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Cleopatra’s Needle was quarried at Aswan around 1475 BC, and dates from the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmose III. It was erected at the city of Heliopolis, where hieroglyphs were added by Rameses II.
It didn’t gain its ‘Cleopatra’ moniker until the Romans moved it to Alexandria in 12 BC. It was toppled soon after, and lay half-buried in the sand for 2,000 years.
When the British defeated Napoleon in the early 19th-century, the Viceroy of Egypt commemorated the victory with a gift of ancient mason. Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s Needle’s tremendous weight delayed its journey back to London by several decades.
When the shipment finally got underway in 1877, tragedy struck. A raging storm hit halfway round the Bay of Biscay, and a rescue crew dispatched from the steam-ship were dragged to the bottom of the sea. The names of the sailors can still be seen on a plaque around the base.
Another ship was sent to tow the boat home, and it finally arrived in January 1878.
Plans were made to erect it outside the Houses of Parliament, but subsidence meant that it had to be moved to the Victoria Embankment. It is now shaded by the leafy trees, on a busy walkway near a bridge.
Before the Needle was lowered into place, a time capsule was placed under the mason. This consisted of a set of British coins, four Bibles (all in different languages), a railway timetable, some daily newspapers… and a set of pins. The most intriguing memento, however, were a dozen photographic prints of the world’s most beautiful women!
The Needle is flanked by two Egyptian sphinxes cast in bronze. You can see more pharaohonic decorations on the benches nearby. It also exhibits several shrapnel scars from the first German bombs to land on London. Interestingly, this was not during the Blitz – but during a balloon raid in the first world war.
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