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Cleopatra's Needle


is the popular name for each of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City during the nineteenth century. The London and New York ones are a pair, while the Paris one comes from a different original site where its twin remains. Although the needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, they are somewhat misnamed as they have no particular connection with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and were already over a thousand years old in her lifetime. The Paris "needle" was the first to be moved and re-erected, and the first to acquire the nickname.

The pair are made of red granite, stand about 21 metres (68 ft) high, weigh about 224 tons and are inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. They were originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis on the orders of Thutmose III, around 1450 BC. The material of which they were cut is granite, brought from the quarries of Aswan, near the first cataract of the Nile. The inscriptions were added about 200 years later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories. The obelisks were moved to Alexandria and set up in the Caesareum - a temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Mark Antony - by the Romans in 12 BC, during the reign of Augustus, but were toppled some time later. This had the fortuitous effect of burying their faces and so preserving most of the hieroglyphs from the effects of weathering.


The London needle is in the City of Westminster, on the Victoria Embankment near the Golden Jubilee Bridges. It is close to the Embankment underground station. It was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan Muhammad Ali, in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. Although the British government welcomed the gesture, it declined to fund the expense of transporting it to London.

The obelisk remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation to London at a cost of some 10,000 pds. (a very considerable sum in those days). It was dug out of the sand in which it had been buried for nearly 2,000 years and was encased in a great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter, designed by the engineer John Dixon and dubbed Cleopatra, to be commanded by Captain Carter. It had a vertical stem and stern, a rudder, two bilge keels, a mast for balancing sails, and a deck house. This acted as a floating pontoon which was to be towed to London by the ship Olga, commanded by Captain Booth.


The effort met with disaster on 14 October 1877, in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, when the Cleopatra began wildly rolling, and became untenable. The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six volunteers, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost - named today on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle's mounting stone. Captain Booth on the Olga eventually managed to get his ship next to the Cleopatra, to rescue Captain Carter and the five crew members aboard Cleopatra. Captain Booth reported the Cleopatra "abandoned and sinking," but instead she drifted in the Bay until found four days later by Spanish trawler boats, then rescued by the Glasgow steamer Fitzmaurice and taken to Ferrol in Spain for repairs.

The Master of the Fitzmaurice lodged a salvage claim of pds. 5,000 which had to be settled before departure from Ferrol, which was negotiated down and settled for pds. 2,000. The William Watkins Ltd paddle tug Anglia under the command of Captain David Glue was then commissioned to tow the Cleopatra back to the Thames. On their arrival in the estuary, the school children of Gravesend were given the day off when she arrived on January 21, 1878. The obelisk was erected on the Victoria Embankment on September 12, 1878.

On erection of the obelisk in 1878 a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal, it contained : A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby's bottle, some children's toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.

Cleopatra's Needle is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes cast from bronze that bear hieroglyphic inscriptions that say netjer nefer men-kheper-re di ankh (the good god, Thuthmosis III given life). These Sphinxes appear to be looking at the Needle rather than guarding it. This is due to the Sphinxes' improper or backwards installation. The Embankment has other Egyptian flourishes, such as buxom winged sphinxes on the armrests of benches.

On September 4, 1917, during World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near the needle. In commemoration of this event, the damage remains unrepaired to this day and is clearly visible in the form of shrapnel holes and gouges on the right-hand sphinx. Restoration work was carried out in 2005. The original Master Stone Mason who worked on the granite foundation was Lambeth-born William Henry Gould (1822-1891).

New York
The New York needle, Pompey's Pillar, was erected in Central Park on February 22, 1881. It was secured in May 1877 by judge Elbert E. Farman, the then-United States Consul General at Cairo, as a gift from Khedive for the United States remaining a friendly neutral as the European powers-France and Britain maneuvered to secure political control of the Egyptian Government.

The original idea to secure an Egyptian obelisk for New York City came out of the March 1877 New York City newspaper accounts of the transportation of the London obelisk. If Paris had one and London was to get one, why should not New York get one? The newspapers mistakenly attributed to a Mr. John Dixon the 1869 proposal of the Khedive of Egypt to give the United States the remaining Alexandria obelisk as a gift for increased trade.

Mr. Dixon was the 1877 contractor who arranged the transport of the London obelisk and denied the newspaper accounts. In March 1877 and based on the newspaper accounts, Mr. Henry G. Stebbins, then Commissioner of the Department of Public Parks of the City of New York, undertook to secure the funding to transport the obelisk to New York. When the railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt was asked to head the subscription, he generously offered to finance the project with a donation of over $100,000.


Mr. Stebbins then sent two acceptance letters to the Khedive through the Department of State which forwarded them to Judge Farman in Cairo. Realizing that the New York accounts were false and that he might be able to secure one of the two remaining upright obelisks either the mate to the Paris obelisk in Luxor or the London mate in Alexandria; Judge Farman formally asked the Khedive in March 1877 and by May 1877 he had secured the gift in writing.

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