When one hears the name Cleopatra, images of beauty and power come to mind. Most of us recall she was the last Pharaoh of Egypt, and that she was Julius Caesar’s lover and, later, Mark Antony’s wife. But beyond the celluloid images of Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh lies a more complex, intelligent and beautiful reality. If you want to dig deeper into the Cleopatra legend and experience her world firsthand, a trip to the California Science Center is in order.
Cleopatra: The Exhibition puts together many recently discovered artifacts from the sunken cities of Alexandria, Heracleion and Canopus. No one is certain why these cities sank; earthquakes, tidal waves, and/or the changing path of the Nile are all possible explanations. While the submersion of these cities was no doubt tragic to their inhabitants, it helped preserve many artifacts for over two millennia. The recent discovery and underwater recovery of these artifacts by archaeologists Dr. Zahi Hawass and Franck Goddio have helped us better understand Cleopatra and her world.
The exhibit opens with a short film; afterwards, the screen dramatically arises and reveals a large statue bathed in the cool, blue, rippled light of a simulated ocean (most of these artifacts were discovered just offshore of modern Egypt, often in water only 20 feet deep). Visitors are given lanyards with electronic recordings explaining many of the artifacts in Cleopatra’s own “voice.” You can listen to these vignettes at your own leisure as you view the artifacts. Supplementing the recordings are many explanatory panels; the exhibition uses flat-screen TVs for this, allowing the text to dynamically change, and occasionally to even present short clips or explanatory graphics.
Amongst over 150 newly discovered artifacts are a pair of sphinxes (okay… according to the exhibit, the proper plural of sphinx is sphinges, but would you know what I was talking about if I had written that?!), many gold coins and royal jewelry, and two massive statues that tower nearly two stories tall. However, of all I saw, I think I will remember the unassuming piece of tattered papyrus near the exhibit’s end, which was signed by Cleopatra herself. Having been protected in silt for over 2,000 years, nearly all of the artifacts are superbly preserved.
After viewing the artifacts and reading about her life and world, I must say I have a newfound respect for this fascinating woman. She assumed the throne while only 18 amidst a three-year period of drought, famine and political turmoil. She was highly educated, speaking both Egyptian and Greek, and was said to more than hold her own in conversations regarding matters of state, science and arts. Instead of failing or falling victim to assassination, she united two of the most powerful Mediterranean forces and won her court and people two decades of relative freedom. She seduced and influenced two of the most powerful men in the world. Even her enemies could not deny her beauty and charisma. Yet her tomb has never been found, and no contemporary images of her survive. She remains an enigma to us.
The Science Center’s adjacent IMAX theater is showing Mysteries of Egypt (narrated by the legendary Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif) on its seven-story screen. Other nearby attractions in exhibition park include the Natural History and the African-American museums, so one can easily plan an entertaining and educational day.
Cleopatra: The Exhibition runs through Dec. 31. Tickets are $19.75 for adults, $16.75 for senior/youth/students, and $12.75 for children; discounts are available for museum members or for IMAX combo tickets. To help control crowds during this popular exhibit, the center is utilizing timed tickets, valid only for a specified admission date and time. As many school groups tour the museum, those planning a weekday visit are advised to attend a showing after 2pm. Visit californiasciencecenter.org or call (213) 744-2019 for tickets or more information.