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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Cleopatra still a mystery
Marble statue of Cleopatra VII, c 51-30 BC
Rare exhibits on display but little written information
By BBC News Online's Helen Bushby

Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt and lover of two of the world's most powerful men, has been depicted throughout history as a ravishing, sensual and ruthless beauty.

Since her suicide in 30 BC, her memory has been carried through to the present day in history, legend, and of course, plays and books.

Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw wrote plays about her, and films starring such greats as Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh have been loved by millions.

But The British Museum is now trying to separate fact from fantasy, with a historic exhibition tracing her life and loves, in Egypt and beyond.

Copy of chalk drawing by Michelangelo, c 1533 or after
Many images of Cleopatra during her reign were destroyed by Octavian

The exhibition is very ambitious, and although the display took a painstaking two and a half years to put together, it does not quite manage to leave you with a sense of who the queen really was.

This is not the fault of the exhibits - they reveal what she may have looked like, both on coins and busts carved from basalt and marble. They also reveal how her lovers Julius Caesar and Mark Antony were depicted, providing fascinating evidence from the era.

Many of the images of Cleopatra during her reign were destroyed by Octavian, Mark Antony's successor, who took over after the couple killed themselves.

Precious few are left, and so it is a rare treat to see two sculptured heads of Cleopatra which are thought to be among the only surviving examples in the world.

Fine red chalk drawing of Cleopatra by Guercino (late 1630s)
Cleopatra - a woman of passion and conviction

The show also displays coins, jewellery and relics from before and around the time of 30 BC when the queen died, as well as more contemporary images.

But a fantastic amount has been crammed into a tiny space, making the exhibition appear cluttered and cramped.

There is also not enough written information, which is the main problem with the exhibition, as you do not leave feeling you have learned enough to make the visit worthwhile.

Cleopatra was a woman of passion and conviction who stood out during an era in history that was almost totally dominated by men, not least by seducing them for her own ends.

This is why people are interested in her and will flock to the exhibition - I only hope they are not as disappointed as I was.

The exhibition opens on 12 April and runs until 26 August.

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