The ancient obelisk known as Cleopatra’s needle, standing incongruously on the north bank of the Thames, is one of London’s best known landmarks. It is also the oldest object to be found in the streets of London. Its story is as fascinating as it is unexpected. It is also, in the modern world, chastening.
The first thing to know about Cleopatra’s needle is that it had very little to do with the famous beauty herself. It came into being a long time before she became queen of Egypt, about 1,400 years beforehand in fact. On the orders of Pharaoh Tethmoses III, this 60 foot long, 186 ton obelisk was cut from the red granite quarries of Aswan in 1,457 BCE. It was then transported down to the Nile to Heliopolis (near modern Cairo) where the Pharaoh had just rebuilt the temple to the great Sun God Ra.This was the first of its voyages.At Heliopolis, the obelisk was carved with dedications to the gods of ancient Egypt and with the symbols representing pharaoh himself. Its tip was then covered with gold or the silver/gold alloy known as electrum. When it was erected outside the entrance to the temple, the tip would catch the first ray of the sun just before dawn, providing a dramatic symbol of the illuminating and life-giving power of the Sun-God Ra. The shining tip is long gone, of course, but the original inscriptions can still be seen, despite the corrosive pollution of London that has attacked them throughout the 20th century.Tethmoses III was a national hero. He was a brilliant general who never lost a battle and had all the qualities needed to make a great ruler in the Egypt of his time. His reign was long remembered as one in which the arts were encouraged and generously patronised and one in which bad taste, brutality and injustice were banished from the lives of the Egyptians. He was one of the great Pharaohs and was remembered and revered by the Egyptians down to the last days of their independent history.Today, that other great Pharaoh, Ramses II, is far better remembered than Tethmoses III. His long reign of sixty-seven years began in 1,279 BCE – more than 200 years after the obelisk had been hewn in the Aswan quarry. But it also bears an inscription to Ramses. By his time, the Sun-God had become amalgamated with the lord of the thrones of the Two Lands, Amun who watched over the Valley of the Kings. Ramses erected many new temples and re-dedicated the older ones to the god Amun-Ra. It was no doubt during one of these ceremonies that his inscription was added to the obelisk of Tethmoses III.Ramses II also established a new royal city in the Eastern Delta which he named Pi-Ramses (it was in the region of the modern Qantir.) In this city he dedicated temples to Amun, Ra and to himself, as son of the sun-god. (This was not unusual. In his wonderfully impressive temple at Abu-Simbel, close to the Nubian border, once can still see the statues of Ramses and the three gods Amun, Ra and Toth seated side by side in the farthest chamber of the temple.) Associated with the Pi-Ramses temples were a series of pairs of obelisks. It may be that the obelisk of Tethmoses III was brought from Heliopolis to the new royal city to form one of the pair at the temple to Ra.If it was this was its second voyage.The twenty-first dynasty was one of the dark ages in the history of ancient Egypt. It lasted from about 1070 to 945 BCE and had a succession of seven kings. During this dynasty, the High priests of Amun at Thebes (modern Luxor-Karnak) usurped the royal power in the southern kingdom. In the north, yet another new royal city was established at Tanis further north in the delta. It is possible that the canal giving access to Pi-Ramses had dried up. In any event, once the new royal city had been established the obelisks erected by Ramses were moved to the new city.If the obelisk of Tethmoses III was amongst them, this would have been its third voyage.The third Egyptian ruler whose name is inscribed on the obelisk is indeed Cleopatra herself. When this was added we do no know but there is a strong possibility that it was after her death in 31 BCE. Her son by Julius Caesar was called Caesarion and he succeeded her as Ptolemy XIV. However, the Roman emperor Augustus, who had defeated Antony and Cleopatra, was taking no chances and had Caesarion murdered. With unconscious irony, he had the obelisk of Tethmoses III brought to Alexandria and erected there as a memorial to the son of Cleopatra.This would have been its fourth voyage.And there it stood for centuries before falling into the sands of Alexandria at some time during the mediaeval Dark Ages. It would not come to the notice of the world again until the Two Kingdoms of Egypt and the mighty Roman Empire were themselves long dead and the stuff of ancient history. When it did enjoy its resurrection there were other Empires in the making.In 1819, Britain’s great naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon’s Fleet in the battle of the Nile and thus brought to an end the ambitions of the French Emperor in Egypt. By this time, though, Egypt had long since been subsumed into the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Viceroy, Mohammad Ali, was eager to demonstrate his gratitude to Great Britain. To his Majesty, George IV, the Viceroy presented the 60-foot obelisk lying in the sands of Alexandria. Diplomatic gratitude was expressed in great profusion but the British considered it impossible to transport the 186 tons of Aswan granite to England. And so, it remained in the sands of Alexandria.In 1833, the Viceroy found himself in quite another situation. It was diplomatic to make a significant gift to the French. He chose one of the pair of obelisks flanking the entrance to the temple at Luxor. “Merci,” said the French and at once arranged to bring it back to Paris where they erected it in the Place de la Concorde. It is still there of course, a prominent feature in the largest open space in Paris, between the Champs Elysees and the Tuilerie Gardens. Its twin can still be seen at Luxor, quite unbalanced by the empty space on the left-hand side of the entrance.Well, for some British men this was not to be borne. In particular, General Sir James Alexander was determined that the British obelisk should be brought to London. The matter was raised in parliament. The government was sympathetic. Of course, Britain could not be outdone by the French. However, the logistics were overwhelming and they did not think it possible. Yes, they said, bring it back by all means if you can overcome the logistics, but not a penny-piece of government money will be available for the enterprise.Alexander set about the task. He asked an English engineer in Alexandria, John Dixon, to turn his mind to the problem. He persuaded the surgeon Erasmus Wilson to put up £10,000 (about £473,120 in modern money) to finance the project. Dixon contributed another £5,000 (about £23,660 today).The engineer devised a wholly novel and never repeated sea-going vessel. The obelisk was encased in an air-tight iron cylinder where it lay in the sands. The cylinder was then rolled by levers and chains along a track leading to the coast on the Mediterranean. It floated! The cylinder was then fitted with a deckhouse, a mast, a rudder and other steering gear. Finally, it was manned by a crew of Maltese sailors. The sea-going craft was named Cleopatra and at last was ready to be towed to Britain by the steamship Olga. On September 21st 1877 they sailed from Alexandria.This, possibly, was the obelisk’s fifth voyage.The Olga was captained by Henry Carter whilst the Cleopatra was under the command of Captain Booth, who had supervised her construction. Progress was slow, the weight of Tethmoses III’s obelisk limited their maximum speed to seven knots. Through the Straits of Gibraltar – the formidable and terrifying Pillars of Hercules in the ancient world – they passed into the wild Atlantic and headed north.In the Bay of Biscay disaster struck when a violent storm suddenly enveloped the two craft. The drag and weight of the Cleopatra threatened to sink the Olga. The tow ropes would have to be cut. Six seamen from the Olga were drowned in the operation to rescue Captain Booth and his crew. They eventually made it to the mother ship and the Cleopatra was cut adrift to be carried away by the storm and claimed by the Atlantic.But no. Some time later she was spotted, still drifting, by the Fitzmaurice which managed to attach a tow rope and bring her into the Spanish port of Fellon. From there, towed by the paddle tug Anglia, the obelisk of Tethmoses III set out for England. The Cleopatra arrived at Gravesend, in the Thames estuary on January 21st 1878.And so the obelisk completed what was possibly its sixth voyage.Meanwhile, in London, there was a flurry of excitement. Where should the obelisk be erected? In front of the houses of Parliament of course – what place could be more appropriate? Unfortunately for the politicians, Westminster was built on ancient marshlands and it would be impossible to provide a suitable foundation for Tethmoses’ 186 tons. There was then a brief suggestion that it should be erected in the forecourt of the British Museum but that, too, was abandoned. Finally, agreement was reached on a site on the newly constructed Victoria Embankment, close to Charing Cross.On July 6th 1878 the 3,335-year old obelisk of Tethmoses III set out on it final, and possibly seventh, voyage.It sailed up the Thames from Gravesend to Charing Cross. Once the obelisk was on its way, the gallant Cleopatra was broken up and dispersed as so many pieces of scrap iron. On September 12th 1878 the obelisk was raised upright again, this time on the banks of the Thames. Buried beneath it, as a sort of time capsule, were:That morning’s newspapers.A full set of British Empire coins currently in circulation.A razor.A box of pins.Four Bibles in different languages.Bradhsaw’s Railway Timetable, andPhotographs of 12 of the best-looking Englishwomen of the day. (Unfortunately, the records have kept their identities a secret.)The two sphinxes at its base were cast in bronze at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881.So, if the ancient Pharaoh can gaze on the modern world through the medium of his sacred inscriptions he will have seen many changes around his London obelisk – and, incidentally many suicides from its base. But he can do more than that. For, another fifty-four of his obelisks have survived into modern times. Of these only five have remained in Egypt. The others are scattered across Europe and the USA, including those in Central Park, New York, near the Lateran in Rome and in Istanbul. But the biggest one of all, 1,000 tons of it, lies still unfinished, in the quarry at Aswan. And perhaps that, too, is where the spirit of Tethmoses is to be found, because it is there that the tourists from Europe and the USA finally come face-to-face with the monumental achievement of a simple civilisation that had nothing but a sense of right and justice at its heart and nothing but a set of stone tools and a piece of string in its hand.