If you’ve read my latest book, The New Savants, you will know that much of the book is based in London, mainly in the London Underground. However another important landmark also features – Cleopatra’s Needle. Here’s the story behind the needle.
Situated close to the exit of the Embankment Underground Station is one of the most unlikely sites to be found in the heart of London, a massive ancient Egyptian obelisk. It is one of three Cleopatra’s Needles in the world, including its twin that has been re-erected in New York City. London’s Needle is found on the Victoria Embankment and flanked by 2 models of the Sphinx which have been cast in bronze. Even though they are believed to be designed as the obelisk’s protectors, they appear to be gawking at it instead as a result of being positioned backwards. The benches around also have winged sphinxes as arms, and the overall effect is one mini-town erected in honour of ancient Egypt.
The Cleopatra’s Needle is not directly associated with Cleopatra VII, as it was already over 1000 years old when she became queen. It is stipulated that the name was given because of the fact that it was transported to London from Alexandria. Made of red granite, standing at 69ft and weighing approximately 224 tons, the obelisk was originally erected when Thutmose III ordered its construction during his reign in the 18th Dynasty. It was put up in Heliopolis in 1450 B.C. and 220 years after, Ramesses II added the inscriptions to commemorate his military victories.
In 12 B.C., during the reign of Augustus, the obelisk (along with its twin) was moved to Alexandria to the Caesareum (which was a temple built by Cleopatra to honour either Mark Anthony or Julius Caesar). After an unknown period of time they fell over, facilitating the amazing preservation of the hieroglyphs.
In 1819, the obelisk was presented to the UK by Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian and Sudanese ruler at the time, as a gift to celebrate the victories of Lord Nelson, Battle of the Niles, and Sir Ralph Abercromby, Battle of Alexandria. The UK’s government made the decision not to move the structure because of the high cost of transporting it. In 1877, an English surgeon and dermatologist, William James Erasmus Wilson, paid in excess of £10,000 to have it transported to London.
After a particularly terrible journey by sea where the obelisk was in danger of being lost several times, it finally arrived in the county. The structure was re-erected in 1878 and a time capsule was concealed in the front of the pedestal that it was on. This included various pictures and other memorabilia of the era. To educate visitors about the perilous journey and history of the obelisk, there are 4 plaques that surround Cleopatra’s Needle which tell its story. There was one more incident that the obelisk had to endure, when on September 4th, 1917, during WWI, a bomb landed in the vicinity but failed to damage it.
A merging of cultures, Cleopatra’s Needle, along with its backwards facing guards, continues to overlook the city of London while its visitors marvel at this ancient structure that has survived for so long out of its original time and place.