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Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK
Cleopatra: thin or fat?
Statue of Cleopatra in British Museum
Fine featured and slim: the real Cleopatra?
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

One of Egypt's most senior antiquities officials, Zahi Hawas, has challenged a description of Cleopatra as short, fat and ugly.

That was the headline of an article in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper on 25 March.

Depictions of ancient rulers were often used to project power rather than a true likeness

It said a new exhibition of statues about to open at the British Museum had revealed the ruler of ancient Egypt in the 1st century BC as short, frumpish and in need of a good dentist.

But the British Museum has said there was no evidence of her having been fat and that it would be almost impossible to recapture a true version of how she looked as she often changed her appearance to suit her political message.

Portrait of Cleopatra on a coin
The 'ugly' image of Cleopatra that sparked the controversy

Cleopatra has long been seen both in Egypt and elsewhere as a symbol of beauty.

The queen, who had love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, has been played in films by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren and she is still used to sell cosmetics. So the article in the Sunday Times was bound to prompt debate.

Beautiful and slim

Mr Hawas said the idea that she was short, fat and ugly was without scientific basis. He said a statue in an American museum and engravings of her in a temple in southern Egypt portrayed her as beautiful, fine featured and slim.

Cleopatra statue in British Museum
Cleopatra has long been seen as a symbol of beauty
Other experts say it would be impossible to know how she really looked, because depictions of ancient rulers were often used to project power rather than a true likeness.

They also point out that notions of beauty change.

No-one disputes though that Cleopatra was extremely clever and some see the focus on her looks as misplaced and sexist.

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