Q&A: Cleopatra? Next, please. The African royal warrior queen you’ve never heard of
A recent Netflix docuseries casts Cleopatra as Black, and a public argument has erupted over whether that’s historically accurate.
Yasmin Moll, a University of Michigan anthropologist of religion, race and media, says the debate misses the mark in continuing to center the already famous queen of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra isn’t the most interesting or significant ancient ruler for many Egyptians, including Black Egyptians. Moll grew up in Cairo as a member of the Nubian community learning about the fearless queens of Nubia, whom much of the world has never heard of. Now, she researches how these queens’ stories continue to inspire Nubians in Egypt and beyond.
What is the current controversy over Netflix’s Cleopatra docuseries and what does it miss?
The trailer of Netflix’s Cleopatra docuseries focuses on a scholar, Dr. Shelly Haley, whose grandmother tells her, “I don’t care what they tell you, but Cleopatra was Black.” In that moment, the series makers are reacting against the dominant Eurocentric depiction of Cleopatra in the U.S. school curriculum as white. But we don’t really know what Cleopatra’s skin tone was. What we do know is that she’s descended from the Ptolemies, Greek-Macedonian dynastic rulers who by the time she was born had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. Many scholars speculate that her mother might have been an indigenous Egyptian. And Egyptians had a variety of skin tones reflecting the complicated histories of migrations and settlements that characterize this diverse geographic area.
So thinking of the ancient Egyptians as either white or Black inaccurately projects modern constructs of race back into a time and a place that had very different ways of making sense of differences among people. Furthermore, the Black-white binary matters so much to U.S. history and social dynamics in a way that it just doesn’t in contemporary Egypt.
Finally, by focusing so much on Cleopatra’s racial identity, the publicity for this American-produced series overlooked the variety of ways in which Cleopatra’s story matters for Egyptians today. Even more importantly, the series overlooks other queens who matter far more for Black Egyptians like Nubians.
For those who don’t know, what is Nubia, or the Kingdom of Kush? Did this encompass a geographic region?
The ancient Kingdom of Kush, which is popularly known as Nubia, encompasses an area in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Ancient Nubia was a powerful civilization that rivals that of ancient Egypt. The fact that the ancient Egyptian civilization is much more well known has a lot to do with how entangled the history of Egyptology is with Western colonialism and its racialized ideas of civilizational supremacy. Many archaeologists have argued that we don’t know a lot about ancient Nubia precisely because it was an unambiguously Black African civilization. Scholars have tended to see it as an appendage to ancient Egyptian as opposed to a powerful civilization with its own extraordinary achievements.
For example, ancient Nubians also built pyramids. You can find some of these pyramids in what is today Sudan. Sudan actually has more pyramids than Egypt, but people don’t know that. So the history of ancient Nubian civilizations definitely deserves more attention. But the ancient Nubians and the ancient Egyptians, they were neighbors: they traded with each other, they fought each other, but they also adopted a lot of each other’s practices and concepts. In fact, Nubians constituted the 25th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, known in the West as “the Black Pharaohs.” Ultimately you can’t understand one without understanding the other.
Cleopatra’s story has been told many times. Who are the unknown, forgotten African queens?
Ancient Nubia was known for its governing queens who are called kandakes, who not only ruled, built temples, patronized the arts, but also led their armies on the battlefield. One of the most famous of the kandakes was Queen Amanirenas.
Around 25 BCE, the Romans had invaded Egypt to the north and were beginning to set their sights on her kingdom, the Kingdom of Kush. She and her soldiers traveled up the Nile to fight the Romans to ensure they didn’t make a move on her people and land. According to an ancient chronicler of the Roman Empire named Strabo, Amanirenas lost her eye on the battlefield. He referred to her as the one-eyed queen and the moniker has stuck.
Nubians love telling her story as an example of courage and determination. Almost everyone’s favorite part of the story is that she brought back the bronze head of a statue of the Roman emperor Augustus and had it buried under the doorway of a temple. So as her people entered the temple to worship they literally walked over a symbol of Roman power.
There were many other kandakes. Nubians are becoming even more curious about these ruling warrior queens, especially after Sudan’s 2019 revolution. Of course, not all Sudanese are Nubians. Nubians are an ethno-linguistic group within Sudan just like they are within Egypt. But still the idea of these powerful queens of ancient Nubia became an important symbol of the revolution. Sudanese bestowed on women protestors the title kandakes to honor their courage—just like they would later dub the 2020 Black Lives Matter protesters in the U.S.
What new insight into the entanglements of the ancient past with the present could we gain from a series on Nubian history and culture?
I’ve noticed that often when I am presenting my research on Nubian culture many people in the U.S. seem unaware that Nubians are a contemporary, still-existing, community.This includes the Black American community for whom “Nubia” often stands in a general way for a prestigious ancient African civilization. But there seems less interest in today’s living Nubian culture.
In Egypt, some of the reaction to the series on Cleopatra has been almost to say Egyptians can’t be Black and that is just not true. Egyptians come in many different skin tones and colors, including Black. Most Nubians are Black. Even if they’re not Black, Nubians are often racialized as Black in Egyptian media, with many films portraying Nubians as servants or speaking “broken” Arabic. That is harmful for Nubians like my mother who are visibly Black and have to deal with interpersonal racism in everyday life.
Nubian culture is as distinctive as it is internally diverse, and Nubians are very proud of our culture. But our heritage is dynamic, reflecting changing elements of Egyptian culture more broadly. How could it be otherwise when Nubians have been calling Egypt’s northern cities home for generations and have been inter-marrying with other groups?
For example, my mother, who was born in Cairo, married a Swiss German immigrant to Egypt, my father, and her sister married an Italian. My mother and her sisters never saw their natal village before it was submerged like most other Nubian villages in 1964 as the Aswan High Dam was being built. That traumatic loss that has defined Nubian collective identity. Still, Nubians love Egypt and consider ourselves Egyptians first and foremost.
So a documentary series about Amanirenas as an ancient African queen, instead of about Cleopatra, would have shed more light on the diversity and complexity of Egyptian history and heritage. It would have also meant a lot to Nubians who rarely see our stories dramatized.