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Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)

Queen Cleopatra Making an Offering to the Goddess Isis

© 1985 RMN / Les frères Chuzeville

Egyptian Antiquities
The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)

Author(s):
Letellier Bernadette

This limestone stele was dedicated to Cleopatra VII Philopator on 2 July 51 BC by Onnophris, the Greek "president of the association of Isis Snonais." This association of temples was placed under the protection of a form of the goddess Isis worshiped in Faiyum (Al-Fayyum). Surprisingly, to modern eyes, the celebrated Egyptian queen is represented here as a traditional, male sovereign.

Cleopatra

Perhaps surprisingly, the figure depicted and honored here is very probably the celebrated Lagid queen Cleopatra, as indicated by the Greek inscription: "the Queen Cleopatra, goddess Philopator." The face of Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes, is familiar primarily through effigies on coins and a few rare Greek portraits; these obviously have nothing in common with the seductive images presented in films and nineteenth-century paintings. Clearly, the conventional, male image on the present relief cannot be taken as a reliable likeness.

A clearly-dated, recycled artefact

Aside from its historical interest, this artefact demonstrates the gulf between the modern perception of pictorial representation, and that of the ancient Egyptians: the traditional representation of the pharaoh was not intended as a realistic likeness, but as a kind of "pictogram." In this context, there was nothing anomalous about the use of a male image to represent Cleopatra.
The stele follows the usual conventions: a winged disk surmounts a ritual scene in the upper section, in which the sovereign faces the goddess across an offering table; a dedication is inscribed in the lower section. Cleopatra is represented as a traditional male pharaoh, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, and a triangular loincloth. Two vases are offered to the goddess Isis, who nurses her baby, Horus. The Egyptians knew nothing and cared little about the appearance of their Greek sovereigns, and continued to depict them according to the prescribed Pharaonic models. The relief's composition and iconography are purely Egyptian, but the text is written in Greek, the language of the conquerors.
On close observation, it appears that the stele has been re-engraved. The thin, straight lines around the edge, drawn to facilitate the correct alignment of the signs, do not coincide with those in the recessed areas containing the inscription. In addition, partially erased signs are still visible on the right edge.
The stele is dated year 1, the first day of the month "epiphi," which Greek scholars translate as 2 July 51 BC. It was initially erected in honor of one of the Ptolemies, in all likelihood Cleopatra's father, and was re-worked following her accession.

Traditional Pharaonic portraiture

This representation of Cleopatra harks back to an old tradition. As early as the Eighteenth Dynasty, the Egyptians represented Queen Hatshepsut, an ambitious regent who ultimately claimed her royal birth-right, as a male Pharaoh.
This stele was commissioned in honor of the new sovereign by an association of temples, whose protrectress was Isis Snonais, a local form of the great goddess, probably worshiped in the oasis of Faiyum. The association's president, Onnophris, was administrator of the temple.

Bibliography

Bernand Étienne, Inscriptions grecques d'Égypte et de Nubie au musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions du CNRS, 1992, n 21, p. 62, pl. 17.
Vandier Jacques, in Revue du Louvre, 1973, pp. 113-115, fig. 16.
Wagner G., "Une Dédicace à la Grande Cléopâtre de la part du synode snonaïtiaque, 2 juillet 51 av. J.-C.", in Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale, n 73, 1973, pp. 103-108.

Technical description

  • Queen Cleopatra Making an Offering to the Goddess Isis

    Ptolemaic Period, reign of Cleopatra VII (51-30 BC), 2 July 51 BC

    Egypt, Al-Fayyum region (?)

  • Carved and engraved limestone (low relief)

    H. 52.4 cm; W. 28 cm; D. 4 cm

  • Purchased 1972

    E 27113

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    From the last Egyptian pharaohs to Cleopatra, 404–30 BC
    Room 30

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