Did you know, London has an ancient Egyptian obelisk on display? It’s not in a museum or a private collection. It’s actually alongside the River Thames in central London so you may have seen it and not realised its significance.
Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, near the Golden Jubilee Bridges, has a twin in New York’s Central Park. (And those two have a ‘younger cousin’ in Paris which is also one of a pair but from a different site in Luxor; the other is still in Luxor.) A Grade I listed structure since 1958, Cleopatra’s Needle has a much longer history. About 3,500 years of it, so let’s see how this stone has ended up in London.Thames embankment, London, England. Date between c.1890 and c.1900. Credit: Library of Congress
What is an Obelisk?
An obelisk is a single upright stone with four sides slightly inclined towards each other. It generally stands upon a square base or pedestal. The top of the obelisk resembles a small pyramid, called a pyramidion, the sides of which are generally inclined at an angle of sixty degrees.
What’s It Got to Do With Cleopatra?
Actually very little as she would never have seen the ‘needles’. The name has been used to honour the Egyptian ruler. Cleopatra was known for many reasons – her power, her beauty and being the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
How Big Is It?
I would say it’s big enough to be hard to miss, but you know what central London is like – there is so much to see! And as it in on the opposite side of The Thames to the London Eye and Southbank Centre, it is likely you’ll be looking the other way.
Both our Cleopatra’s Needle and the one in New York are made of red granite from the quarries of Syenite. Both are about the same height (68 ft/21 metres). It is 8 ft wide at the base and tapers up to a width of 5 ft, where it contracts into a 7 ft tall pyramid.
How much one obelisk weighs vary in different reports, but it is somewhere between 180 and 224 tons. (Let’s be honest, we can hardly pop it on some scales to check.) What we do know is that Cleopatra’s Needle is considered to be ten times as heavy as the biggest stone at Stonehenge.
How Old Is It?
These obelisks were constructed in around 1450 BC for the Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481–1425 BC). Thutmose III is generally regarded as the greatest of the kings of Egypt.
The First Journey
From the quarry in Syenite, Cleopatra’s Needles (London’s and New York’s) were floated down the Nile on a huge raft for 700 miles to the sacred city of Heliopolis. Called in the Bible On, and by the ancient Egyptians An, Heliopolis was a city of temples. Moses studied there, as did Pythagoras, Plato and many of the great ancient minds.
Thutmose III (reigned 1504–1450 BC) erected the pair of obelisk for the dedication of the Temple of the Sun. There they stood for fourteen centuries, during which period many dynasties reigned and passed away; Greek dominion in Egypt rose and flourished until the Ptolemies were vanquished by the Caesars, and Egypt became a province of imperial Rome.
Thutmose III had a single column of hieroglyphics carved on each face. On one side he equates his divine father with the God Horus the Rising Sun. On the next two sides, he continues to claim his divine origin with due homage to the gods. And on the fourth side, he makes offerings for a sound life of thirty years. On each side of each pyramidion (top triangle of the obelisk), Thutmose III is drawn as a ‘sphinx’ making offerings to the Gods of Heliopolis.
Around two hundred years later, Rameses II (1300s–1213 BC) added more hieroglyphics on all four sides to commemorate his military victories. The eight columns (two on each face) flank the original inscriptions. Rameses expressed similar homage to the gods and glorified his rule over his country, referring to his chastisement of foreign nations. These later additions on the edges are less eroded.
This fabulous book from 1883 has more history and translation of the hieroglyphics.
The Move to Alexandria
The obelisks remained in Heliopolis for around 1,400 years. In 23 BC, the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar transported the two obelisks to Alexandria to adorn the Caesareum (Palace of the Caesars). The Palace was conceived by Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemaic kingdom, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, to honour her first known lover Julius Caesar.
Although the Caesareum had been built during Cleopatra’s (51-30 BC) reign, the obelisks didn’t arrive there until after she had committed suicide. The first Roman Emperor Augustus erected the obelisks in front of the Caesareum.
Four hundred years later, the Caesareum temple fell during an earthquake in 365 AD. The building and the obelisks lay buried in the sand which had the fortuitous effect of preserving most of the hieroglyphs from the effects of weathering.
In early 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, with forty thousand French troops, landed on the coast of Egypt and soon conquered the country. Nelson’s victory of the Nile in August 1798 stopped Napoleon heading further. And in 1801 the British defeated the French at the Siege of Alexandria. It was a huge fight as the British had brought 14,000 men under Sir Ralph Abercromby who was killed at the end of the battle.
General Cavan, 7th Earl of Cavan, Richard Ford William Lambart (1763–1836) commanded a Division in Egypt under Abercromby. He had an idea to bring one of the obelisks to England as a trophy. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t move it very far, and the idea of bringing it home was abandoned. I’ve read that during the attempt to move the column, part of the pedestal was uncovered and a brass plate was attached with a short account of the British victories.
In 1819, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, wanted to strengthen good relations with the new world powers. He offered Great Britain the obelisk as a thank you gift to commemorate their victories over France in the battles fought in Egypt during the Napoleonic wars. (2019 was the 200th anniversary of the gift, and there was a request to return the obelisk to Egypt, but that was never going to happen.)
Although honoured, Prime Minister Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770–1828) couldn’t justify the huge expense it would have cost to transport the monument to the UK. The British Government, while appreciative of the gift, declined to pay for its very expensive transportation to England, so they left the obelisk in Egypt.
In 1849 the Government announced in the House of Commons their desire to transport it to London. But as the opposition urged “that the obelisk was too much defaced to be worth removal,” the proposal was not carried out.
In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the question was again broached in the House of Commons. But the estimated £7,000 for transport was deemed too much for public funds.
When the six-month Great Exhibition ended, the extraordinary glass building known as the Crystal Palace was moved to south London and rebuilt. In 1853 the Sydenham Palace Company were keen to have the obelisk in their Egyptian court and offered to pay all expenses. The request went to the Government, but as this significant national property could only be lent and not given to a private company, the plans fell through.
In 1867 the Khedive (viceroy of Egypt) disposed of the ground with the old stone column still buried in the sand. The new owner of the land was a Greek merchant who insisted on its removal from his property. He had to be dissuaded by English scholars from breaking it up for raw building material. The Khedive appealed to Great Britain to take possession of it soon; otherwise, the title to the monument must be given up. Still, the Britsh Government refused to pay the transportation costs. Despite the historical value, the obelisk remained in Alexandria for over five more decades.
General James Alexander of Britain pleaded with the landowner for ten successive years for the preservation and removal of the monument. The General went to Egypt in 1875 to see the state of the obelisk for himself. While it was buried in the sand, through the assistance of Mr Wyman Dixon C.E. it was uncovered and examined.
The Treasury refused to commit any public funds and discouraged the employment of any Royal Naval ship. The matter was therefore left to private enterprise. The General returned to England to discuss the situation with his millionaire friend Professor Erasmus Wilson (1809–1884). Wiliam James Erasmus Wilson was a distinguished British surgeon, anatomist and philanthropist who also had an interest in Egypt.
These two gentlemen, together with Mr John Dixon, C.E. formed a private financial agreement to bring the stone column to London. Professor Wilson signed a bond for £10,000 (equivalent to over £1,000,000 in 2020) and agreed to pay this sum to Mr Dixon on the obelisk being set up in London. The Board of Works offered a site on the Thames Embankment, so Mr Dixon set to work to carry out the contract. (IWM notes the full transportation costs as £15,000 with all paid by Wilson.)
Transport from Alexandria
Mathew William Simpson, a railway and locomotive engineer, was working for the Khedive of Egypt. He was friends with Wilson and shared his passion for Egyptian antiquities. He instructed Dixon’s team on how to dig out the stone column from the beach at Alexandria where it had been buried for hundreds of years. Simpson drew up plans for a huge 92 ft (28 m) long and 16 ft (4.9 m) in diameter iron cylinder to encase the column. It was supervised by Dixon as Simpson was unable to undertake the work due to being under contract to the Khedive.
The iron cylinder started in London as it was built at the Thames Ironworks in Blackwall where they specialised in unusual constructions. Not just a packing case, this was a tube-shaped ship – dubbed ‘Cleopatra’ – to convey this priceless treasure. It had ten watertight compartments to surround the obelisk plus a deckhouse, masts and a small set of sails on top. The Cleopatra was transported to Alexandria in parts and reassembled on the beach under the supervision of John Dixon and Captain Henry Carter who was to command the ‘ship’.
The sand was removed from under the obelisk a small section at a time, and the cylinder was gradually reassembled around it. A roadway was levelled through the sea-wall and down the beach. The cylinder could be launched by literally rolling it down the beach by means of levers and chains down a track into the sea. Then, at the water’s edge, it could finally be pulled into the water by local tugs.
The heavy stone column would sit in the bottom of the cylinder-ship and act as a ballast to keep the ship steady. The front and rear compartments would be filled with concrete.
The floating pontoon left Alexandria on 21 September 1877 with Captain Carter and his crew of six Maltese sailors. The ‘ship’ was towed along by the Olga steamship commanded by Captain Booth.
The journey was going well until about halfway when they reached the Bay of Biscay. On 14 October 1877, they entered a violent storm, and the Cleopatra began to sink at one end. The Olga sent a small boat of volunteers to rescue the crew of the Cleopatra, but it capsized, and all six of its crew were lost. Captain Booth on the Olga eventually managed to get his ship next to the Cleopatra and rescued Captain Carter and his crew members aboard Cleopatra. They cut the towropes to break the connection between the two boats as the Cleopatra was pulling the Olga down with it. (The drowned crew members from the Olga are named on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle’s mounting stone.)
Captain Booth reported the Cleopatra “abandoned and sinking”, and the Olga returned to England with tales of woe and dismay. They all believed the Egyptian gift to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
It Didn’t Sink
Incredibly, the Cleopatra didn’t sink and somehow stayed afloat drifting in the Bay. It was found four days later by Spanish trawler boats and then rescued by the Glasgow steamer Fitzmaurice and taken to Ferrol in north-west Spain for repairs.
The Master of the Fitzmaurice lodged a salvage claim of £5,000 which had to be settled before departure from Ferrol. With negotiations, a fee of £2,000 was agreed. The William Watkins Ltd paddle tug Anglia (also built at Thames Ironworks), under the command of Captain David Glue, was then commissioned to tow the Cleopatra back to the Thames.
On To England
On 15 January 1878, the Cleopatra finally departed the Spanish port. Thankfully, this journey was without incident, and the tug and the cylinder arrived at Gravesend, in the Thames estuary on 21 January 1878. Apparently, the school children of Gravesend were given a half-day off to watch the morning arrival.
It appears the journey didn’t stop there as she was moored at East India Docks in east London by the late afternoon. (See the report from The Times.)
On 2 February 1878, the Cleopatra was pulled to central London to a mooring by St Thomas’s Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
A wooden model of the obelisk had previously been placed outside the Houses of Parliament, but the location had been rejected.
An article in The Engineer in March 1878 stated, “We regret that, in defiance of good taste, it has been decided to erect the obelisk on the Thames Embankment. We have spoken so frequently and so strongly on the selection of a site that we shall not further refer to the subject now.”
On 1 June 1878, the Cleopatra was pulled to her present site on the Victoria Embankment. At low tides, the iron cylinder was gradually cut away. By 6 July 1878, the obelisk was fully revealed, and the iron vessel was scrapped.
The ‘needle’ was winched into position and became fully erect on 12 September 1878 – over 1,500 years after it had toppled in the Alexandria earthquake. It was a fascinating and popular spectacle for the Victorian audience.
Such was the enthusiasm for this new monument that miniature models of the obelisk were made for sale to the public. A broadsheet newspaper was commercially printed for public sale as well. The broadsheet contained full translations of the hieroglyphic texts on the pyramidion and shaft of the obelisk prepared by the Egyptologist Samuel Birch (1813-1885), Keeper of Oriental Antiquities of the British Museum.
The obelisk is supported by the iron ornamentation because it cannot stand by itself. Many months in advance, a new, Egyptian Revival Style, bronze base had been fashioned to receive the great monument. The pedestal protects a memorial time capsule.
The practice of placing objects in the foundations of buildings was quite common at one time. It originates in the ancient ‘builders’ rites’ superstition when various items – even living creatures – were placed in the base of buildings to appease the gods.
Concealed in the front part of the monument’s pedestal are two 15″ diameter earthenware cylinders in which are sealed two 12″ diameter, earthenware jars – time capsules containing:
- A set of 12 photographs of the prettiest English women of the day
- A box of hairpins and sundry articles of female adornment
- A box of cigars
- Several tobacco pipes
- A set of imperial weights (presented by the Standard Department of the Board of Trade)
- Jars of Doulton ware, presented by Doulton & Co
- An Alexandra baby feeding-bottle
- Some children’s toys
- A shilling razor made by Mappin
- A Tangye hydraulic jack and specimens of wire ropes and cables used in raising the obelisk
- A bronze scale model of the obelisk 2ft 10ins high. (½ in scale to the foot, cast and presented by Mr Joseph Whitley of Leeds)
- A piece of granite from the obelisk itself
- A complete set of contemporary British coins
- An Empress of India rupee
- A portrait of Queen Victoria*
- A written history of the transport of the monument with plans on vellum
- Dr Birch’s translation on parchment of the inscriptions on the obelisk
- Copies of the Bible in several languages
- A translation of St John’s Gospel, chapter III, verse 16, printed in 215 languages
- The Pentateuch in Hebrew
- The Book of Genesis in Arabic
- The London Directory
- Whitaker’s Almanack
- Bradshaw Railway Guide
- A map of London
- Ten current daily and weekly illustrated newspapers
* The portrait of Queen Victoria was by Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince (1841 – vanished 1890), often known as the inventor of motion pictures.
Cleopatra’s Needle is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes. These were designed by the English architect George John Vulliamy (1817–1886) then cast in bronze at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881. The sphinxes have hieroglyphic inscriptions that say netjer nefer men-kheper-re di ankh which translates as “the good god, Thuthmosis III given life”.
They were placed more for aesthetics as they should be guarding the obelisk, and therefore looking outwards, but are actually facing the Needle.
The original master stonemason who worked on the granite foundations for the sphinxes was Lambeth-born William Henry Gould (1822–1891).
More Egyptian Flourishes
The creation of the Victoria Embankment started in 1862 and was finished in November 1869. When they got onto the street furniture design, George John Vulliamy was hired as the Superintending Architect. The benches’ panels and arms were designed in the shape of Egyptian buxom winged sphinxes and camels. He also designed the ‘dolphin’ lamps on both sides of the river.
In September 1917, during World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near Cleopatra’s Needle. It destroyed a passing tram, and three people died. It caused damage to the pedestal of the obelisk, the pedestal of the sphinxes and to the west sphinx. (See the damage at the time in these IWM photos.)
In 1919, The London County Council announced that they had decided not to remove the damage marks made by the air raid. A plaque is mounted on the damaged plinth of the western sphinx. Some restoration work was carried out in 2005, but the shrapnel holes are still clear to see today.
Cleopatra’s Needle in New York
London’s Cleopatra’s Needle is the oldest piece of public art in Westminster, and Central Park’s is the oldest outdoor monument in New York City.
It was erected in Central Park, west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in 1881. It too was a gift from the Egyptian Khedive to thank the United States for remaining neutral as the European powers – France and Britain – maneuvered to secure political control of the Egyptian government.