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In this book Stothard is not terribly concerned to fill them in with speculation about how Cleopatra spent her average day. Rather, he uses them to make his life of her his own. What, at the beginning of the book, risks being construed as self-indulgence, transpires to reinvigorate the hotchpotch of ancient historical facts with their relevance to the present. 

Take the Library at Alexandria. In Cleopatra's day it was the city's greatest treasure, unique and, as fate proved, irreplaceable. If it weren't for this heritage, it is doubtful whether France would have donated to its modern replacement, the Biblioteca Alexandrina, some 500,000 volumes. It doesn't take Stothard many hours there to realise that it is, nonetheless, a shell of a place, hardly a library at all. 

Not that he is wistful for a past he never knew. The book is written in the form of a diary of a holiday he spent in Alexandria in January 2011, just as a bomb tore through a church, a presage of the unrest to come. 

Stothard documents his guide Mahmoud's distaste for those who seek to find there something that once, or never, existed. This is a stance he has every sympathy with:

I have no nostalgia for the sexual invention and cosmopolitan beauty that Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster so longingly describe. I have not arrived with half-admitted hopes of the city being what it used to be at some other time or something or somewhere other than it is.

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