Along the Thames River in London are a number of monuments. Tourists pass by many of these old monuments without taking the time to learn their history. Cleopatra’s Needle is one of these. It was made in Egypt 1,000 years before Cleopatra was born. It was given to the English in 1819, but remained in Egypt until 1877 where it began a long and interesting journey to where it rests today, the Victoria Embankment.
It is located in Westminster, on the north side of the Thames River across the river from the Needle.
After finishing my tour of the Tower of London I took the Thames River boat upstream to Westminster. The boat ride was fun and there were a lot of interesting sites along the way. There is a tour guide to provide historical context for all of the tourist sites that can been seen on the ride up the Thames.
I had seen the monument several times, but didn’t know exactly what it was. That isn’t surprising as there are so many historical sites to see in London. It is in a very central location, just east of Parliament on the river bank. The tour guide told part of the story of the monument, but upon research he really only gave a glimpse. The monument was a gift from the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali for the role the British played in the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.
Cleopatra’s Needle is in the heart of Westminster near such sites as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Needle. It is a short walk to the needle from Big Ben.
The Background and History
The obelisk (defined by Google as “a stone pillar, typically having a square or rectangular cross section and a pyramidal top, set up as a monument or landmark”) is located near the Embankment underground station in the center of London. The obelisk was constructed by Tuthmose III, an Egyptian Pharaoh. It is carved with hieroglyphics commemorating his “third sed festival”. The sed festival was an ancient Egyptian ceremony celebrating the continued rule of the Pharaoh. Ramesses II added inscriptions at a later date to the monument to commemorate his military victories.
There are four plaques located on the base of each side of Cleopatra’s Needle. The first plaque details the history of the obelisk. The next outlines why the obelisk was given to the British. The next plague that details the events at sea during the transport of the obelisk in 1879, almost 65 years after it was given to the British. The last plaque commemorates the lost British sailors killed during the transport of Cleopatra’s Needle to England.
There are two large bronze Sphinxes which lie on either side of Cleopatra’s Needle. These are not ancient Egyptian, but are Victorian. Nevertheless they are impressive replicas.
Cleopatra’s Needle has a twin obelisk in New York. There is another Egyptian obelisk in Paris with its match still in Egypt. Both Cleopatra’s Needle and her twin in New York are large structures. They are made of red granite and are 68 feet high. Each weighs about 224 tons! They were originally erected in the city of Heliopolis in Egypt around 1450 B.C. before being moved to Alexandria. The Romans set it up in the temple Caesareum, which Cleopatria built, in 12 B.C.
In appreciation for the victories led by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria, Pharaoh Muhammad Ali gave the Needle to England. While the English monarch welcomed the gesture it decided against the expense of transporting it to England. The obelisk remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir Erasmus Wilson sponsored its transportation to London at an enormous personal cost. It was dug out of the sand and was encased in a large iron cylinder 92 feet long and 16 feet in diameter.
The ship transporting the obelisk ran into a storm west of France, north of Spain in the Bay of Biscay. A rescue boat with 6 volunteers was sent out to stabilize the ship and drowned in the process. The transport shipped was abandoned and considered sunk, but it showed up four days later in the Bay.
The obelisk eventually made it to London and was scheduled to be erected outside of Parliament. That location was rejected and it was finally erected on the Victoria Embankment. Cleopatra’s Needle also became a time capsule on the day of erection on the front part of the pedestal. It contained: 12 photographs of the prettiest English women of the day, hairpins, cigars, tobacco pipes, imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, children’s toys, a razor, a complete set of British coins, a hydraulic jack, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written account of the troubled transport of the obelisk to England, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the Bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanac, a railway guide, a map of London and copes of 10 daily newspapers.
Ratings (Historical Monument)
Category Rating: B
Overall Rating: #5
Comments: Finding an Egyptian artifact in England is cool and unexpected but it tends to get lost in the sites around it. Walk down to Cleopatra’s Needle if you need a few minute break while visiting all of the Westminster sites.