Cleopatra's Needle is not at all a needle and it has got nothing to do with the legendary queen of ancient Egypt. It is the common name shared by the three Egyptian obelisks installed in London, Paris and New York City, during the nineteenth century. Apart from those three, today one can find a number of obelisks around the world, especially in Europe, which include the Vaticano Obelisk in St. Peter's Square. However, none of them were created by the country, where they stand now. All of them were originally built in Egypt and later stolen from them by the country concerned or diplomatically ‘gifted’ to them, which was a bribe in disguise.
The 75 feet (23 m) tall obelisk that stands today at the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France was originally located at the entrance to the ancient Luxor Temple, in Egypt. The temple was commissioned by Amenhotep III (1392-52 BC) and completed by Tutankhamun (1336-27 BC). Later, Ramesses II (1323-1295 BC) built colossal statues of the Pharaoh and a pair of obelisks at the entrance of the temple. The Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha offered the 3,300-year-old twin Luxor Obelisks to France in 1829. However, one the columns left behind in Egypt, as they were too heavy to move to France at that time. The yellow granite obelisk, weighing 280 tons, was loaded in ‘Louqsor’, a specially built, flat bottomed barge, and on 1st April 1833, the French paddle ship ‘Sphinx’, departed Alexandria, along with the towed barge. The ships arrived at Cherbourg on 12 August 1833 and on 25 October 1836, the Luxor Obelisk was installed by King Louis Phillipe in the center of the Place de la Concorde.
The present day pedestal of the obelisk was originally intended for an equestrian statue of King Louis XVI, which was destroyed during the July Revolution in 1830.The original Egyptian pedestal is now displayed in the Egyptian section of the Musée du Louvre, since it included the statues of sixteen baboons with their clearly exposed genitals, which was considered to be obscene for public exhibition.
The golden pyramidion or the capstone was missing from the obelisk, since stolen from the monument in the 6th century BC. However, in 1998, the French government added a gold-leafed capstone to the obelisk.
The 69 feet (21 m) tall obelisk, known as the Cleopatra’s Needle in London, is located in the City of Westminster, near the Golden Jubilee Bridges. Made of red granite, the obelisk was originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis on the orders of Thutmose III, around 1450 BC. Much later, it was moved to Alexandria, along with another one, by the Romans in 12 BC, during the reign of Augustus and set up in ‘Caesareum’, a temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Julius Caesar or Mark Antony and was toppled some time later. In 1819, Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, gifted it to the United Kingdom, in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abecromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.
The British government welcomed the gesture, but they declined to pay the transportation charges and the obelisk remained in Alexandria for nearly 60 years, till 1877, when Sir William J E Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation from Alexandria to London at a cost of some £10,000 to bring the obelisk to London. Consequently, the obelisk was dug out of the sand in which it had been buried for nearly 2,000 years and was encased in a great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter, complete with a rudder, a mast and sails, like a regular boat, which was to be towed to London by Captain Booth behind his ship the Olga.
Unfortunately, as the ship encountered a storm in the Bay of Biscay, the cylinder became uncontrollable and six men lost their lives trying to secure it. Though the cylinder was abandoned, it floated in the Bay for another four days and was found by a couple of Spanish trawlers. Finally, the Glaswegian steamer ‘Fitzmaurice’ towed it to the Spanish coast and a tug boat named the Anglia towed it to its delivery point on the River Thames in London on the 21st of January 1878. Eight months later, the Egyptian obelisk was installed on the Victoria Embankment on the 12th of September 1878.
During installation of the obelisk, a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal containing many strange items, which included, among others, a set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a baby’s bottle, some toys, a hydraulic jack, some samples of the cable used in the erection, a complete set of British coins and a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a history of the transport of the monument, copies of the bible in several languages, a map of London and Copies of 10 daily newspapers.
Cleopatra's Needle in London is flanked by two sphinxes, designed by the English architect George John Vulliamy. During World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near the needle on 4 September 1917. The pedestal of the obelisk was damaged as were its sphinx companions, but the damage was not repaired and a plaque stands to commemorate the event.
The New York City needle that was installed in Central Park is actually the twin of the needle in London. The sixty-nine feet of red granite obelisks, covered on all sides with hieroglyphs and weighing about 224 tons each, were first erected in the ancient city of Heliopolis around 1450 BC. The hieroglyphs were added in two phases, first by Thutmosis III and the rest was added about two hundred years later by Ramesses II, to commemorate his military victories. Both were moved to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC and eventually they toppled, face first, which saved most of the hieroglyphs from wear and tear as the centuries that rolled by.
The story of Cleopatra's Needle in New York backs when the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and as an appreciation for the aid of the construction of the Suez Canal, the Khedive Ismail Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, offered the United States to present an obelisk. However, at the beginning, the Americans did not show the interest in the proposal. But in 1878, when an obelisk arrived in London, the New York World newspaper launched a campaign to acquire an obelisk from Egypt. The editor of The New York World newspaper, William Henry Hulbert and E.E. Farman, the American consul-general in Cairo, launched a public campaign to obtain one and under a new contract, Farman made sure the precious relic would go specifically to New York. Finally, an authorization was received from Egypt for transportation in 1879 and Henry H. Gorringe, a lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy, was engaged to transport the Obelisk to New York. Consequently, the massive monument was encased in wood and loaded on board the steamship S.S. Dessoung, which departed the Alexandria Port on June 12th, 1880, and arrived at the offshore of Staten Island on 20 July 1880. After unloading, the obelisk was transferred on the wooden pontoons, and landed at a slip at West 96th Street of Manhattan on September 17th. After that, it was carried through West 86th Street and ultimately took 112 days to arrive the site behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park in January 1881, where it was raised on 22 February 1881, under the watchful eye of a large crowd.