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From 51 BC to 30 BC, she captivated the empire she ruled and charmed the most influential men of her time – some things never change. I arrived in the City of Brotherly Love to witness the long-awaited world premiere of the Cleopatra exhibition – "The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" – on display at the Franklin Institute (www2.fi.edu) through January 2011. From hotels to museums to restaurants, Philly was awash with excitement about hosting the most aggrandized matriarch of the ancient world.
The luxurious Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/philadelphia), my springboard for the weekend festivities, had me at em hotep (that’s “hello” in ancient Egyptian). I was at the spa for their themed Cleopatra facial before I even dropped my bags. Armed with the Naturopathica product line, a talented aesthetician quickly showed me what the AAA Five Diamond lifestyle (Cleo fared no worse in her heyday) is all about – nimble fingers, mollifying creams, and pre-heated massage tables.
Kneaded and hydrated, I floated back to my spacious hotel room to channel my inner Indiana Jones for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (www.penn.museum), which houses the third-largest sphinx in the world, weighing in at 12 tons, and taking center stage in the Lower Egyptian Gallery. Working in tandem with the Franklin Institute, this facility showcases unearthed palace doorways, columns, and tomb walls decorated with artwork and hieroglyphics that date back as far back as 5,000 years ago. In the Upper Egyptian Gallery, spooky glass-bound mummies lie in eternal repose, opposite the very instruments used to preserve their bodies: My inner sixth-grader was pleasantly unnerved.
To mentally prepare for the main event, I made a pit stop the following day at Cleo’s Portico (www2.fi.edu/visitor-guide/dining.php) on the second-floor terrace of the Franklin Institute. The concept café, a Steve Poses (the Philadelphia-based best-selling author and caterer) production, serves Mediterranean fare and themed cocktails like the stiff Cleopolitan and the deceitfully smooth Serpent. Bathed in sunlight and gazing over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – contemplating the impending exhibit, of course – I munched on stuffed grape leaves, unsparingly dipping golden pita triangles in hummus and babaganoush. I recommend flocking to this outdoor gem soon, as it's only open through the fall, due to the onset of cooler weather come fall.
Time for the main event: The exhibit kicks off with a four-minute video clip about two prominent researchers’ quests for Cleo’s remains, and then leads into a showcase of almost 150 treasures and multimedia displays that run the gamut from gold jewelry that adorned Cleopatra’s body to magnificent 16-foot-tall statues that she may have worshipped. An engaging first-person narrative tells her side of the story via an audio tour that helps navigate the maze of stone sphinxes, pocket-sized idols, and toiletries that this powerful vixen is believed to have laid her manicured hands on. I walked out of the gallery feeling as if I had met and had spoken intimately with this indomitable Egyptian powerhouse, the breathy voice of Cleopatra’s raconteur still echoing in my ears.
The Franklin Institute and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are offering a joint ticket package, starting from $22 for non-members, which can be reserved at 1-877-TFI-TIXS or the Franklin Institute ticket office. Independent exhibition tickets are available from $19.50 at www.fi.edu/cleopatra; Penn Museum children's tickets start from $6 (Tip: Pay-what-you-want admission is available after 3:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and after 4 p.m. on Sundays).
Paying hefty homage to Cleo’s sojourn in Philadelphia, 11 hotels, including the Four Seasons, are participating in a package promotion through January 2, 2011, which features two VIP Cleopatra exhibit tickets (worth up to $59), and nightly rates starting from just $139 at the four-star Le Meridien (www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien). For more information, go to www.cleopatra.visitphilly.com.