Greek or Arab? Race Controversy Erupts Over White Actress Portraying Cleopatra

The internet exploded this past weekend when the beautiful Israeli action star Gal Gadot was chosen to portray the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in a new movie from Paramount directed by Patty Jenkins.

Written by Greek-American screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, the film is directed by the same woman who was at the helm of Wonder Woman, which was the breakout hit for the stunning Gadot.

But clouds gathered on the horizon on Sunday when it was announced that Gadot had been chosen as the star of the new film.

Israeli action star Gal Gadot. Credit: Wikipedia

The internet, always known as a bastion of calm reasoning, exploded in righteous anger after the announcement, with many saying that the hiring was an affront to Africans and Arabs.

One critic opined “Which Hollywood dumbass thought it would be a good idea to cast an Israeli actress as Cleopatra (a very bland looking one) instead of a stunning Arab actress like Nadine Njeim? And shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles… smh.”

Another said, a bit more reasonably, “I’m sure Gal Gadot is going to do a wonderful job as Cleopatra. However, for me personally, I would love a Cleopatra who’s darker than a brown paper bag, because that seems a bit more historically accurate.”

Of course, all students of Egyptian history are quite aware that Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, one of a line of Greek rulers from that family, originating in Macedonia. And a prominent Egyptologist was quick to step into the fray, allaying fears that Cleopatra, the beloved queen of the Nile, was not being “whitewashed” by being portrayed by a white actress.

Cleopatra on a coin of 40 drachms from 51–30 BC, minted at Alexandria; on the obverse is a portrait of Cleopatra wearing a diadem, and on the reverse an inscription reading “ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΗΣ ΚΛΕΟΠΑΤΡΑΣ” with an eagle standing on a thunderbolt. Credit: Wikipedia

As Sarah Parcak, an acclaimed Egyptologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, patiently explained to the angry internet mob, it is likely that the Egyptian queen was indeed not very dark-skinned at all — because she was at least half Greek.

“Cleopatra was Cleopatra VII (yes there were many others!). She was of Macedonian Greek descent (father= Ptolemy XII Auletes) but… was was her mother’s ethnicity? Egyptian? Greek? Other? Many possibilities. We don’t know for sure,” Parcak related.

“Her mom was probably Cleopatra V, the only attested wife of Ptolemy XII. We know of one child she had; it’s not 100% certain she is the mother of Cleopatra. Cleo V’s ethnicity is unknown, very little known about her generally, hence Cleopatra’s ethnicity= 50% Greek, 50% ?”

Dr. Sarah Parcak, a renowned Egyptologist who has discovered pyramids using digitized aerial photography. Credit: Wikipedia

Parcak, born in Bangor, Maine and a graduate of Yale and the University of Cambridge, is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert.

She has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. Together with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

From 2003 to 2004, Parcak used a combination of satellite imaging analysis and surface surveys to discover 17 new pyramids and thousands of sites of archaeological interest, some dating back to 3,000 B.C.

As one of the foremost Egyptologists in the world today, she felt comfortable expanding on the topic, going on to explain what Cleopatra most likely looked like.

“The people of Alexandria today (yes Alexandria was Egypt’s capital during the Ptolemaic Era) have much lighter skin compared to people in southern Egypt, many with reddish hair and green/blue eyes.

“Of course there is Turkish influence, and I’m not saying that the people of Alex today look like people did 2000+ years ago. However — Alex was a hugely cosmopolitan city in Cleopatra’s time. You would have seen every type of person imaginable from all over the known world.

“Cleopatra probably had lighter skin, not unlike the people of Alex today, but *we don’t know for sure*. Her mom could have been from southern Egypt, or Macedonia, or anywhere in the Ptolemaic world (and if she was a secondary wife or concubine all bets are off).

At that point, Parcak took a step back and asked social media users not to “cancel” her over what she was trying to tell them.

“Don’t cancel me for what I’m about to say,” Parcak said. “Archaeology and history tell us she wasn’t 100% Egyptian, even if she acted like a proper Egyptian queen and spoke/read Egyptian. She was half Macedonian and half who knows, but probably more than 50% Macedonian playing the odds.”

“So, hiring a hugely bankable Mediterranean actress to play Cleopatra is… not as off as you might think,” Parcak explained.

Adding some much-needed humor into her last long and informative post addressing the matter, Parcak noted “Gal Gadot is 100 x a better choice than Angelina Jolie. I think she’ll be incredible in the role.”