Throughout my Ancient History undergraduate degree, whenever I heard about the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII (or as most of us know her – Cleopatra), the conversations always revolved around one thing. Literally all the portrayals of her life focused on sex, sex, and - you guessed it, global politics. Nah - and more sex. People even used to gossip that she killed her one nights stands the morning after. Even today, people can't keep from making up stories about her - tons of dodgy sites claim she created the first vibrator (which to be fair, would be a pretty cool achievement). Neither of these are true however, they're just the remainders of a Roman tradition of dissing Cleo as a ruler by saying she was ‘sex-mad’ which they thought meant she couldn't also be a capable badass queen. Cleopatra was basically the Taylor Swift of her day - always defined by how many boyfriends, and how much sex she had, while the famous men about could go wild.
But regardless of the argument that women should not be stigmatised for their sex lives (obviously) - why are we still talking about Cleopatra’s sex life so much? Surely we can recognise that there must be far more important aspects of her reign that we should remember. If we look at Western history, for centuries Cleopatra has been viewed largely through what the Romans told us - that she was a slut, a bad influence, and not good at being queen. If people aren't disrespecting her for her sex life, they're often talking about her as half of the 'power-couple' Antony and Cleopatra, reducing her to a supporting character in the Antony’s story. This is just another example of how women’s histories are erased through defining them only by the roles they played in the lives of men. This cultural memory of queen Cleo is very different in the East however, particularly in Islamic sources, where we see Cleopatra remembered as a capable and successful ruler, without mention of men, or her sex life.
So if it's not the only view out there, why has the ‘sex-crazed Cleopatra’ narrative stuck around? To understand this, we need to look at the history of gender, and in particular, women. In the West, we have a shameful history of refusing to recognise that femininity and power can exist hand in hand. If a woman does manage to hold power, she often has to erase her femininity as a result. You can see this when the English queen Elizabeth I, famously declared “I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”. Here queen Liz is forced to renounce her femininity and identity as a woman in order to be considered powerful. These preconceptions made it easy for European society to embrace to the Roman descriptions of Cleopatra, and to imagine her as a terrible ruler. The idea of a woman refusing to compromise her gender while holding huge amounts of power would have just been too much for the misogynistic Western culture.
In the Medieval Arabic world however, women were encouraged to be powerful, with several women ruling, and many more forming a large proportion of the scientific and intellectual community. This resulted in less of a divide between concepts of femininity and power, as Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, demonstrated, when she founded the oldest existing university (a super cool lady!!). Through this, Fatima al-Fihri showed off both the freedom of learning, and the amount of power, or influence, available for women within the medieval Arab world. This normalisation of female education and power helped to form a cultural environment in which Cleopatra VII was viewed very differently.
If we consider Cleopatra VII through Islamic sources, it’s immediately clear that they thought she was the bee's knees. Islamic scholars tell us that Cleopatra, was ridiculously talented at medicine, languages, and alchemy. One writer Ibn Baṭrīq, talks about Cleopatra in his 'Universal History', and says that:
“She [Cleopatra] built many great buildings in Alexandria and many wonderful things, [she] introduced mosaic work, and built an imposing temple called “the Temple of Saturn”. …[Cleopatra] built in the city of Ikhmīm a hydrometer in order to keep under control the waters of the Nile of Egypt. She then built another nilometer in the town of Ansinā”
Sounds like an incredibly talented chick? What's also super cool is that Ibn Baṭrīq actually goes on to mention Marc Antony, but just describes him as 'her lieutenant' – a reversal of how the West reduces Cleopatra to a role in Antony’s narrative.
Ibn Baṭrīq’s stories of Cleo the builder are also backed up by the works of a guy called John of Nikiou an Egyptian bishop writing in the 7th century CE, during the Muslim annexation of Egypt. During John’s ‘History of Egypt’, he describes Cleopatra as:
“…great in herself and in her achievements in courage and strength. There was none of the kings who proceeded her who wrought such achievements as she. … she executed works in vigilant care for the well-being of the city. And before she died, she executed many noble works and created important institutions.”
THIS IS WHAT WE LIKE TO HEAR. Plus, the fact that John of Nikiou was Egyptian in origin may also suggest that this was how Queen Cleopatra was remembered in her own country, by her own people. An incredibly talented, amazing, and all round gem of a ruler.
It’s worth noting that the famed beauty of Cleopatra is never mentioned in Islamic sources, which might be because of an established female presence within science and technology in the Islamic world. If women are already present in the scientific community, it allows Cleopatra to be viewed by her accomplishments alone, without a gender bias affecting her reception. Islamic sources show this by detailing her academic accomplishments, without falling to the Western stereotypes of mentioning men she may have had romantic affairs with, or her looks.
In a time when the world is witnessing a long overdue movement to recognise and enable women in power, Arabic sources on Cleopatra teach us about the intellectual and highly capable woman that she was, both challenging, and re-educating western ideas of the famed Queen. These writers provide a long-forgotten depiction of her as a ruler, scholar, scientist, author, and woman, that Roman sources deliberately tried to bury and erase. By using Islamic sources on Cleopatra, we can minimise the centuries of misogyny and ‘slut-shaming’ which have stopped her from being recognised as a powerful monarch in her own right, regardless of her sex. It is this that we should now emphasise in our future depictions and discussions of Cleopatra.
It is also important to re-examine Cleopatra using these sources in light of the rise in Islamophobia that we are currently witnessing throughout Europe and North America. Much of this Islamophobia stems from attempts to depict Islam as incompatible with so called ‘liberal western ideals’, or particularly women’s rights. It is important to remember Islam’s history of empowering women and their voices, particularly at a time when the West was not. I hope I’ve emphasized the fact that out of all of Cleopatra’s historical depictions, it was the European world which reduced her reception to a demonization of her sex and sexuality, and the Islamic world that remembered and celebrated her as a capable monarch and scholar.