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No. 1450:
Searching for Cleopatra

Today, we look for Cleopatra. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Alexandria, Egypt, was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. It sits on an arm of land at the edge of the Nile Delta. It's a fine port, and it immediately became the cultural center of the world. Scholars converged upon the new city.

At the time, an island called Pharos lay just North of Alexandria. The land has since filled in. What's left of the island is now a spur reaching out from the city. In 280 BC, the 440-foot Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built there. The much smaller island of Antirhodos once lay southeast of Pharos, closer to land. It was the site of Cleopatra's palace shortly before the birth of Christ. (Marc Anthony's residence probably stood on an adjacent spit of land.)

Cleopatra was Greek, Macedonian, and Iranian. History now questions her beauty, but not her intelligence or energy. She even took the trouble to learn the language of her Egyptian subjects in a world where everyone could get by using Greek. In her early twenties, Cleopatra strengthened Egypt by taking up with Julius Caesar.

Marc Anthony entered the picture after Caesar's murder. They had three children together. Octavian, brother of Marc Anthony's Roman wife, defeated the star-crossed couple in 30 BC and made Egypt into a Roman province. Alexandria waned after that, though it remained an intellectual center for four more centuries. Eventually the land shifted. Cleopatra's palace sank into the sea, and, during a 12th-century earthquake, the lighthouse collapsed.

So mystery closed in. Archaeologists have only just begun scouring the ocean floor for remains. Remnants of the lighthouse turned up in 1995. A year later, they found the first remains of Cleopatra's palace. Nothing traceable to Cleopatra or Marc Anthony has been found yet, but the layers of mystery are falling away.

So I think how the Titanic was laid bare after a century on the ocean bottom. I think of Troy. I think, what a strange business history is! It's at its best when it still deals with questions -- when the truth of things still hovers beyond certainty. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra,

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; ...

And Pascal said, "Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been different." What a loss it will be if history finally gives us the shape of Cleopatra's nose. Poet George Barker cast an odd light on this when he wrote,

Life is torpedoed and like a Titanic goes under
Threshing her ensigns
Against the dreadnought seas of blood and thunder
That flood our visions.

Nice image there. Now that we've found the flooded relics of the Titanic and Cleopatra's palace, you might well ask whether our visions have grown larger or been blunted by the reduction of mystery.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Sedge, M., Cleopatra's Sunken Palace. Discovering Archaeology, March/April 1999, pp. 38-46.

A great deal of information is to be found in various editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica under "Cleopatra," "Alexandria," and "Pharos."