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The Arrival of Cleopatra’s Needle in London

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 21 Jan

21st January 1878  -  Standing 69 feet high (21 metres) and weighing in at 224 tons the obelisk that stands at the Embankment in Westminster, London, looks rather incongruous. Its twin sits in Central Park, New York. The inscriptions on it are hieroglyphics from the reigns of the Egyptian leaders Thutmose III and Rameses II. The structure stands in a bronze base with a time capsule buried in it. This contains a bus timetable, disposable razor, cigars, hairpins, toys, coins, 10 copies of daily newspapers, editions of Whittaker’s Almanac and Bradshaw’s Railway Guidebook and pictures of the 10 best looking women in London! For Londoners the obelisk is a common sight. But how and why did this ancient Egyptian monument come to be in England?


Strangely enough the obelisk has very little to do with Cleopatra. It was made from red granite quarried from the mines at Aswan around 1460BC and erected at Heliopolis. The inscriptions put on it commemorate the third Sed festival that worshipped the Wolf God. Rameses later added his own, praising himself for various military victories. Cleopatra then appears in the story. She started to build the Caesarium in Alexandria, her royal city, dedicated to Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar. However Emperor Augustus finished it after defeating her. The reason for the importance of this was that the obelisk was then moved to this temple in 12BC (Cleopatra died in August 30BC). Eventually though it was toppled and lay in the sands of Egypt for many years. In the dry heat and the protection of the sand the inscriptions were to remain in a good condition. Thus the monument had come from a temple built, mostly, by Cleopatra. After all she was well known and had a courful history and it is likely to garner more interest than calling it the needle of Thutmose. For clarity a monolith is a single block of carved stone and an obelisk is a tall, square, tapered, stone monolith topped with a pyramidal point, frequently used as a monument.


The story now fast forwards to 1817 when Giovanni Belzoni, an amateur archaeologist and, at six and half feet tall, a circus strong man, encouraged the Egyptian leader, Pasha Muhammed Ali, to donate the obelisk to Britain to give thanks for the victories of Lord Nelson, at the battle of the Nile in 1801, and Sir Ralph Abercromby, at the battle of Alexandria in 1801, over the French. Belzoni is responsible for many of the Egyptian artefacts found in the British Museum and was described by the twentieth century archaeologist, Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, as a remarkable man. Belzoni dug up the monument and managed to get it back to Alexandria but ran out of funds to take it further. The British Government, whilst thankful for the gesture, refused to pay for the transport costs and it lay for 60 years half buried in the sand again.


Then the anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson donated £10,000 and the public raised a further £5000 to pay for it to be brought to England. It would be a difficult exercise to transport it though and a special cigar-shaped container was built to bring it safely across the sea. The Dixon Brothers built this iron cylinder that was 93 feet long, 15 feet wide with 10 watertight containers. They bolted on a cabin, bilge, keels and a rudder. The vessel was called, oddly enough, “Cleopatra”.


The steamship Olga was sent to pull the Cleopatra and was in the Bay of Biscay on October 14th 1877 when the weather took a turn for the worse. Six volunteers were sent from the Olga to rescue the five-man crew on board the Cleopatra. Unfortunately all six of the rescuers drowned. A plaque with their names on can be found on the base of the needle today. Eventually the Olga managed to pull up alongside the vessel carrying the monument and recovered the crew. The towrope was cut and the Cleopatra drifted off into the distance. Later on another boat spotted it and towed it to the nearest port – Ferrol in Spain.


With the public waiting with bated breath for news the Anglia was sent to pick it up and eventually on January 21st both vessels floated up the Thames to waiting crowds, with many school children being given the day off. It was not until September that it was finally winched into position. Two large bronze Sphinxes[1], built in 1881 by the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico, were placed next to it. They should have been guarding it but Queen Victoria felt that they looked better looking at the monolith. The benches along the Embankment also have winged Sphinxes on either side.


On September 4th 1917, during World War One, the monument was damaged by an air raid and the shrapnel holes and gauging can still be seen. Some occultists consider the monument unlucky and cursed by Thutmose or Rameses. There are rumours of ghosts too. One of these is a ghastly naked man who appears from behind it before jumping into the waters of the Thames without making a ripple.  Others have talked about hearing a shrieking and wailing coming from inside the structure.


What is now a common sight in London has an anything but common background and history. A block of stone built for an Egyptian Pharaoh that is nearly three and a half thousand years old standing in a new bronze base, being stared at by two modern Sphinxes, over the top of pictures of the most attractive women in the city and having being dragged across the sea at the cost of six lives. I hope that this ‘needle’ is appreciated by those who pass it on a daily basis.


[1] Another plural of Sphinxes can be Sphinges


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