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The Last Pharaoh of Egypt: A Fictional Account of Cleopatra's Final Hours as Told by Her Handmaiden
Cleopatra, the Last of the Ptolemy Pharaohs - Egypt's Last Pharaoh
She is Egypt's last pharaoh, her heritage, a ruthless one. She is from a line of powerful women who all sought to rule the land of my birth. These women would have wrested the rule from the men, if they could. She and her sister, Arsinoe, were devoted to Egypt. Arsinoe paid the ultimate price for her thirst for power - death. And now my Thea, my Cleopatra will, as well.
I am her chosen handmaiden.
As rulers with a thirst for power, the Ptolemys, her forefathers and mothers, loved the Egypt; they loved their people; they would stop at nothing to rule them both. My Queen is no different, but I know her well. We have been together since we were children. We have a bond, the two of us. I keep her counsel and she has allowed me rare privileges. I married, I have a family, even as I continue to serve her. I was allowed a life of my own, unlike so many who serve Cleopatra and the Royal Family.
I readily admit that I am devoted to her.
Now, I look closely, carefully, at her face. I memorize each facet, from the tiny lines that are just starting to form in the corners of her mouth to the distinctive mole that is just above her left eye. Her dark eyes, rimmed with kohl, reflect the intelligence she inherited from her father and her father's father and the African women who bore their children, for hundreds of years, since the time of Alexander the Great. Those great Pharaohs repaired and increased the great library of Alexandria, attracting great minds from many countries. They built the Lighthouse of Alexandria, guarding the way to port for so many merchant ships bringing valuable goods from other lands. They supported the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes. They repaired the temples of the gods. They increased the wealth of the land - the intellect, the gold, the jewels, the people.
They made us vulnerable to the greed of Rome.
It is impossible for me to speak what I know to be true in my heart - it ends here, with her. Her children won't be spared without her there to protect them. I tell her this.
"It is of little consequence now," she tells me. Cleopatra's eyes glisten, but not a tear falls. Her lips quiver but her voice is strong and commanding.
"Even alive I cannot protect them any longer. The oldest boy they will surely kill, as they did his father. He has grown to be fine in spirit and mind. That monster, that Roman, Octavialn, cannot risk a successor that has blood ties to this land and to the Empire.
"But what of the boy and the girl. What of their brother, your husband's children?" I could not stop the tears. I was neither as strong nor as brave as she. Cleopatra had spent the last two weeks grieving her husband's death, allowing herself to feel pain, even wallowing in it, though I suspect most of the pain is for the loss of Egypt. Even in this short span of time, she has become smaller, as if she is being devoured by some unseen force.
The evil box rests in her lap as she sits, already as still as death. The emeralds, lapis lazuli and diamonds that adorn it belied what one imagines in it. The box holds no jewels within - no crowns, no rings, no ropes of pearl to encircle her long slender neck. It is merely the recepticle for an instrument of death, a rope of venom not gold, nestled in the deceptive box.
"Why this way, my Thea?" I asked halting. My grief got in the way of my tongue. "You have knowledge of many poisons. Your guards are accurate with their blades."
"Because it is swift. It leaves no trace except the icy fingers of death. I have watched many others die this way. I will be remembered in death as I appear in life."
She looks at me curiously, as if she has realized something from my words.
"I will speak only Egyptian, the language of my people, until I breathe no longer. I implore you to do the same," she said sternly.
I understand her command. She speaks nine languages. She is the only Ptolemy to ever speak Egyptian and she is proud to identify with her mother's ancestry and that of her Egyptian subjects.
The box moved slightly, a small punctuation to her words. She stilled it, laying a jeweled hand on top of it. The ring she wore, the black onyx that her husband gave her on the birth of the twins was like a shining black emptiness. It's depths hypnotized me, it's blackness as limitless as my pain.
I am tempted to cry out that I, too, will follow, just as she is following her husband and her first lover, but there is no need. The Empire was responsible for the death of both, one by the hands of the almighty senate the other by his own in defiance of defeat by Octavian, the brother of his former wife. My Queen had no chance to plead with him to live when she found him, as I pleaded with her now. We both were greeted with deaf ears. I am certain, had he known she still lived, he would have rather they died together, so strong was his love for her and so strong her love for the land she ruled.
"I hear the people in the street. They are crying out for their queen to preside over the Festival of Isis. It is but days away. This is August 10th, is it not?"
I answered that it was.
She nodded in acquiescence.
"I cannot be the Cleopatra they cry out for in this world any longer. I am loathe to leave this world but I will join Isis in eternity. That is all that is left for me now."
I watched as she shifted the box and cradled it carefully as she slowly rose from the gilded, ebony chair. The netted linen cloth hanging ceiling to floor at her bed fluttered briefly, the only breeze in the room caused by the stir of her movements as she passed.
The linen gown she wore clung to her, the Egyptian heat causing her golden skin to glisten slightly. She walked with bare feet adorned by a single circle of gold on one toe that made a faint tapping sound as she moved across the marble floor to the portico.
She lifted away the flimsy material that hung limply framing the opening to the outside and looked out on a black night, the vastness interrupted by fires stretching blazing fingers into the blackness. Smoke rose majestically, scattering stars of ashes heavenward. It looks as if the whole city is burning.
The sight is lovely, one she anticipates each year, a sight associated with the festival for Isis. Only this time there were many more fires spread across the city, fires controlled by Octavian.
"I don't know where your Bes is, Amnet," she said to me as she turned away from the hypnotizing blazes, "it is very likely that he is dead, alongside Marc Antony. If he did not die by his own hand, his life would have been taken by Octavian's men."
"I believe you to be right, my queen," I reply mournfully. My heart is breaking but there is nothing I can do, nothing I can say that can console either of us. The despair is deep.
I, too, watch the flames that leap into the night air, now strong with the acrid smell of many burnings mingled with the smell of the sea. The palace is close enough that we can hear the sea roll gently onto shore. The palace stands above the waters, the city below. The occasional shouts of the people are carried above the sound of the sea. She can see the lighthouse far out to sea guiding her enemies' ships to safe harbor, her harbor.
"I implore you again, let us try to flee with the children. Though you may feel Ceasarian is lost, you still have the twins and the baby. There are those in the city who would give you safe passage."
"Safe passage? Safe passage to where, Amnet?" she looked at me, her eyes piercing, seeing into my soul, transfixing me as she had so many others - man or woman. This is her way. She can quell a man, win his favor with those eyes. Their very blackness can also bring a man to his knees, shaking with fear, begging forgiveness and mercy.
She has total unshakable loyalty from her servants. She carries the respect of the priests. She is their living goddess. Though she flaunts many of the rules passed down through the ages. They could not deny her intelligence and her cunning nor could they deny her respect for the gods.
She is at once a general, a leader, a queen, a lover, a mother. She is hated for this, she is loved for this.
I love her as her own sister never could. I learned alongside her, though she was always quicker. I didn't mind. How could I? I had been chosen; she had chosen me when we were mere girls of ten. Her father, Ptolemy XII, had recognized that she would need someone she could trust in her court. He knew that if she didn't have a confidant as a resource, she would become the pawn of men. She undoubtedly was the favorite of his children. She and I spent many hours with him, learning from him, listening, transfixed, as he played the beautiful music on the flute.
She had a strong resemblance to him, keen eyes, sharp wit. She was the middle girl and, as it turned out, he was right not to trust his oldest daughter, Berenice. Berenice tried to kill her father and seize the throne at her first opportunity. My queen was right not to trust the youngest girl, Arisinoe. She tried to raise an army against her.
Doomed Ptolemies - Rulers of Egypt
Now she looked at me bleakly for several heartbeats before finally turned back to the fires in the city. I am measuring time in heartbeats.
"I failed, Amunet."
Three words she says so low it is almost a whisper. I strain to hear her words clearly. A few stray ashes drift close to where she stands.
"Where are your girls?" she asks me.
"They are with my mother. Bes arranged for them to get away from the city before the fighting began. He feared that Alexandria would not be safe if Octavian continued his press, though we never dreamed we would fail and the deceitful devil, Octavian, succeed. I pray to Isis to keep them from harm."
I didn't know it was a final goodbye when I handed my girls to my mother.
My lips are quivering, my throat burns from smoke that is surprisingly thick in the air. The number of fires burning didn't warrant the amount of smoke.
"Watching the fires in the city now reminds me of the fires years ago, when Ceasar miscalculated his actions. I thought my heart would break when the great library burned. Now my heart is shattering into a million pieces all over again."
She clutched the box closer to her breast. The light from the brazier beside her caused the diamonds to wink cruelly at us both. She was wearing her crown, the two golden serpents entwined, the gleaming scales so lifelike in their intricacy, the lifeless eyes deep, dark emeralds, her favorite stone. Now she removed it and carelessly tossed it on the bed. Her diminutive figure looked even smaller. Her black hair had been arranged in two long braids and were captured under the crown. Now they fell like ropes nearly to her feet. They must have felt heavy when paired with the crown. I know that if she does this evil thing, she will have the crown arranged on her head again, a reminder to all who was the rightful ruler of her Egypt.
My own dark hair is twisted at the nape of my neck. It is bothersome; it is hot. Strays stick to my forehead. I push the unruly wisps away from my face and smooth them into the rest of my hair. I resist the urge to cut it away. I have no use for its adornment.
"I held on to Egypt and ruled as best I could. In this year, 31 B.C. I am relinquishing all, my husband, my children, my crown, my life."
Still standing, she is reaching for more wine, Pouring it into the royal, jeweled chalice. This will ease the pain, the mental pain, of what is to come.
I sipped my own wine from a silver chalice. No one would ever know that I ate and drank with her when she dined in private, a practice she started when we were children.
I held my own thoughts of my husband, of the birth of our girls. He was there reach each birth, arranged by my queen. He and I spent time together, we dreamed together, luxuries not afforded servants and military. We had more than many. Life was dangerous, but I have no regrets except that my children will have no mother, no father.
She interrupted my thoughts.
"I will not allow that despicable Octavian to parade me through the streets of Rome and into the Arena as Ceasar did my sister, Arisinoe. There was no choice in that matter. It is the only recourse for me and for young Ceasarian.
She is moving back towards the bed. She stops to gaze at her reflection in the bowl of water siting on a pedestal in her path.
"I see so clearly that our troubles began when Physkson sold Egypt to Rome and sealed by fate with the bargain he struck with Rome even before my father's time. My grandfather and Father reacted as best they could. Unfortunately, Father preferred music to statehood.
"But I will not lie to you, or try to hide my ambitions, Amunet. You are well aware of my desire for the power of the throne. I was destined to rule! I deserved to rule! But rather than continue my rightful place on the throne, now I will prematurely take my place with Isis and all the Pharaohs who came before me. Only I will choose when and how my death will occur. Octavian thinks to prevent it and stalks the halls of the palace, bellowing my name. As usual, my will is underestimated. I am making the decision of when and how my death will occur!
She has put the box down and is pinning her hair on top of her head. She reaches for the crown lying in the center of the bed. The sheer linen curtains, like those on the portico, surround the bed and stir with her movements.
The air continues to be hot, unmovable except when she moves. There are no servants to cool the air with the huge fans for that purpose. They had long been dismissed.
I can't tear my eyes from the box. I try, but I am transfixed. I reluctantly turn away to arrange her crown and hair. Once the crown sits solidly atop her head, she retrieves the hateful box once more, this time clutching it close to her heart.
Pulling herself to her full height, she proclaims, "I am Cleopatra VII! Throw open the doors! Let the people know it is done. In defiance of the Roman Empire, I still command reign over myself, for the glory of Isis. For the glory of the people of Egypt."
I cross the room to the doors, as she commanded me. On the other side are guards who turn to face me as I walk out. They can see her still standing behind me, back to the portico. They peer at her, startled at the sudden activity and proclamation.
I know who is loyal to her, who isn't. I reach up and whisper in the closest's guard's ear. He doesn't comment, merely nods. On her last command, he begins his grim task with me.
In the end, I am but a handmaiden who must do as she is told and in the end Cleopatra VII - the last ruling Ptolemy, the last Pharaoh - escaped doing as she was told, once again.
The Enigma of Cleopatra Created Books and Movies
Cleopatra's magnetism has lasted over two thousand years and shows no signs of abating. She has captured the interests of historians and writers over the ages. One of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies is about the star crossed love that is said by some to have existed between her and Marc Antony.
She has also captured the imagination of Hollywood for decades. Probably, the most famous Cleopatra was portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor opposite her real life, soon to be husband, Richard Burton as Marc Antony. In fact, Hollywood is preparing production of the newest version of Cleopatra, this time starring Angelina Jollie.
I have no idea what occurred during her last few hours of life. Did she have a handmaiden/trusted companion named Amunet? I hope she did, or at least someone she could confide in and trust to keep her secrets. Certainly, none of her known relatives fit that bill.
Much of what was initially known of her was the result of Roman propaganda. It's not even known if she was a great beauty or if she ended her life with the bite of a snake. Rome coveted Egypt for her wealth, not to mention her vast library and large cadre of men. Most of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs immediately preceding Cleopatra spent their time and their wealth fending off the advances of Rome. Cleopatra inherited this problem which seems to have grown with each successive Pharaoh. In addition, there was plenty of palace intrigue. This was apparently the world she lived in. She appeared to be the ultimate statesman who had no intention of willingly allowing total rule of her Egypt to fall to Rome.
It is said that on her death, all of Cleopatra's servants were put to death or took their own lives. It was the practice of the Egyptians to place servants in burial tombs with their Pharaoh to serve them in death. Were all the servants put to death? This may have been more Roman propaganda.
Cleopatra is a fascinating figure in history, but she was once a living being who was trying to make her way in a world that was filled with treachery and uncertainty. She must have thought she could have it all as a living incarnation of the goddess, Isis. In the end, she could take nothing with her and though she reigned over two thousand years ago, she still captures our imaginations.
The life of Cleopatra is always a fascinating read regardless of the author.
© 2012 Cynthia B Turner