the series created a furor in Egypt. On Twitter, Egyptians concerned with the American Afrocentric movement did not hold back. Parties and festivals scheduled to take place in temples were canceled when it became clear they hosted people promoting Afrocentric ideas.
Who Owns the Pharaohs?
A centuries-old dispute regarding the question to whom the ancient Egyptian civilization belongs was reignited in recent years by the attempt to separate contemporary and ancient Egyptians. The aim was mostly to turn pharaonic Egypt, its sciences and heritage, into a reference of western culture, due to its interaction with Greek culture.
The debate changed course after many African countries liberated themselves from colonial rule. They aimed to retake their history and heritage, which was violated, looted, and often ended up being displayed in European museums. Consequently, it appeared that African countries, especially West and Central African countries, had no history or monuments to speak of.
As a result, there has been a profound desire among many Africans to retrace their origins and history in order to create a common banner or foundation stone. Researchers and intellectuals introduced theories on “African centrality,” including ancient Egypt, which was the beginning of what is today known as Afrocentrism.
This theory became particularly popular among African Americans. Their history of slavery and oppression prevented them, unlike European immigrants, from creating an intellectual and historical legacy. In response to “Eurocentrism,” Afrocentrism gained appeal among black communities looking for a historical backdrop to rediscover their identity.
Beyoncé and Black Panther
This coincided with the emergence of so-called “black capital,” which refers to the rise of African-Americans in US society who possess sufficient wealth to produce their “own culture.”
This was for example the case with the superhero movie Black Panther, which painted a very flashy, imaginary representation of an African country that had not (yet) been “polluted” by the world.
Something similar could be seen in the movie Black is King, which was produced by pop diva Beyoncé, who thus presented her very own vision of Africa.
Throughout this period of fierce intellectual debate, Egyptians were not really part of it. Studies at American and European universities mainly revolved around the ancient pharaohs’ genetic code.
Egypt did not take a major academic step in linking contemporary Egyptians with ancient Egyptians, through customs, traditions, genetics, and cultural heritage. They generally lacked awareness of the challenge facing them.
Since the mid-20th century, the Egyptian narrative has somehow moved away from Egypt itself. The country’s history and origins moved to other countries, which culminated in (black) Queen Cleopatra, which in a way is but the latest chapter in Hollywood’s ongoing infatuation with the pharaonic civilization.
The Mummy franchise is arguably the best example of the exotic love affair with pharaonic Egypt. More recently there was Mohamed Diab’s series Moon Knight, which attempted to include Egypt, although in a very entertaining, superhero kind of way, nothing historical.
Not Black and White
Ordinary Egyptians are not really concerned with the pharaonic legacy and underlying scientific theories. All they know is that they are descendants of kings. Even as their living conditions continue to worsen, they boast about the splendor of their ancestors.
Meanwhile, in their minds, “a black skin is the color of slaves.” Such notions are in line with the racist remarks directed towards Adele James, who plays the role of Queen Cleopatra, on Twitter. This for example includes the vile: “Cleopatra was not a slave.”
Egyptian reactions, whether in official media or on social platforms, have generally displayed a wounded and often racist chauvinism, which disapproves of Cleopatra being described as “black.”
The outrage has not been so much about falsifying history as it was about “diminishing” Egyptians by showing them and their queen as black. Perhaps, if Cleopatra had been shown as Latin or European beauty, who likewise does not resemble today’s Egyptians, they would not have been as angry.
With time, racism has taken on a rather grotesque form. The Egyptians’ limited knowledge of history has prevented a swath of people from knowing that several pharaohs were in fact black.
Among those who ruled Egypt was the 25th dynasty, also known as the Nubian dynasty. Its kings hailed from northern Sudan and were black. They were an African dynasty ruling pharaonic Egypt, blending customs of ancient Egyptian customs with those of the Kingdom of Kush where they came from.
During their 59-year reign, many differences between Egyptians and Kushites disappeared, and their lineages and civilizations merged to a large extent. This period of Egyptian history is one of the key pillars Afrocentrists rely on to claim the pharaonic civilization.
Research shows that 8% of the DNA of contemporary and ancient Egyptians is in fact shared with people from Central Africa. However, the same research shows that Egyptians are more closely related to the people of the Near East, most notably the Levant – much more so than to people in Sub Saharan Africa.
Egypt was never a “white” nation. Skin color ranged from a wheatish complexion to black. The current crisis mainly erupted because of a widespread belief among Egyptians that they are superior due to their fairer skin, which is the secret behind the muffled hatred – always – between Egypt and Sub Saharan Africa, an open secret that is partly the cause of such unresolved issues as Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.
Cairo used to have political superiority over African countries to the extent that former President Hosni Mubarak could punish Ethiopia by not visiting the country since the 1995 attempt to assassinate him in the streets of Addis Ababa.
Some of those African countries have grown stronger over time and turned their anger at Egypt into some kind of creed. As Africans are subject to racism based on skin color in Egypt, Egyptians now face a similar racism when visiting many African capitals. The decline of Egypt as a cultural and artistic center contributed to this and an ever louder Afrocentrism.
Origins of Afrocentrism
As said, many African Americans lack a documented historical record due to slavery and oppression. With their emancipation and rise in society, aspirations to “own” their history surfaced.
Herein lies the paradox. The Egyptians’ propensity to deny any ties to ancient African civilizations opens the door for allegations by Afrocentrics claiming that present-day Egyptians are (in fact) an occupying people that have taken over African land.
Some even call for Egyptians to return to their “own land.” This is for example the position of the late Senegalese politician and historian Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop also believed that Algerians and Tunisians are invasive peoples who have taken over part of the continent that once belonged to black people. According to him, as Egyptians and other northern African people are of Arab descent, the Arabian Peninsula is where they stem from.
Beyond their arrogance and racism, Egyptians fear that such ideas, which are publicly disseminated, will one day shift from being a mere theoretical framework to an active call reclaiming “historical rights.” An idea that is gaining popularity, and funding, in the United States.
One sign of this growing popularity is the docudrama Queen Cleopatra, which brings us to the question: was she really black, as depicted in the Netflix production?
Was the queen a Red Head ?
Some sources claim Cleopatra VII had silky red hair. And. while she had Macedonian origins, her mother [most likely] originated from the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, according to genealogy expert Mohamed Abdel Hadi.
Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII, who appears in statues as white Caucasian, was born in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Cleopatra built temples for both Greek and Egyptian gods. She also learned the ancient Egyptian language. As a result, portraying her as black (and having curly hair) cannot simply be justified by appealing to artistic freedom.
This is especially true given that the Netflix series is a docudrama, which means it should as much as possible adhere to a historically accurate narrative based on facts and documents.
This is the “historic” mistake Netflix committed.
More than Falsifying History
Another issue that contributed to the attack on the series Queen Cleopatra is the very fact it is produced by Netflix. Various segments in Egypt, and elsewhere, accuse the broadcaster of promoting extraneous and unacceptable ideas, particularly in terms of attacking the conservative mindset, advocating homosexuality, and revolting against religion.
Some Egyptians even view Netflix as an extension of American intelligence with the aim to “undermine values in the Middle East” and further the American political agenda.
Whatever the case, it is an alluring battle unfolding in Egypt at the moment, a way to let off steam. Sadly, not over the country’s political and economic crisis, but over defending Egypt’s Pharaonic history, which is allegedly being robbed.
According to archaeologist Abdel Rahim Rihaan, Queen Cleopatra sends a negative message about Egyptian civilization. He asserts that by portraying the queen as being black, the docudrama actively promotes Afrocentric ideas, which could be described as “cultural appropriation.”
“If it were historically accurate, it would be acceptable,” he emphasized. “But it is a falsification of history for a goal that goes far beyond Cleopatra’s skin color.”