National Geographic : 2011 Jul
Slightly larger than life-size, a stone statue from Canopus in the third century B.C. wears a dress typical of Ptolemaic queens. Given the association of those women with Isis, the knot in the fabric is o en called an Isis knot. For the Ptolemies, the relationship between Isis and her brother-husband, Osiris, was a model for royal marriages. Her cult endured for 500 years a er the death of Cleopatra, one of her devoted followers. than a thousand objects have been recovered, 200 of them considered significant: pottery, coins, gold jewelry, the broken heads of statues (probably smashed by early Christians). An im- portant discovery was a large cemetery outside the temple walls, suggesting that the subjects of a monarch wished to be buried near royal remains. Yet the tomb of Cleopatra still hovers out of reach, like a tantalizing mirage, and the theory of who is buried at Taposiris Magna still rests more on educated speculation than on facts. Might not Cleopatra's reign have unraveled too quickly for her to build such a secret tomb? A fantastic story, like a horse with wings, ies in the face of the principle of parsimony. But it's a long hard haul from not-yet-proved to disproved. Critics of Martinez's theory point out that it is rare in archaeology for someone to announce they are going to nd something and then actu- ally nd it. " ere is no evidence that Cleopatra tried to hide her grave, or would have wanted to," says Duane Roller, a respected Cleopatra scholar. "It would have been hard to hide it from Octavian, the very person who buried her. All the evidence is that she was buried with her ancestors. e material associated with her at Taposiris Magna is not meaningful because ma- terial associated with her can be found in many places in Egypt." "I agree that Octavian knew and authorized the place where she was buried," Martinez says. "But what I believe---and it is only a theory--- is that after the mummification process was complete, the priests at Taposiris Magna bur- ied the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in a di erent place without the approval of the Romans, a hidden place beneath the courtyard of the temple." If Cleopatra's tomb is ever found, the archaeo- logical sensation would be rivaled only by How- ard Carter's unearthing of the tomb of King Tut in 1922. But will nding her tomb, not to say her body itself, deepen our portrait of the last Egyp- tian pharaoh? On one hand, how could it not? In the last hundred years about the only new addi- tion to the archaeological record is what scholars believe is a fragment of Cleopatra's handwriting: a scrap of papyrus granting a tax exemption to a Roman citizen in Egypt in 33 . . On the other hand, maybe nding her tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called "her in nite variety." Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text, Cleopa- tra is free to be of di erent character to di er- ent times, which may be the very wellspring of her vitality. No other gure from antiquity seems so versatile in her ambiguities, so modern in her contradictions. It was lunch hour at the dig site, and the workers had gone to eat in the shade. We were sitting on top of the temple pylon in the radiance of noon, staring out at the sea beyond. ere was a feeling of still- ness in the air, an inkling of eternity, as if the old Egyptian gods were about---Re, who ruled over the earth, sky, and the underworld, and Isis, who saved Osiris by tricking Re into revealing his secret name. e search for Cleopatra has come at no small cost to Martinez. She gave up her thriving law practice in Santo Domingo and poured much of her savings into her quest. She moved to an apartment in Alexandria, where she has begun studying Arabic. But it's not an easy life, far from her family and friends. During the revolution earlier this year, she was confronted by a group of aggressive men as she worked at the excava- tion site. For now, work at the site is on hold. She hopes to return in the fall. "I believe we are going to find what we are looking for," she says. " e di erence is now we're digging in the ground, not in books." j "STATUE OF A QUEEN," THIRD CENTURY B.C.; KENNETH GARRETT If Cleopatra's tomb is found, the archaeological sensation would be rivaled only by Howard Carter's unearthing of King Tut in . But will it deepen our understanding of Egypt's last pharaoh?