Cleopatra’s Needle: The Story Behind the Obelisks
Cleopatra’s Needle is the name shared by three ancient Egyptian obelisks – one in New York City, one in London, and one in Paris. However, each comes from a different Egyptian site and none may have been built in honor of Cleopatra. Although often overlooked, each monument has volumes to say about history, both ancient and modern.
The obelisks were named in honor of Cleopatra because of her famed beauty and connections to well-known Romans. Plus, the name had a certain glamorous ring to it. The obelisks in New York and London are made of red granite from the quarries of Aswan with each stone weighing approximately 224 tons. The obelisks were constructed in 1450 BC in the city of Heliopolis for the Pharoah Thutmose III (1481-1425 BC). They are 68 feet (21m) tall. The obelisk in Paris is known as the Luxor Obelisk and is made of a yellow granite. Constructed about 3,000 years ago, it was originally situated outside the Luxor Temple in Egypt where its twin still remains. The Paris obelisk is 75 feet (23m) tall and weighs over 250 tons. All three obelisks are inscribed with hieroglyphs glorifying Ramses II.
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The Needle of New York
The Cleopatra’s Needle of New York was erected in Central Park on February 22, 1881. It had been given to the US Consul General stationed in Cairo as a gift to the United States from the Egyptian Khedive (a title equivalent to a viceroy) as a gesture of gratitude for the US remaining neutral while Great Britain and France vied for control of the Egyptian government. The obelisk had been moved from its original home in Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12 BC where was set up in the temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Marc Anthony. Sometime later, the obelisk toppled into the sand; however, this had the positive effect of preserving the hieroglyphs for modern researchers.
The Central Park obelisk as it stood in Alexandria, published 1884. ( Public Domain )
For 3000 years, the dry desert air preserved the legacy of the pharaohs. Unfortunately, it has not been well maintained in the US. Since its arrival, numerous pockmarks have emerged and the hieroglyphs have faded, most likely due to the rain, snow, and acidity of the polluted New York City air. In 2011, the then minister of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, threatened to take back the obelisk if it was not better looked after: “If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk,” he wrote in an open letter to officials in New York, “I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.” In response, the city financed a $500,000 restoration of the obelisk.
New York's Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Needle in London
The Cleopatra’s Needle in London is located on the Victoria Embankment of the Thames River near the Golden Jubilee Bridge. The monument was given to the government of the United Kingdom in 1819 by the then ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, as a commemoration of the British victories at the Battle of the Nile (1798) and the Battle of Alexandria (1801). The British government, while appreciative of the gift, declined to pay for its very expensive transportation to England and so left the obelisk in Egypt. It was not until 1877 that Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist, sponsored the transportation of the obelisk at the cost of about £10,000. It was re-erected by the Thames in 1878 with two sphinx statues guarding it.
Close up of London's Cleopatra's Needle ( Public Domain )
The obelisk had survived intact for 3,500 years of strife and warfare, however, it probably came closest to destruction during World War I when a German bomb landed near the monument on September 4, 1917. The pedestal of the obelisk was damaged as were its sphinx companions but the obelisk itself was unharmed. The damage was not repaired and a plaque stands to commemorate the event.