May 10, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10603

Netflix Series On Cleopatra Draws Fire In Egypt For 'Distorting' Egyptian History

May 10, 2023
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 10603

A Netflix docudrama series that depicts Cleopatra as black has sparked an uproar in Egypt. The series, which will premiere on May 10, stars the black British actress Adele James as Queen Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, who ruled in 51-30 BC. Egyptian authorities, chief of them the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, accused the series of "falsifying history" by portraying Cleopatra as African when she was in fact Macedonian and therefore "light-skinned with Hellenic features." Several Egyptian MPs called on the relevant authorities to "immediately confront the campaigns [aimed at] distorting the facts."[1]  Egyptian internet users launched an online petition, which has so far been signed by over 80,000 people, demanding to ban the series in the country.[2]

The documentary channel of the United Media Services, a major Egyptian media company, announced that it is producing a documentary about Cleopatra, and that it is consulting with experts on history, archeology and anthropology in order to base it on in-depth and accurate research. The Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily reported that the documentary was being made at the behest of Egyptian officials.[3]  

The anger and the criticism of the series also found expression in articles and columns in the Egyptian press, which likewise claimed that depicting Cleopatra as black is a distortion of Egyptian history. Some even called to sue Netflix, and others called to produce and disseminate films and studies about Cleopatra in order to present the accurate facts. One journalist penned an antisemitic article, in which he claimed that the Jews control the global media and that they are responsible for the distortion of history in this series and in previous films.

Conversely, other writers expressed puzzlement that people were slamming the series before even watching it and were focusing on a meaningless detail like skin color. These writers argued that the series could actually benefit Egypt by promoting tourism to the country.

The following are excerpts from Egyptian official statements and press articles on this topic.

Egypt's Ministry Of Tourism And Antiquities: Cleopatra Was Light-Skinned

In a statement issued by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the ministry's Supreme Council for Archeology,  said that "depicting the heroine [Cleopatra] in this manner is a falsification of Egyptian history and a flagrant distortion, especially given that the series is presented as a documentary, not a drama." The makers of the series should have based it on the historical facts and consulted experts on archeology and anthropology, he said. He noted that there are many ancient paintings, statues and coins depicting Cleopatra, which all show that she had "Hellenic (Greek) features, light skin, a straight nose and delicate lips. The criticism of the series even before it has aired," he added, "stems from a desire to defend… an important chapter of ancient Egyptian history, and has nothing to do with ethnically-motivated racism…"

The ministry's statement also quoted other officials, including Dr. Nasser Makkawi, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, who said that Cleopatra's depiction in the series "contravenes the most basic historical facts" and the accounts of Roman historians from Cleopatra's era, who described her as a light-skinned woman of pure Macedonian descent.

Dr. Samia Al-Mirghani, former director-general of the Center for Research and Conservation of Antiquities at the Supreme Council for Archeology, stated that anthropological and biological studies and DNA tests performed on mummies indicate that the ancient Egyptians did not have African features.  Dr. Kathleen Martins, an archeologist excavating in the area of the Temple of Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria, confirmed that coins and statues from Cleopatra's era clearly indicate that she was of Macedonian descent, with Hellenic features.[4]

The statement of Egypt's Ministry Of Tourism And Antiquities included pictures of coins and statues depicting Cleopatra:

Egyptian Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass likewise stressed that Cleopatra was Greek, not African, as evident from statues of her and of her father and brother, and that there is no evidence that she was dark-skinned.[5]

Egyptian Journalists: We Must Not Remain Silent In The Face Of Historical Distortion

As noted, criticism of the series for portraying Cleopatra as black was also expressed in Egyptian press articles, which stressed that the Egyptians must not remain silent about this and proposed various ways to respond.

Director Of Antiquities Museum Calls To Produce Films To Refute Series' "False Claims"

Hussein Abdel Basir, director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, called to defend Egyptian culture and produce films on ancient Egypt in different languages in order to refute the "false claims" about it.  He wrote: "…A film [sic] will be released soon that is hostile to Egyptian culture and distorts it, and which portrays Cleopatra as black, which is false. In response to this film, we should produce a film addressing these false claims about Queen Cleopatra… All Egyptian [professionals] concerned with heritage, antiquities, history and filmmaking should respond in a suitable manner and clarify the truth. We should respond to every film with a film and to every article with an article, and publish [our] films and articles in every language, by every means and all over the world… We should hurry and produce films in every language on ancient Egypt, its prominent kings and queens and issues related to it that interest people around the world. We must be ready to respond with these correct historical and archeological productions…

"It's time to end our silence in the face of the usurpation, distortion and falsification of ancient Egyptian culture and of [the history of] its most famous kings and queens. Prepare to defend your ancient Egyptian culture and everything related to it, so we do not wake up one day to discover that our glorious Egyptian culture has been stolen from us while we were oblivious."[6]

Egyptian Journalist: The Series Distorts Egypt's Glorious History

Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Sharif, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', also explained that the Egyptian criticism of the series stems from its historical distortions and called on Egyptians to disseminate accurate research and information about the history and heritage of their country. He wrote: "The reason we oppose the series "Cleopatra" is obvious and simple: it distorts history. We must not, for any reason, allow others to present us as they like and based on their agenda. To explain this disaster in simple terms, imagine a film that presents [the footballer] Pelé as white or Cristiano Ronaldo as black. I have nothing against whites or blacks, but I am against distorting history and presenting things in the wrong way.

"Yes, Egyptian history is great, fascinating and culturally rich. We are the custodians of this culture, and it is our duty to constantly rediscover it through the arts: through writing, drama, song, painting, etc. Only by presenting authentic materials can we confront the 'others.' To put it simply, why don’t we [make] our own international documentary films about Cleopatra, Ramses, Tutankhamun and Ahmose, and present history as it was?   

"Why shouldn't our cultural journals compose summaries of accurate academic studies in Egyptology, translate them into various world languages and publish them in international journals? Why not promote foreign studies that treat our culture fairly? Why not present our heritage and culture to the world, instead of letting it preoccupy us with its deceptive and sick imaginings?"[7]

Senior Egyptian Journalist: The Makers Of The Series Should Be Sued In A U.S. Court

Muhammad Amin, a senior columnist for the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, called to sue the makers of the series in the U.S. for distorting Egyptian history.  He wrote: "The question now is the following: Will we take legal measures against the international [streaming] platform [Netflix], not by banning the series in Egypt but by filing a lawsuit in the U.S., based on its own laws? Or will we bow our heads until the crisis passes? If we file a lawsuit, we will surely win, because it will not be a lawsuit against free speech or freedom of opinion but against the usurpation and distortion of Egyptian history!"[8]

Egyptian Journalist: The Jews, Who Control The World Media, Are Responsible For The Historical Distortion In the Series On Cleopatra

In his column in the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, senior Egyptian journalist Refa'at Rashad blamed the Jews for what he called the historical distortion in the series. He claimed that the Jews control the media and use it to advancetheir theories and agendas, and that "Queen Cleopatra" will not be the last production in which they do so. He wrote: "The Jews the ones who invented propaganda, and the psychological impact of this Satanic instrument enables them to control people's minds and turn nations into tools [serving their goals]. The jews used this indirect propaganda to establish their state in Palestine, even before the fairytales of Russian and American propaganda began to appear… Even Goebbels did not yet exist then. Before all of that, [Theodor] Herzl  and his associates manipulated the mind of the world.  They subjugated the British, who controlled the world and all of Europe at the time, in order to realize their dream of [establishing] the state of Israel.

"The series [about] Cleopatra is another link in the chain of mind-control by the Jews, who dominate the global media and culture… We should examine [their] hidden agendas, because the matter [at stake] is not a dispute about a historical issue or a case of ignorance about something the whole world knows. The point is what [the Jews intend to do] after implanting certain ideas in the mind of the world, especially in the minds of the Egyptians and of the younger generations. For their aim is to uproot in advance the Egyptians' motivation to defend their history and their culture, [and the series about] Cleopatra will not be the end of the matter."[9]

Egyptian Journalists Oppose The Criticism: The Series Is An Opportunity To Promote Tourism, Familiarity With Egyptian Culture

Conversely, there were also writers who called not to judge the series before it has aired, and argued that it could benefit Egypt by promoting tourism. One of them also claimed that rulers should not be judged by their skin color but by their achievements.

Senior Egyptian Journalist: Why All This Criticism Before The Series Has Even Aired? The Series Will Promote Familiarity With Egyptian History

Egyptian MP 'Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, board chairman of Al-Masri Al-Yawm, expressed puzzlement that people were criticizing the series without even seeing it, and noted that, after the release of the 1963 Hollywood film about Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, nobody complained that she did not look Egyptian or Greek.  The series, he added, will be an opportunity for Egypt to promote familiarity with its culture and history.

He wrote:  "In the last week of Ramadan, a great outcry arose in Egypt against Netflix. [The reason was] the docudrama about Queen Cleopatra, which [is said to] disrespect Egypt's history and identity [because] it stars a black actress of African origin. When I visited the [Netflix] website and watched the trailer, I discovered that [the series] will start airing [only] on May 10. This means that nobody has seen it yet, and the only thing known for sure is the Queen's skin color… 

"I [decided to] reserve judgement about the series until after it aired, and went back to my old records from the time of the release of the famous film Cleopatra, staring Elizabeth Taylor… I found no indication that anybody had been bothered by [the fact that] the famous actress did not look like the Egyptian women or even like the modern Greek ones…  According to the records, there was no nation-wide anger about the film, and nobody sued [the filmmakers], demanding one billion dollars in compensation or even sued them for nothing. There was only some criticism about historical inaccuracies. Some reviews of the film mentioned aspects of sloppy [production], as typical of artistic, rather than historical, criticism… 

"The new Cleopatra film is an opportunity for Egypt… So why don't we use it to showcase all the archeological remains we have from the Ptolemaic period of ancient Egypt,[10] as we do in the case of the Fatimid and Mamluk periods[?]!"[11]

Egyptian Writer: A Ruler's Skin Color Is Immaterial, What Matters Is What He Did For The Country

Egyptian human rights activist, academic and writer Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim wrote in his column in Al-Masri Al-Yawm that the debate about Cleopatra's skin color is futile, because nobody can know the answer and also because leaders are not judged by their skin color but by their achievements. He added that the series can serve Egypt by encouraging tourism. He wrote: "The debate about whether Cleopatra, the last scion of the Greek [dynasty] in Egypt, was light-skinned or dark-skinned is meaningless, because the answer is lost in the deeps of time and nobody knows it but Allah… Fifty years ago I saw the film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, the most famous Hollywood star of her day, whose skin was white. At the time nobody made a fuss [about it]. Western criticism of the film focused on the wastefulness and the extravagance of [the film sets]…

"More important than Cleopatra's skin color are her significant achievements as ruler of Egypt. Historians agree that Cleopatra tried to keep Egypt independent at a time of military weakness by adopting a policy of neutrality towards the two rulers of the rising Roman empire, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, and by making good use of her attractive looks and feminine charms.  With all due respect to the famous Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass, who determined, based on Cleopatra's Greek origins, that her skin was white – is in not possible that those Greeks who ruled Egypt for over 200 years married dark-skinned Egyptian locals, had children with them and lived happily ever after?!   

"Did the father of [Egypt's first president], the late general Mohamed Naguib, not marry a Sudanese woman during his [military] service in Sudan? She gave birth to [their] son, Mohamed [Naguib], who grew up in Egypt, joined its army and served bravely in the first Palestine war (1948-1949).  This made him very popular with his fellow young officers and caused them to elect him as head of the Officers' Club… Later he led the [Free] Officers' Revolution of July 1952 [which deposed King Farouk]. Is this not also true of the late president Anwar Sadat, the hero of war and of peace? Sadat's skin was very dark, but the Egyptian people, the Arab nation and the world remember only the important achievements of this great man, in war and in peace.

"The 20th Century Fox production company, which made the film Cleopatra [in 1963], may have gotten various details right or wrong. But the important thing is the big picture and the impact of this production in terms of disseminating the truth about [Cleopatra's] long history and leaving her in the spotlight, which [generates] interest in Egypt and attracts tourists…"[12]         


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 27, 2023.

[2], April 14, 2023;,, April 15, 2023.

[3],,, April 30, 2023.

[4],, April 27, 2023.

[5], April 15, 2023.

[6] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 4, 2023.

[7], April 27, 2023.

[8] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 30, 2023.

[9], May 8, 2023.

[10] This refers to the period in which Egypt was under the Ptolemies, the Macedonian Greek royal dynasty which ruled Ancient Egypt during the Hellenistic period (305-30 BC).

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 29, 2023.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 29, 2023.


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