A Victorian Memento of Cleopatra’s Needle

London is a city of many magnificent monuments. Along the Thames on the Embankment stands one of London’s oldest wonders, a colossal, red granite obelisk, rising almost 60 feet into the air and weighing over 180 tons.

The So-Called Cleopatra's Needle, London Embankment. Own photo
The So-Called Cleopatra’s Needle, London Embankment. Own photo

It once stood at Heliopolis in Egypt, set up around 1450 BC on the orders of Thutmosis III.  Ramesses II later added further inscriptions to the obelisk and under the Romans the obelisk was moved to Alexandria, where it was eventually toppled, possibly from an earthquake around 1301, and left in the sand.  In 1819 Pasha Mohammed Ali, then ruler of Egypt, offered it to the British to commemorate Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. However, it was not until 1877 that arrangements were made to deliver it to London. So, while the obelisk had no historical association with Cleopatra, her name has been associated with it, possibly as the Romans set the obelisk up in the Caesareum in Alexandria, a temple initially started by Cleopatra VII to honour Julius Caesar, later dedicated to the cult of Augustus. The pair to this obelisk now stands in New York’s Central Park.

View of the obelisk of Thutmosis III on the Embankment, London. Own photo
View of the obelisk of Thutmosis III on the Embankment, London. Own photo

Sir William Erasmus Wilson paid for its transportation to London, and the engineer John Dixon had an iron boat, shaped like a cigar, constructed to transport it to London. After an arduous journey, during which the ship was nearly lost at sea, the obelisk arrived at Gravesend on January 21, 1877. It was finally erected in its current position in 1878 and is flanked today by two bronze sphinxes designed by George Vulliamy. John Dixon was also responsible for engineering the scaffolding and pivot mechanism to manoeuvre the obelisk into place on the Embankment. While this story is well-known, it is still fascinating, and a testament to Victorian endeavour and engineering.

Illustration of the scaffolding erected to raise the obelisk. 1878
Illustration of the scaffolding erected to raise the obelisk. 1878

The Victorians loved to commemorate special events – from the opening of railways to the erection of statues – and the arrival of the obelisk was met with great interest by the public and the press. One of the souvenirs made to commemorate its erection on the Thames was a lovely pendant, incorporating a chip of granite from the obelisk itself. Set in gold and carved into the shape of a heart, it was probably a special gift for one of the ladies who may have attended its erection onto its plinth in September 1878.

The base of the obelisk had been trimmed and levelled before it was finally manoeuvred into place, providing ample stone fragments for souvenirs like this pendant. A further fragment of the stone was placed into the foundation deposit, along with a host of other objects (ranging from a map of London to children’s toys and photographs of Englishwomen), beneath its new base.

Victorian commemorative pendant from the erection of 'Cleopatra's Needle' on the Embankment in 1878. Own photo.
Victorian commemorative pendant from the erection of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ on the Embankment in 1878. Own photo

When I saw this unusual little pendant for the first time, I thought not of the Victorians however, but rather I was transported back to Egypt. It made me think of the stonemasons toiling away in the quarries of Aswan  3500 years ago to cut the giant obelisk and of the craftsmen who smoothed its corners and carved the hieroglyphs that decorate its sides. I could almost imagine Thutmosis III overseeing its erection at Heliopolis, or Ramesses II ordering his own words be added to the monument 200 years after it was originally set up. That it stood at Heliopolis for over 1400 years before the Romans carted it off to Alexandria is hard to imagine. That it then survived for another 1900 years after its move to Alexandria relatively unscathed, watching as empires rose and fell, is even more difficult to fathom.

Detail of engraving on the back of the pendant. Own photo
Detail of engraving on the back of the pendant. Own photo

Since its erection in 1878 the obelisk has survived the English rain and damp weather and the effects of pollution, possibly due regular cleanings and a layer of wax added to protect its surface.  It suffered minor damage from a bomb dropped on September 4, 1917 by German planes in World War I and it managed to survive the blitz of World War II, again with only minor damage, while much of London was left in ruins.

One of the sphinxes designed by Vulliamy, showing bomb damage.
One of the sphinxes designed by Vulliamy, showing bomb damage

While it might not survive the ice caps melting and flooding London or an asteroid strike, it may well be standing long after our own civilisation has fallen into decline and ruin. It stands today as much as a testament to the imagination and skills of the Ancient Egyptians as it does to the Victorians who strove to bring it from Egypt and see it rise again in London.

I expect the souvenir pendant too will be gracing someone’s neck long after I am gone, a reminder of the fascinating history of the obelisk of Thutmosis III and its long journey to London. ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ is both a remarkable monument of Ancient Egypt and one of London’s great architectural and historical treasures. Next time you find yourself in London, take the time to wander down to the Embankment as see this ancient treasure on the shore of the Thames.

* Further Reading: Chris Elliot, Egypt in England (London, 2012), pp. 105-142.

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