Today, we look for Cleopatra. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Alexandria, Egypt, was
founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. It sits
on an arm of land at the edge of the Nile Delta.
It's a fine port, and it immediately became the
cultural center of the world. Scholars converged
upon the new city.
At the time, an island called Pharos lay
just North of Alexandria. The land has since filled
in. What's left of the island is now a spur
reaching out from the city. In 280 BC, the 440-foot
Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the
ancient world, was built there. The much smaller
island of Antirhodos once lay southeast of
Pharos, closer to land. It was the site of
Cleopatra's palace shortly before the birth of
Christ. (Marc Anthony's residence probably stood on
an adjacent spit of land.)
Cleopatra was Greek, Macedonian, and Iranian.
History now questions her beauty, but not her
intelligence or energy. She even took the trouble
to learn the language of her Egyptian subjects in a
world where everyone could get by using Greek. In
her early twenties, Cleopatra strengthened Egypt by
taking up with Julius Caesar.
Marc Anthony entered the picture after Caesar's
murder. They had three children together. Octavian,
brother of Marc Anthony's Roman wife, defeated the
star-crossed couple in 30 BC and made Egypt into a
Roman province. Alexandria waned after that, though
it remained an intellectual center for four more
centuries. Eventually the land shifted. Cleopatra's
palace sank into the sea, and, during a
12th-century earthquake, the lighthouse collapsed.
So mystery closed in. Archaeologists have only just
begun scouring the ocean floor for remains.
Remnants of the lighthouse turned up in 1995. A
year later, they found the first remains of
Cleopatra's palace. Nothing traceable to Cleopatra
or Marc Anthony has been found yet, but the layers
of mystery are falling away.
So I think how the Titanic was laid bare
after a century on the ocean bottom. I think of
Troy. I think, what a strange business history is!
It's at its best when it still deals with questions
-- when the truth of things still hovers beyond
certainty. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra,
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; ...
And Pascal said, "Had Cleopatra's nose been
shorter, the whole history of the world would have
been different." What a loss it will be if history
finally gives us the shape of Cleopatra's nose.
Poet George Barker cast an odd light on this when
Life is torpedoed and like a Titanic goes
Threshing her ensigns
Against the dreadnought seas of blood and
That flood our visions.
Nice image there. Now that we've found the flooded
relics of the Titanic and Cleopatra's
palace, you might well ask whether our visions have
grown larger or been blunted by the reduction of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds