It’s that time of year again, when I’m starting the work of preparing for National Novel Writing Month. This year’s project, Cleopatra’s Ironclads, started with a three-word challenge: “Afrocentric steampunk Cleopatra” and rapidly took wing from there. Ever since I was about nine years old, I’ve been a serious fan of the last pharaoh of Egypt, though what struck my imagination was not her fabled beauty but her sharp intelligence, and her interesting connections to all sorts of major innovations, from the political playbook of the Roman Emperors (divine kingship was not a native Roman notion) to the Julian calendar (it’s said she was the one who introduced Julius Caesar to the astronomer Sosigenes).
I’ve been sorting through a rich treasure trove of sources, from Shakespeare (whose Antony and Cleopatra is a sprawling non-classical pageant that gave me an idea of the challenges of taking on this project) to Plutarch (in North’s translation, Shakespeare’s major source) to contemporary popular works based in the meeting ground of Egyptology and Classical Studies. The literature is huge, and I’m still on the trail of the medieval Arab scholars who spoke of Cleopatra not as a temptress but as a scholar and wise ruler. There’s no hope of reading it all before November 1, to put it mildly, so once more I go into a November project feeling superficially prepared.
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has a remarkable list of publications available online. The one I’ve been working through recently is the stereograph “virtual tour” of the Nile Valley written by James Breasted, the founder of the Institute. (It’s one of three such tours I’ve been undertaking, with the Description de l’Egypte of Napoleon’s expedition covering the late eighteenth century and the gorgeous full-color photography of Konemann’s Art and Architecture: Egypt covering the early twenty-first). Breasted’s narrative shows the imperial and racist attitudes of the fin-de-siecle Anglo-American elite in high relief, while emphasizing Egypt as a civilization that was old when Roman and Greek tourists followed the same route up the Nile to admire the pyramids in their original dazzling white casing stone. The Great Pyramids are only the beginning of a sixty-mile parade of pyramids, containing a thousand years of royal tombs.
Once again, I’m traveling back in time 2000 years, but this time I’m staying there the whole time; I’m reminded that my country is a cultural inheritor of the Roman Empire, as I read the “east versus west” rhetoric of the Roman sources, which also equates female political power with moral corruption. Some themes don’t go away, it would seem.