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Cleopatra’s Needle is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk that dates from the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmose III. It was quarried at Aswan in 1475 BC, and originally outside the city of Heliopolis. The hieroglyphs were added at a later date by Rameses II.
1,500 years later the Romans moved it outside the Cleopatra's Caesararium in Alexandria, and this is how it became known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’. Cleopatra herself had already been dead for fifteen years.
The obelisk was toppled soon after, and lay half-buried in the sand for the next 1,800 years.
When Nelson helped to defeat Napoleon in the early 19th-century, the Viceroy of Egypt offered the obelisk as a gift to the British. Its tremendous weight delayed its journey back to London for several decades, and when it finally set off in 1877, tragedy struck.
A raging storm hit the ship halfway round the Bay of Biscay, and a rescue crew 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 then sent to tow the boat home, and it finally arrived in London 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.
Before the Needle was lowered into place the builders placed a time capsule underneath. This consisted of a set of British coins, four Bibles (in different languages), a Victorian railway timetable, some daily newspapers, a set of pins, and a dozen photographs of the world’s most beautiful women.
The Needle is flanked by two Egyptian sphinxes cast in bronze. You can see more Egyptian decorations on the benches nearby. If you look at the plinths then you can also see 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 World War I.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I was going to try and go a bit farther afield today but it was just too damn cold. I actually saw a couple of snowmen walking down the street, with wooly hats and scarves on. That is how cold it was. So I ended up just going to Cleopatra’s Needle instead and having a look at that.
There’s not really much that you can say about it really, because it’s just a big concrete block with a few black plaques around the base. But if you take the time to cross over the road and have a proper look at it then you’ll notice a few things to peak your interest.
The heiroglyphs are all worn down from the fumes of the London traffic, but they’re still clear enough to read (provided that you can read ancient Eygptian, of course). You can see a lot of eagles and eyes and Ankhs and scarab beatles, and that kind of thing. The big black plaques on each side are more interesting because they explain where it came from and how it got here, and who died when they put it up. Apparently six sailors were killed just getting it back to Blighty (it must have been the Pharoah’s curse).
Because I’m such a nice guy I’m going to write down the entire text so you can read it:
THIS OBELISK QUARRIED AT SYENE WAS ERECTED AT HELIOPOLIS BY THE PHARAOH THOTHMES III IN ABOUT 1500 B.C. LATERAL INSCRIPTIONS WERE ADDED NEARLY TWO CENTURIES LATER BY RAMESES THE GREAT. REMOVED DURING THE GREEK DYNASTY TO ALEXANDRIA, THE ROYAL CITY OF CLEOPATRA, IT WAS THERE ERECTED IN THE 18th YEAR OF AUGUSTUS CAESAR BC 12.
THROUGH THE PATRIOTIC ZEAL OF ERASMUS WILSON F.R.S. WAS BROUGHT FROM ALEXANDRIA ENCASED IN AN IRON CYLINDER. IT WAS ABANDONED DURING A STORM IN THE BAY OF BISCAY, RECOVERED AND ERECTED ON THIS SPOT BY JOHN DIXON C.E. IN THE 42nd YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA 1879.
THIS OBELISK, PROSTRATE FOR CENTURIES, WAS PRESENTED TO THE BRITISH NATION AD 1819 BY MAHOMMED ALI VICEROY OF EGYPT. A WORTHY MEMORIAL OF OUR DISTINGUISHED COUNTRYMEN, NELSON AND ABERCROMBY.
WILLIAM ASKIN, MICHAEL BURNS, JAMES GARDINER, WILLIAM DONALD, JOSEPH BENTON, WILLIAM PATAN, PERISHED IN A BOLD ATTEMPT TO SUCCOUR THE CREW OF THE OBELISK SHIP CLEOPATRA DURING THE STORM OCTOBER 14th 1877.
Either side of the obelisk are two huge black sphinxes. If you keep your eyes open then you can spot some more Egyptian-themed stuff nearby. The benches have been done up with little sphinxes, too.
Another plaque appears on the right hand sphinx which says:
THE SCARS THAT DISFIGURE THE PEDESTAL OF THE OBELISK, THE BASES OF THE SPHINXES, AND THE RIGHT HAND SPHINX, WERE CAUSED BY FRAGMENTS OF A BOMB DROPPED IN THE ROADWAY CLOSE TO THIS SPOT, IN THE FIRST RAID ON LONDON BY GERMAN AEROPLANES A FEW MINUTES BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON TUESDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER 1917.
I’ve read in a guidebook somewhere that they buried a time capsule beneath it before they set it upright, but I couldn’t find any mention of that. And I didn’t fancy getting my shovel out to test the theory either (because it was too cold). But I’ve been told that the time capsule contains the following: a map of London and a train timetable, 10 newspapers, 12 photographs of the best looking women in England (and one more of Queen Victoria), a box of cigars and some pipes to smoke them with, some kid’s toys and a baby’s bottle, a man’s razor and a box of hairpins, a set of weights, a complete set of British coins and an Indian rupee, a 3-inch bronze model of the monument and the story of how they transported it to England, a translation of the inscriptions, and several copies of the Bible in different languages.
So is it worth crossing over the road and having a close-up look at it? Yeah, I think so. If only because of the nice little area between the monument and the water, where you can step down away from the road for a bit of peace and quiet, and get some nice views up the river.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Cleopatra’s Needle “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… continued.”
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If you’re interested in ancient Egypt then the best place to visit is the British Museum, because they have lots of statues, monuments, and sarcophagi from ancient times. The Petrie Museum has a huge collection of smaller objects (mainly pots and everyday objects), and Sir John Soane’s Museum has lots of statues and the sarcophagus of Seti I.
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