Cleopatra VII Philopator, known to history simply as Cleopatra, died on this date in 30 BCE allegedly from a self induced venomous snake bite. She was the last de facto pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (her son, Caesarion, succeeded her but was immediately executed). She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a lineage of Greek origin that ruled Ptolemaic Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian, however, and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. The stele below shows Cleopatra (right) dressed as a male pharaoh presenting a gift to Isis who is breastfeeding her son Horus (the deified persona of the pharaoh).
Cleopatra originally ruled jointly with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and later with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, whom she married as per Egyptian custom. Although acceptable, there is no evidence to suggest she consummated these marriages. Her co-rule with Ptolemy XIII was deeply problematic. It was clear from the outset when Ptolemy XIII succeeded his father as pharaoh in 51 BCE that Cleopatra was the real ruler of Egypt, and so he engaged in civil war with her. He attempted to curry the favor of Julius Caesar by executing his main rival in Rome, Pompey the Great, when he sought refuge in Egypt. But when Ptolemy attempted to present Pompey’s head to Caesar upon his arrival in Egypt in 48 BCE, Caesar was disgusted by the act of treachery and rejected all overtures of alliance. Instead Caesar became Cleopatra’s ally and lover, and together they defeated Ptolemy (allied with his other sister Arsinoe IV), at the siege of Alexandria in 47 BCE. Ptolemy XIII fled and was drowned while attempting to cross the Nile.
On Ptolemy XIII’s death Cleopatra married her other brother who became co-ruler as pharaoh Ptolemy XIV. There was no mistaking the power structure this time, however. Ptolemy XIV was pharaoh in name only (he was 13 when he became pharaoh). Cleopatra had a son by Caesar, Ptolemy Philopator Philometor Caesar, commonly known as Caesarion (little Caesar). As far as we know he was Caesar’s only son. It is generally assumed, but not proven, that Cleopatra poisoned her brother some time in 44 BCE, whereupon she replaced him with her son as her co-ruler Ptolemy XV (aged 2). The stele below depicts Cleopatra (far left) dressed as Isis presenting Caesarion (next left) to the gods.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cleopatra aligned herself with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar’s adopted son and legal heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). She became Antony’s lover, and bore him the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and then another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. After losing the naval Battle of Actium, and then being defeated in a brief battle outside Alexandria by Octavian’s forces, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra followed suit, according to tradition killing herself by means of an asp bite on August 12, 30 BC. She was briefly outlived by Caesarion, who was declared pharaoh by his supporters. But he was soon killed on Octavian’s orders, and Egypt became the Roman province of Aegyptus.
Ancient sources, particularly Roman ones, are in general agreement that Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an Egyptian cobra to bite her. The oldest source is Strabo, who was alive at the time of the event, and might even have been in Alexandria when it happened. He says that there were two stories: that she applied a toxic ointment, or that she was bitten by an asp on her breast. Plutarch, writing about 130 years after the event, reports that Octavian succeeded in capturing Cleopatra in her mausoleum after the death of Antony. He ordered his freedman Epaphroditus to guard her to prevent her from committing suicide, because he allegedly wanted to present her in his triumph in Rome. But Cleopatra was able to deceive Epaphroditus and kill herself nevertheless. Plutarch states that she was found dead, her handmaiden Iras dying at her feet, and another handmaiden, Charmion, adjusting her crown before she herself fell. He then goes on to state that an asp was concealed in a basket of figs that was brought to her by a peasant, and, finding it after eating a few figs, she held out her arm for it to bite. Other stories state that it was hidden in a vase, and that she poked it with a spindle until it got angry enough to bite her on the arm. Finally, he indicates that in Octavian’s triumphal march back in Rome, an effigy of Cleopatra that had an asp clinging to it was part of the parade.
To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture. Her legacy survives in numerous works of art and the many dramatizations of her story in literature and other media, including William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Jules Massenet’s opera Cléopâtre and many films, notably the 1963 extravaganza Cleopatra (famously starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose acting can only charitably be called “abysmal.” The sets and costumes were great, though). In most depictions, Cleopatra is portrayed as a great beauty, and her successive conquests of the world’s most powerful men are taken as proof of her personal charm, political acumen, and sexual appeal.
In his Life of Antony, Plutarch remarks that “judging by the proofs which she had had before this of the effect of her beauty upon Caius Caesar and Gnaeus the son of Pompey, she had hopes that she would more easily bring Antony to her feet. For Caesar and Pompey had known her when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs [she was actually 21], but she went to visit Antony at the very time when women have the most brilliant beauty.” Later in the work, however, Plutarch indicates that “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” He says that her attractiveness lay more in her wit, charm, and “sweetness in the tones of her voice.” Whatever the case, she wielded enormous power during her reign, navigating dangerous waters, and brought down only by the vicissitudes of political fortune.
Ful medames is the obvious dish to celebrate this anniversary. It is the national dish of Egypt, typically eaten at breakfast but available from street vendors throughout the day. Its base is a bowl of dried fava beans (also called broad beans or horse beans) that have been slowly simmered. Various garnishes and flavors may be added including cumin, olive oil, yoghurt, boiled eggs, tomato, and cucumber. It is typically eaten with Egyptian flatbread. You can get dried fava beans at many supermarkets and health food stores.
The roots of ful medames can be traced to Ancient Northern Sudan and Egypt. Quantities of beans have been found in Twelfth Dynasty tombs (1991-1786 BCE). Fava beans are also mentioned in Hittite texts and the Bible. Ramses II of Egypt (c. 1303-1213 BCE) is known to have offered 11,998 jars of beans to the god of the Nile. Some believe that the word medames was originally Coptic (Egyptian), meaning “buried,” and its use here might mean that the beans were buried in a pot with hot coals to cook. This cooking method is mentioned in the Talmud Yerushalmi, indicating that the method was used in Middle Eastern countries in the fourth century. Ful medames is one of the oldest dishes in the world, and even if they were not Cleopatra’s mainstay, she must have eaten them at least on occasion.
You don’t really need an exact recipe for this dish. All that making ful medames amounts to is putting a quantity of dried fava beans in a pot, covering with unsalted water, and then simmering until very tender (usually around 3 hours). It’s exactly the same process as for cooking dried beans. Cooking them overnight in a crock pot is perfect. You want to be sure that the cooking liquid reduces to form a thick sauce, and to enhance the sauce it is customary to mash a few beans into the cooking liquid towards the end of the cooking process. You can also add a small amount of red lentils to cook with the beans. They quickly reduce to a mush and thicken the sauce.
Serve the ful in bowls with flatbread and with any, or all, of the following available for guests to add as they please: extra virgin olive oil, cumin, boiled eggs, lemon wedges, plain yoghurt, tahini, chopped parsley, chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumber, chopped scallions, feta cheese, finely chopped garlic, olives . . . you name it. Olive oil, cumin, and boiled eggs are my favorites – very traditional.