About Cleopatra’s Needle
A striking if somewhat incongruous presence on the north bank of the Thames, it’s probably safe to say that Cleopatra’s Needle doesn’t rank among London’s most treasured historical attractions. But it must surely be the oldest. The story of this ancient Egyptian obelisk’s journey to London is arguably more interesting that the monument itself, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in town.
Cleopatra’s Needle history
Firstly, we should point out that the Needle’s name is rather misleading. The obelisk predates Cleopatra’s birth by about 1,400 years. It’s seriously old, dating back to around 1450 BC, when it was built by order of Pharoah Tutmos III. Additional hieroglyphic engravings were added a couple of centuries later by Rameses II.
In 12 BC the Romans transported the obelisk from its original location in the ancient city of Heliopolis to Alexandria, then under reign of Augustus, where it featured in the city’s Caesareum. At some point the obelisk collapsed and remained prostrate and partially buried in sand for centuries.
The obelisk’s revival began in 1819, when Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt and Sudan, decided it would make a fine commemorative gift to the to the United Kingdom following British victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria. There was one condition: you’ll have to come and get it.
The British government accepted the gift but found the cost of transporting it from Egypt to the UK to be prohibitive. So the obelisk remained buried in Egyptian sand until 1877, when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a prominent surgeon and dermatologist with an interest in Egypt, took matters into his own hands and shelled out £10,000 to fund the Needle’s passage to London.
Transporting a 224-ton stone obelisk was no easy task however, and Wilson resorted to an unconventional plan. An innovative tube-shaped craft, christened Cleopatra, was built and the obelisk was stored in the cylinder. Cleopatra was then tethered to a steamship called Olga, which would carry it to its new home in England.
But the plan went awry when a storm hit in the Bay of Biscay. It was sufficiently violent that the Olga’s captain started to worry that the Cleopatra might sink, taking his ship with it. Following a dramatic attempt to rescue the Cleopatra’s crew, resulting in the death of six sailors, the captain cut the obelisk-bearing craft loose.
It was assumed that the Cleopatra had sunk and that the obelisk was lost. But, days later, an unusual craft was spotted by Spanish trawlers. Against the odds, the Cleopatra had stayed afloat. It eventually made its way to London, where it was erected on the Victoria Embankment on 12 September 1878.
Cleopatra’s Needle today
The well-preserved ancient Egyptian obelisk is embellished with several Victorian accompaniments, including a pair of stylised sphinxes and a pedestal that reads:
Prostrate for centuries
on the sands of Alexandria
was presented to the
British nation A.D. 1819 by
Mahommed Ali Viceroy of Egypt
A worthy memorial of
our distinguished countrymen
Nelson and Abercromby
At the time of its erection a time capsule was set beneath the obelisk. The contents couldn’t be more Victorian. They include:
A gentleman’s lounge suit, a selection of illustrated newspapers including that day’s issue of The Times, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, Queen Victoria’s portrait, a complete set of ladies dress and toiletries, Bibles, children’s toys, a set of coins, a razor, and pictures of the most beautiful women in the realm.
Getting to Cleopatra’s Needle
The Needle’s Thames-side location is easy to find. Located between Savoy Pier and Embankment Pier, it’s a short walk from Embankment tube station (which is on the Circle, District, Northern and Bakerloo lines).