A strange and wondrous Egyptian obelisk sits on the east side of New York’s Central Park. Locals here call it, “Cleopatra’s Needle”. This is odd. While it is authentically 3500 years old from ancient Egypt, it was already 1000 years old before Cleopatra was even born and had no connection to her. Folks pass it by without a thought, but not me. I had to learn why it was in New York and where it came from. How could people create this out of a solid piece of red granite with 3500 year old technology? This led me to finding…..two more. All three have amazing stories to tell. But let’s start first here in NYC. Here’s what the Central Park obelisk looks like now:
Why is it here in NY? Egypt gave it to the US as a gift hoping to encourage trade when the Suez Canal was first opened in 1869. But no one wanted to pay to transport 224 tons. It waited in Egypt until 1880 when the richest man in the world, railroad king William H. Vanderbilt put up $100,000 to move it to NY.
How was 224 tons moved across Manhattan from the Hudson River to where it is today, back in the 1800’s? After the trip from Egypt it took a team of 32 horses to bring it from the banks of the Hudson to Central Park. It moved through Manhattan at a painstakingly slow rate over a specially constructed set of rails. A bridge was constructed to move it from 5th Avenue to the knoll where it stands now.
It’s has a sister in London and another in Paris? Yes. It’s amazing that the London sister obelisk ever made it to where it stands today on the Thames near the Embankment tube station.
Is this a long story? No, and it’s worth hearing. Egypt gave it to the UK in 1819 but just like with Egypt’s gift to the US, the British government didn’t want to pay the enormous transportation cost either. By 1877 £10,000 was put up, the obelisk was dug out of the Egyptian sand where it was buried for 2000 years, encased in a tremendous iron cylinder 92 feet long and towed out to sea. It was essentially an extremely heavy floating pontoon. Disaster came via a storm in October 1877, causing the “ship” to become untenable. 224 tons of rock surrounded by a makeshift boat hull in a storm could have put it at the bottom of the ocean. A volunteer crew of six went out to help, their boat capsized and all perished. A bronze plaque commemorates their names at the base of the London obelisk. The obelisk/boat was reported abandoned and sinking, but it actually drifted for four days till spotted by a Glasgow steamer and taken to Spain for repairs.
Amazing that it didn’t sink. So that’s all? The Master of the Glasgow boat filed a salvage claim of £5000 which had to be settled before Spain would release it. Negotiated down to £2000, it was released and towed by paddle tug to the Thames. It finally was erected in 1878 after all that, whew! Inside the London pedestal is a secret time capsule compartment.
What’s inside? According to Wikipedia: “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 set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3′ bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.”
In 1917 during WWI, a bomb landed right near the obelisk. In commemoration of this event, the damage remains unrepaired to this day and is clearly visible at the base of the stone lions that sit astride the obelisk. (wikipedia)
And the third in Paris? Sitting in the middle of the Place de la Concorde, it is 3300 years old and along with it’s twin still in Egypt today (a 4th obelisk!), marked the entrance of THE Luxor Temple. A gift from the ruler of Egypt to France in 1826, it was placed right near the spot where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were guillotined. Transporting it was extremely difficult. Details of the machinery used are inscribed on the pedestal. I have seen old newsreel footage of Hitler arriving in Paris in WWII, driving through the Arc de Triumph and right past the obelisk. Again quoting wikipedia, “Missing its original cap, believed stolen in the 6th century BC, in 1998 the government of France added a goldleafed pyramid cap to the top of the obelisk.”
What do the hieroglyphs say? The obelisks orignally were smooth. The NYC and London pair were originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis around 1450 BC. Imagine cutting granite in 1450 BC! The inscriptions were added 200 years later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories. They were moved to Alexandria and toppled during the reign of Augustus, which had the their fortuitous effect of burying faces and thus preserving the hieroglyphs. Here is a link to 1878 translations of the NYC inscriptions: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10A12FF395813778DDDA00994D0405B888BF0D3
It is said to be very good luck to have seen all three in your lifetime. There is now a 4th still to see! It stands in Egypt at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor. A second pedestal lies empty for it’s mate on the other side of the entrance. That empty pedestal once held the Paris obelisk.
Watch 3 mindblowing minutes of a history channel special about how the obelisks were created: http://www.history.com/videos/massive-stones-moved-to-build-monuments You clearly did not want to be a worker on creating an obelisk. I wonder how many people think of that when they pass the one here in Central Park?