History's most famous suicide happened more than 2,000 years ago: rather than surrender to the Romans who had captured her Egypt, the lovelorn Queen Cleopatra succumbed to the venomous bite of an asp. Ancient historians chronicled the act, Shakespeare dramatized it, and HBO even added its own to spin to the tragedy with the lavish TV series "Rome." Yet while we may know how Cleopatra died of snake poison, after her consort Mark Antony fell on his sword, archaeologists have yet to pin down where the legendary couple was laid to rest.
That is about to change, according to the world's most flamboyant Egyptologist. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced earlier this week that his team of archaeologists was readying for the final approach toward what could be the tomb of Cleopatra. The site is at Abusir, some 30 miles from the port city of Alexandria, among the ruins of an ancient temple to the Egyptian god Osiris. Nearly two dozen coins unearthed there bear Cleopatra's profile and inscription, and carvings in the temple enclosure show two lovers in an embrace. A ceramic fragment supposedly mirrors the cleft chin of the rebel general Mark Antony leading Hawass to speculate that it is the Roman's own death mask. Archaeologists already dug up the mummies of ten nobles around the site, a sign, perhaps, that a more regal prize dwells within. Using ground-penetrating radar, they have spied out three further subterranean passageways which they believe could lead to the grave. "If this tomb is found," Hawass told TV reporters as they set about their dig this week, "it will be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century." (See pictures of Cleopatra through the ages.)
Hawass is no stranger to hyperbole. Known for sporting an Indiana Jones style hat and his habit of ending up in front of cameras, the 61-year-old native of the Nile Delta town of Damietta is the government-appointed custodian of Egypt's monuments and the greatest promoter of its mysteries. Archaeological expeditions don't take place without his agency's sanction (and more than a few foreign Egyptologists have been frozen out of work as a result); any sensational discovery is invariably announced by him. "In Egypt," Hawass writes on his personal website, "archaeologists are bigger than movie stars!" His quest for Cleopatra's grave is spawning comparisons with the 1922 discovery of King Tutenkhamen. (See pictures of treasure hunting in Afghanistan.)
Few countries in the world sit upon as many layers of history and civilization as Egypt, from the pyramids of the Pharaohs to the archives of medieval Jewish merchants. But the specter of Cleopatra has loomed above it all. "Cleopatra has come to symbolize Egypt for a lot of people," says Joyce Tyldesley, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool and author of Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, published last year. It's a symbol that has not always been flattering. Centuries of Western literature evoked Cleopatra as a lustful seductress, corrupting the stoic Roman men who strayed into her orbit. European empires seized upon this metaphor of temptation and decadence: after Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Egypt, the French government issued a commemorative coin nevertheless, depicting France as a virile Roman conqueror standing over a bare-breasted, feminine figure of the East.
Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist from the Dominican Republic who has conducted the digs at Abusir for the past three years, told reporters that she wants "to be Cleopatra's lawyer," and prove there is much more to the ancient potentate than the work of two thousands years of Western male imagination. Debates still rage over everything from Cleopatra's identity cranial scans of her half-sister's skull this year suggested she may be African, though her known lineage was Greek to her looks. Close scrutiny of coin portraits have led some to believe that she was rather plain, a conclusion borne out by the Roman historian Plutarch who wrote "her beauty was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her."
Even more questions linger surrounding her death, which signaled the dawn of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian, who was waging a bitter civil war with Mark Antony. "She definitely died at a very convenient time for Octavian," says Tyldesley. "There is no absolute proof that she committed suicide, and so it is possible that she was either forced to do so, or that she was killed. Of course," she adds, "there is no proof that she died by snakebite, either."
And so now many wait for further developments over the coming weeks, thrilled by the possibility of seeing a legend turn real. It's hard to divine what could be buried by Cleopatra's side, let alone how the storied queen's body itself may be preserved. Could there be treasures? The coiled skin of a snake? "A diary," offers Tyldesley, "would be fantastic." But Hawass and his team must hurry. The dig abuts the summer residence of President Hosni Mubarak, which may force the dozens-strong team of archaeologists to abandon work from May to November. The security concerns of Egypt's current ruler, after all, still outweigh the mystique of its past.