Why Did Cleopatra Need Pearls to Quench Her Thirst?

Article excerpt

Byline: J. Hope Babowice

You wanted to know

Camille Bator, 9, of Libertyville wanted to know:

When did Cleopatra first discover pearls? What was her main need for them?

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For more information

To learn more Cleopatra, Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville suggests these book titles and Web sites:

- "The Egypt Game" by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

- "Cleopatra, Daughter of the NIle" by Kristiana Gregory

- "Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile" by Tomie DePaolo

NOVA, The History of Pearls at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pearl/time.html

Electronic Passport: Cleopatra at www.mrdowling.com/604- cleopatra.html

Camille Bator, 9, a fourth-grader at Libertyville's Butterfield School, asked, "When did Cleopatra first discover pearls? What was her main need for them?"

Pearls are an unusual product of nature. They are found in saltwater clams and freshwater oysters. When a foreign body enters the shell, like a grain of sand, the clam or mussel tries to get rid of it. The clam or mussel secretes a substance that covers the irritant. This is what we call a pearl.

Because of the way nature makes a pearl, they are rare. Large pearls were so valuable in ancient times that it is said that a Roman general financed a war by selling just one of his mother's earrings.

A 2,000-year-old story about Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt from 50 BC to 30 BC, also tells of the value of the pearl. Museum archivist John Larson at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago retells the story:

"Cleopatra said she could spend more money on a banquet than anyone had ever spent before," Larson said. "If she could prove this, she could prove that Egypt was indeed a world power.

"She had two pearl earrings, the largest pearls known in existence. At the banquet, Cleopatra removed one of her earrings, crushed it and dropped it into her goblet of vinegar and then drank it. …