On the North Bank of the River Thames stands London’s most ancient monument. Older than the British capital itself, Cleopatra’s Needle dates back nearly 3,500 years.
It is one of three similarly named ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in the nineteenth century in Paris, London and New York.
Despite the name, none of the obelisks were actually built in honour of the Egyptian Queen. The London obelisk is one of a pair which were originally erected in the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis in 1450 BC on the orders of the Pharaoh Thutmose III to flank a grand sun temple.
In 12 BC, the obelisk was moved to Alexandria, the royal city of Cleopatra, where it was set up in the Caesareum, a temple conceived by Cleopatra and finished by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Sometime later, it was toppled and buried in the sand where it remained intact for centuries before it eventually made its way to London’s Embankment.Today, the United Kingdom boasts the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, with over 50,000 such artefacts on display in the British Museum alone. Many of these objects have been at the heart of a raging debate over the repatriation of heritage, including the Rosetta Stone which was instrumental in helping scholars decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and has been at the centre of running tension between the UK and Egypt over its return to its original home.
But unlike the many antiquities taken from the North African country during British colonial rule or brought into the United Kingdom illegally, Cleopatra’s Needle was gifted to Britain by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan Muhammad Ali in 1819 in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. The obelisk’s other pair was later gifted to the United States as a gesture of gratitude for its neutrality when Great Britain and France vied to secure control of the Egyptian government. Today that obelisk stands at New York City’s Central Park.
While the British government welcomed the gift, it declined to fund the high cost of transporting it to London. The obelisk did not sail for Britain until 1877 when distinguished anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson sponsored its transportation from Alexandria at a cost of some £10,000 (equivalent to over £1,000,000 in 2021).
Weighing over 200 tonnes, the obelisk was encased inside a giant iron cylinder which was fitted with a deckhouse, mast and steering gear. The vessel was named the Cleopatra and, manned by a Maltese sailing crew, was towed to London by a steamship called Olga.
The needle was nearly lost at sea in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, where the Cleopatra came loose and six men from Olga lost their lives trying to retrieve it. Their names have been commemorated on a plaque on the base of the obelisk.
On the erection of the obelisk in London in 1878, a time capsule was inserted into its pedestal. This contained dozens of items including photographs, a portrait of Queen Victoria, contemporary British coins, children’s toys, copies of daily newspapers as well as copies of the Bible in several languages. The ancient Egyptians themselves used to put time capsules in their buildings for future historians and archaeologists.
Cleopatra’s Needle is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes designed by English architect George John Vulliamy. They bear hieroglyphic inscriptions which translate as ‘the good God, Thuthmosis III given life’.
Made of red granite from the quarries of Aswan, the obelisk itself is inscribed with ancient hieroglyphs. Thutmose III had some text carved on the pillar, but the majority of its inscriptions were added a couple of centuries later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories.
Having survived fully intact for over 3,000 years buried in the sand in Alexandria, the obelisk came closest to destruction on 4 September 1917 when a German bomb landed near the monument during the First World War.
The right-hand sphinx bears scars from the bomb, with visible shrapnel holes and gouges that remain unrepaired as a testament to how England withstood the bombing. Thankfully, the obelisk itself was unharmed.
Unlike the imposing French installation of a similar obelisk which stands at the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris as its tallest and most striking structure, the London needle is dwarfed and upstaged by Shell Mex House and its giant clock and, sadly, sometimes spoiled by litter as you descend the stairs to the riverside.
Critics have also often picked up on the faulty set up of the sphinxes on either side of the needle as they appear to be facing the needle rather than standing guard, which is their primary purpose in ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology.
Despite this, if you happen to be in London then a visit to Cleopatra’s Needle is well worth it. Not only do you get a glimpse of fascinating ancient Egyptian history and heritage at the heart of London, but the North Bank of the Thames, adorned by other Egyptian-inspired embellishments including camels and buxom winged sphinxes on bench armrests, makes for a beautiful walk regardless.