Ancient Egypt has often been the main reference point when interpreting the past and experience of Africa. It is famous for many things, including its tall stone-cut towers known as obelisks. In the kingdom of Axum, these vertical structures were carved out of a single stone and were basically tombstones that were built to mark graves and underground burial chambers.
Ancient Egyptians called obelisks tekhenu, and they were also used to tell the time in the past. Their pinnacles were basically covered in gold to reflect the sunlight. Historians say that obelisks represented immortality and eternity, and their long structure helped connect the heavens and the earth.
Currently, Cleopatra’s Needle is the name given to three ancient Egyptian obelisks – one in New York City, one in London, and one in Paris. However, they do not all come from one Egyptian site. The obelisks in New York and London are carved out of red granite from the quarries of Aswan, a major source of stone for Egyptian antiquities. The two obelisks were commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III for the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, near modern-day Cairo, with each weighing about 224 tons and 68 feet tall.
In 12 BCE when the Romans discovered the two obelisks, both had toppled and were lying partially buried in the sand. The Romans subsequently transported the obelisks to Alexandria and installed them at an entrance to a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar. The temple had been built by Cleopatra, and this is probably one of the reasons the obelisks came to be called “Cleopatra’s Needles”.
The obelisk in Paris, however, is made of yellow granite and was originally located outside the Luxor Temple in Egypt. Weighing over 250 tons and 75 feet tall, its twin is still at the Luxor Temple. On the whole, the three obelisks are inscribed with hieroglyphs celebrating Ramesses II and his military victories.
So how did the three end up in New York City, London, and Paris?
Cleopatra’s Needle in New York
The Cleopatra’s Needle in New York was gifted to the U.S. by the Khedive Ismail Pasha in commemoration of the opening of the Suez Canal, according to Central Park Conservancy. Ancient Origins writes that Khedive gave the obelisk to the U.S. Consul General stationed in Cairo as a gift to the United States showing appreciation for the U.S. being neutral when France and Great Britain sought to gain control of the Egyptian government. From Alexandria, the obelisk was moved to New York. It took more than a year to move the vertical structure. In January 1881, it was finally installed in Central Park. In 2011, New York City began a three-year project to conserve the obelisk after the then minister of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, had warned that it will take the obelisk if it was not properly taken care of.
Cleopatra’s Needle in London
The obelisk in London is located on the Victoria Embankment of the Thames River near the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali gave away the piece of antiquity to the United Kingdom in 1819 to commemorate the British victories at the Battle of the Nile in (1798) and the Battle of Alexandria (1801). Even though the British government was honored by the gift, it was not ready to spend so much to have it transported to England. And so for more than five decades, the obelisk remained in Alexandria, Egypt, until 1877 when anatomist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson paid for it to be transported to England. It was a harrowing journey by sea.
According to one report: “The obelisk left Alexandria on 21 September 1877, encased in an iron cylinder – nicknamed The Cleopatra – which included a stern and rudders and was towed along by the Olga ship. However, when it was over halfway to its destination, a storm in the Bay of Biscay put the crew of The Cleopatra in danger. The initial rescue attempt led to six crewmen from The Olga drowning, but eventually The Cleopatra’s Captain Carter and his five crew were rescued. Amazingly, The Cleopatra didn’t founder and was discovered drifting in the Bay a few days later and eventually retrieved by the Fitzmaurice and towed to Ferrol Harbour in North-West Spain.”
Another steamship, the Anglia, was then sent to tow the obelisk to Gravesend, Kent. Finally, on September 12, 1878, the obelisk was re-erected by the Thames, with two sphinx statues guarding it. A German bomb during the first world war nearly destroyed the obelisk, damaging the pedestal of the structure and the pedestal of its sphinxes. Authorities did not repair the damage but put in place a plaque to remember what happened.
Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris
Also known as the Luxor Obelisk, The Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris is situated in the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. Constructed about 3,000 years ago, the obelisk was a gift from Muhammad Ali to the French in 1833. The French paid for it to be moved to Paris. King Louis-Phillipe then erected it at the Place de la Concorde on October 25, 1836. According to Ancient Origins, the obelisk was placed on a pedestal that had originally been made to support a statue of King Louis XVI on horseback. However, that statue was destroyed in the Revolution of 1830. In 1998, the French government also added a gold-leafed capstone to the obelisk as the actual golden capstone of the structure was stolen in the 6th century BC.