The two red granite statues, each more than 16 feet tall, entered the Franklin Institute one recent morning through soaring glass loading doors on the second floor. The great figure of a king went first, resting in a crate atop a metal pallet lifted by a crane. Soon he would stand beside an Egyptian queen, also from Cleopatra's Ptolemaic era - two monumental artifacts of her mysterious world.
A rigging crew and several Egyptians - present whenever their country's antiquities are in transit - worked quietly, pulling the statues inside, unpacking them, standing them upright.
It was a difficult, delicate task, but far simpler than it had been to retrieve the figures from the murky depths off the coast of Alexandria, where an excavation of mythical proportions continues to provide context for the enigmatic Cleopatra, last pharoah of Egypt before it became a Roman province in 30 B.C.
The sights and sounds of the underwater project, along with those of corresponding land excavations, are featured in "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt," which opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 2, 2011. The 18,000-square-foot exhibition, which will travel to four other North American cities, includes about 150 artifacts ranging in size from coins to massive statues and weighing a total of 30 tons.
Arts and Exhibitions International organized the 2007 Tutankhamun show that drew more than 1.3 million visitors to the Franklin Institute. AEI chose to debut "Cleopatra" here because of that success and the institute's science focus: This is not a gallery show but a look at the process that has led to contemporary discoveries and, some believe, to the cusp of one of archaeology's most sought-after finds, the tomb of Cleopatra and her lover, Mark Antony.
Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and familiar to viewers of documentaries about ancient Egypt, said the show was the first to focus on the search for the pair.
He and Kathleen Martinez, a Dominican archaeologist, five years ago began excavating inside the temple Taposiris Magna in Abusir, west of Alexandria. Among their finds was a foundation deposit that revealed the temple was built in the time of Ptolemy IV, one of 14 said to have contained a piece of the body of Osiris, god of the underworld.
Inside was a small temple dedicated to Osiris' wife, Isis, which Hawass says was built when Cleopatra ruled.
David Silverman is the curator in charge of the Egyptian collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which has paired with the Franklin Institute for this exhibition and is offering a self-guided tour, "Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt." He said despite the tremendous amount that has been written about Cleopatra, little is known of her from material culture.
"The problem about the material that was written about her is it was written later . . .," says Silverman, whose first graduate student was Hawass. "Some parts are fairly negative, some of it is inaccurate, and then all of a sudden, a lot of it winds up being very romantic, and through rose-colored glasses."
Underwater archaeology, he said, requires a tremendous amount of conservation, some of which must be done before the artifacts - especially the porous ones - emerge from the sea.
On the deck of the Princess Duda, anchored off Alexandria above the sunken island on which Cleopatra's palace stood, the French diver and archaeologist Franck Goddio said in a phone interview Tuesday that the excavation was far from finished. He estimated that the project has revealed less than 1 percent of the submerged artifacts.
Goddio - who began the project in 1991, electronically mapped the site from 1992 to 1996, then began excavating - values the context his work is helping paint of the queen's life and times. But the discovery of statues and parts thereof often comes piecemeal.
One morning last week, visibility underwater reached five feet. That, he said, "is very good for us" - typical visibility is seldom more than three feet, enough to spot a sculpted arm or elbow jutting from the sediment, which in some places covers the site to a depth of about 10 feet.
"You just see part of this artifact, and you discover it little by little," he said. "It's only by drawings on the surface" - and photography, and sophisticated mapping tools - "that we start to see what is there."
The island is believed to have slid into the Bay of Aboukir in the fourth century A.D., when an earthquake sent a tsunami crashing through the city. Goddio's crew has found two buildings there: the remains of Cleopatra's palace and a small temple devoted to Isis.
On Monday, Goddio found a foot-tall bronze statuette on the site of the Isis temple. His team continues to find elements of Cleopatra's era, and even the smallest provide context; depictions of gods reveal the periods during which the artifacts were created.
"It's not a static museum exhibition," Dennis Wint, the Franklin Institute's president and chief executive said of "Cleopatra." "It's an exhibition that is going to emphasize the process of exploration and discovery."
The work of Hawass and his crew is represented in the show's terrestrial portions. Inside the main entrance of the temple Taposiris Magna, they found many pieces of sphinx statues, which he said could mean the entrance was lined with "an avenue of sphinxes." Twenty-two coins were found, emblazoned with the face and name of Cleopatra.
("I think the reason why people think Cleopatra was ugly is because she was depicted with a big nose on the coins," Hawass said. "But you cannot really know . . . . I do not think Cleopatra was ugly at all because the lady captured the hearts of the two most powerful people on earth, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.")
Outside the temple, a large Ptolemaic cemetery was unearthed. Some of its many mummies were gilded, and all their heads were turned toward the temple, which Hawass said could mean an important person, or persons, were buried inside.
He didn't venture to estimate when the team might discover the tomb itself, but said the excavation project itself was significant: While many have searched for the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria and Siwa, no one has looked for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
"We know that Cleopatra built a palace and tomb . . . but both of these are now underwater in the harbor of Alexandria," he said. "We know from ancient writers that Cleopatra was never buried in her tomb. This is why we have turned our focus to the Isis temple . . .. If they were buried inside the temple, they would be symbolic of the husband and wife, Isis and Osiris, buried together."
Hawass' favorite piece, which he found inside the temple, is an alabaster head of Cleopatra. "When I held the head in my hand," he said, "I felt the magic of the queen, and I imagined what it would feel like if we found the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony."
Mark Lach, designer of the hugely successful Tut exhibition and creative director of "Cleopatra," calls the current show's content "far richer."
"There's not a lot to know about Tut," he said, who "probably would've been an insignificant king lost to the pages of history if it wasn't for the discovery. We know a lot more about Cleopatra. We also don't know a lot about Cleopatra. We know who she is through movies and pop culture, but what's the real backstory? Well, what's amazing about the discoveries that Franck has made, this gives you her world."
Visitors will start with a 4½-minute introductory video. The screen then will rise to reveal a statue of Isis, considered to have been the archetypal mother of Egypt.
That's where the audio tour, featuring an actress speaking as Cleopatra, begins. It's free, the first time either Arts and Exhibitions International or the Franklin has included it within the ticket prices, which range from $19.50 to $29.50 for daytime entry.
A glass-floored walkway takes visitors through a room that includes artifacts underfoot, video projections of divers and the sounds of their communication. More than a dozen original videos were produced for the exhibit.
And though multimedia elements loom large in the show, an ancient papyrus document in a glass case reveals as much, detailing an exchange of wheat for wine to benefit an aide of Mark Antony's.
At the bottom is a note Cleopatra is thought to have scribbled. It says, in translated Greek, "Make it happen."
"Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 2, 2011, at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. Tickets are dated and timed. Hours: Monday-Wednesday: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday: 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Daytime ticket prices: Monday-Thursday: adults, $26.50; seniors (62+), $24.50; children (4-11), $19.50. Friday-Sunday: adults, $29.50, seniors, $27.50, children, $19.50 1-877-TFI-TIXS. More information at www.fi.edu/cleopatra.
During the run of "Cleopatra," the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St. (www.penn.museum) will offer a self-guided tour of its Egyptian galleries and artifacts. A discounted double ticket for "Cleopatra" and the Penn Museum tour can be purchased at the Franklin Institute or by calling 1-877-TFI-TIXS.