Cleopatra’s Needle: The Story Behind Three Awe-Inspiring 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 actually been built in honor of Queen Cleopatra. Although their stories are often overlooked, each monument has volumes to say about human history, both ancient and modern.
Obelisks - Megalithic Constructions
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. These obelisks were constructed in 1450 BC in the city of Heliopolis for the Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 BC). They are 68 feet (21m) tall.
The obelisk in Paris, on the other hand, is also known as the Luxor Obelisk and it is made of 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 remaining obelisk is visible at Luxor Temple at night. (Alicia McDermott) This is one of the sites Ancient Origins Tours visited in 2020.
Cleopatra’s 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 it was set up in the temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Marc Antony . 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, the obelisk has not been as 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 in the winter. ( Abigail /Adobe Stock)
The Obelisk 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 they 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.
London's Cleopatra's Needle with one of the two sphinxes that guard it. ( demerzel21 /Adobe Stock)
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 in remembrance of the event.
As was the case in 2011 to New York, Zahi Hawass made the same threat to London in 2018 regarding their obelisk, saying, “I went to see it yesterday and I was ashamed […] If they don't care, they should return it.” In response, the Westminster City Council Cabinet Member for Environment and City Management stated:
“Cleopatra’s Needle is one of our most distinctive monuments. As such we regularly clean and polish the obelisk’s bronze work and have invested in its restoration in recent years. The obelisk famously suffered from bomb damage during the blitz - this damage is now part of its history and won’t be repaired.”
An Obelisk of Two Names in Paris
The Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris is also known as the Luxor Obelisk and stands in the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. This obelisk was a gift from Muhammad Ali in 1833. Unlike the British, the French had no qualms with the high cost of shipping and set about getting the stone monument to Paris. On October 25, 1836, the Luxor Obelisk was erected by King Louis-Phillipe in the center of the Place de la Concorde.
The obelisk called Cleopatra's Needle in Paris, France. ( Toby Marsh /Adobe Stock)
It was placed on a pedestal that had originally been made to support a statue of King Louis XVI on horseback, but that statue was destroyed in the Revolution of 1830. The original pedestal the obelisk stood on in Egypt had featured 16 “fully sexed baboons” but this was deemed too lewd for public display by the Parisians.
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Today, the original pedestal can be seen in the Louvre Museum . The obelisk was missing its golden capstone (called a pyramidion), which was stolen from the monument in the 6th century BC. So, in 1998, the French government added a gold-leafed capstone to the obelisk.
Pointing to the heavens, the three ancient obelisks all known as Cleopatra’s Needle, proudly display their Egyptian origins to the world.
Bianchi, Robert. "Place De La Concorde, Obelisk of Luxor." Place De La Concorde, Obelisk of Luxor. Discover France, 2001. Web. http://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Paris/Monuments-Paris/Obelisque.shtml
Briquelet, Kate. "How Cleopatra’s Needle Got to Central Park." New York Post. New York Post, 15 June 2014. Web. http://nypost.com/2014/06/14/how-cleopatras-needle-a-3500-year-old-egyptian-obelisk-got-to-central-park/
LondonMetroGirl. "Cleopatra’s Needle: How an Egyptian Obelisk Ended up by the Thames… and Why Isn’t It Thutmose’s Needle?" Memoirs Of A Metro Girl. Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, 04 June 2014. Web. https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2013/06/04/cleopatras-needle-london-history-how-an-egyptian-obelisk-ended-up-by-river-thames/