Treasures of London – Cleopatra’s Needle

Sited relatively unobtrusively on the north bank of the Thames at Victoria Embankment, it’s easy to overlook this ancient Egyptian obelisk which was erected on its current site in 1878.

Although it’s commonly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”, the red granite obelisk is in fact one of a pair originally constructed in the 15th century BC and placed in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis at the behest of Pharoah Thutmose III (the second one is now in New York’s Central Park and is also known by the name, Cleopatra’s Needle). The inscriptions were added later by Ramsses II. Both obelisks were subsequently moved to Alexandria and placed in a temple honoring Mark Antony. They later toppled over (and were covered in sand, which apparently helped with preservation).

The obelisk was given to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the grateful ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Mehemet Ali, in commemoration of British victories over the French at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

After the British government decided not to transport the obelisk to London due to the high expense, it remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson contributed £10,000 toward the cost in an act of publicly-minded benevolence. After an eventful journey it which at one point it and the iron cylinder it was encased in – dubbed the Cleopatra – were declared sunk before being found again (tragically six crew drowned in the incident), it was finally erected in October 1878.

A time capsule is buried at the base of the obelisk which contains, among other things, a portrait of Queen Victoria, hairpins, copies of the Bible in several languages and a map of London. One of the two bronze sphinxes which these days guard the obelisk, meanwhile, still bears the scars of damage which took place in World War II when a bomb landed nearby.

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