Cleopatra's Needle review
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What's the oldest thing in London?
No, it's not Prince Philip. It's actually this big block of rock on Victoria Embankment: Cleopatra's Needle.
This monument is even older than London itself -- literally. When the Romans built their first bridge across the Thames in 50 AD this block of stone had already been standing outside an Egyptian temple for 1,500 years. And it was another 1,800 years after that before the Victorians finally got their hands on it. It's quite incredible, really.
Just think about that for a second... Cleopatra's Needle was already ancient before the Romans arrived. It has outlived every great empire that ever was: the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Aztecs, Incas. It was even ancient in Cleopatra's day -- she was born 1,000 years after it was built!
It was originally built by Thutmose III in 1450 BC, and chiselled with inscriptions by Ramesses II. Another 1,500 passed before the Romans shifted it to Alexandria to stand outside Cleopatra's Caesararium, which is where it got its name from (although she was long dead by this time). A short time later it fell over and spent the next 1,800 years lying face down in the sand. If you check out all four faces then you'll see that one side is better preserved -- presumably that was the one that was face down in the desert.
That's where Napoleon and Admiral Nelson take up the tale (what an amazing history!). Nelson beat back the French at the Battle of the Nile, and the grateful Egyptians gave us this long-toppled obelisk as a gift. But it was another sixty years before the Victorians finally worked out how to move it. They probably wish they hadn't bothered -- because this thing is bad luck. It is bad news. (An Egyptian curse?) If you read the brass plaques on the side then you'll discover that six people died when the boat was caught in a storm on the way back to Blighty.
If you look around the base then you'll find a lot of pockmarks in the concrete. That's where it sustained some shrapnel in World War I. Most people believe that the first bombing raid in London was during the Blitz, but it was actually when a wave of wooden fighters came over in 1917. I wonder what Thutmose III would have thought 3,500 years ago, standing in his flip-flops in the desert, if he had a flash forward to its apocalyptic future of fire and flames and Germans dropping dynamite on it from the sky?
So that's the story of the Needle. Personally I think that it deserves a much better spot than it's got, because you can hardly see it behind the leafy trees. How about the centre of Leicester Square instead? Then we can shift that Shakespeare statue to stand outside the Globe. But I don't suppose it minds: it knows that this is only a temporary home. 1,500 years from now London will be long gone, and this block of concrete will be standing outside a space station.
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