From Cleopatra to the Suez Canal

A collage of my Egyptian cigarette packs.

My Arabic translating and typing skills are a bit rusty but getting better with this round of cigarette packs. Fortunately, half of these packs are from the same brand – CLEOPATRA!

Cleopatra captures the world’s imagination as a symbol of ancient Egypt. Rather curious, considering that despite adopting the symbols and title of the ancient Pharaohs, her heritage was actually Greek, last active ruler in Ptolemaic dynasty.

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison in the Mankiewicz production “Cleopatra” (1963). (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

The Egyptian packs all display Cleopatra wearing a Pharaoh’s crown and depicted in profile, more reminiscent of King Tut or Rameses II than the age of Caesar and Marc Antony, her equally famous lovers. The image ties Egypt’s glorious ancient past with the height of Greek-Egyptian culture

How did Cleopatra become the symbol of ancient Egypt in the second half of the 20th century? Just a guess, but it may have had something to do with world fascination with Cecil B. DeMille’s award-winng film Cleopatra in 1934 and Elizabeth Taylor’s smashing performance in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 production. Historical accuracy often gives way to Hollywood glamour and fantasy.

On the other end of Egyptian history, we have the Suez Canal with its famous Port Said. Built in 1859 at the Mediterranean entrance to the newly-constructed Suez Canal, it stands as a symbol of Modern Egypt. The symbol but elegant pack features a ship’s anchor in a green circle.

Cleopatra CigarettesPort Said Cigarettes

I’m the son of a graphic designer, so I love to analyze fonts, and there’s a stunning font-related difference in these packs. The name “Cleopatra” is written in an elegant, whimsical font reminiscent of Koranic calligraphy. “Port Said” couldn’t be more different. The letters have straight lines, drawn to look as though they were printed by a typewriter, symbol of the machine age. (Anybody who knows how the Arabic alphabet works, with three forms for most letters and with numerous vowel-combinations, can imagine the immense technical skill typing it on a typewriter would require!) If Cleopatra symbolizes Egypt’s romantic past, Port Said symbolizes its industrial future.

Port Said postcard (ca. 1915), featuring the Coptic Church. (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

*Working on my next post: A tribute devoted especially to a rather unique Egyptian pack.

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