The Pain Behind Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra's Needle, flanked on each side by a Sphinx, towers above the River Thames in Central London
Cleopatra's Needle, flanked on each side by a Sphinx, towers above the River Thames in Central London

by Ray Setterfield


January 21, 1878 — Thanks, but no thanks, responded King George IV when, in July 1821, Egypt offered him what is now known as Cleopatra’s Needle as a Coronation gift. Guided by a Tory Government led by prime minister Lord Liverpool, George realised that the cost and effort of transporting the obelisk to London would be prohibitive. And he was right.

Made of red granite, the tourist attraction is 21 metres (69ft) high and weighs about 203,000 kg (224 tons). Inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics, it was constructed for the Pharaoh Thutmose III in 1460BC, making it around 3,500 years old.

It stood in the Greek city of Heliopolis for 1,500 years until Caesar Augustus ordered it to be moved to Alexandria and erected there in front of the palace where Cleopatra died. This is the only known link between the obelisk and the Egyptian queen.

It was offered to King George by Mohammad Ali, then the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, to commemorate Britain’s victories at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. But the King’s deferment meant it stayed in Egypt.

According to one story, a group of British enthusiasts wanted to bring the obelisk home as a trophy after Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt. Former journalist and broadcaster John Timpson wrote: “They got as far as knocking it down but it weighed two hundred tons and nobody could shift it.

“Some years later the land on which it lay was bought by a property developer who threatened to smash it up if it wasn’t shifted, so private funds were raised to bring it to England.”

Philanthropist Erasmus Wilson, a famous surgeon at the time, led the public fund-raising of £10,000 (£244,000 today). Much of it was spent on the building of a cigar-shaped container vessel in which to transport the obelisk.

It was basically an iron cylinder, 28 metres (93 ft) long and 4.5m (15 ft) wide. With a crew of eight, it boasted ten watertight compartments and was named Cleopatra.

But it would not be a case of plain sailing. Off the west coast of France a violent storm hit the Bay of Biscay on October 14 1877, threatening to sink Cleopatra. It was being towed by the steamship Olga, which launched a rescue boat with six volunteers to take off Cleopatra’s crew.

Tragically, the rescue boat foundered and the six volunteers were lost.

After a while Olga managed to draw alongside Cleopatra. The crew were rescued, but Olga’s captain decided to cut the tow rope, leaving Cleopatra adrift.

It would be five days before the vessel was seen again. It had arrived off the northern coast of Spain and was towed to the nearby port of Ferrol. The steamship Anglia was then despatched from London to tow Cleopatra home.

At long last, on January 21 1878, both came up the Thames and into the heart of London to wild cheers and applause from waiting crowds. A huge timber frame was used to place the obelisk in position on the Victoria Embankment near the Golden Jubilee Bridges, where it stands to this day.

Cleopatra's Needle is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes designed by an English architect. They are cast in bronze and bear hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Strictly speaking, they are facing the wrong way. If they are meant to be guarding the obelisk they should be looking away from it to see any approaching danger and not, as they are, looking at the structure. But, apparently, Queen Victoria said she liked them as they are.

There is an almost identical Cleopatra’s Needle in New York City and a third in Paris, where it has been named the Luxor Obelisk.

*If, one day, archaeologists should break into London’s Cleopatra’s Needle hoping to discover Tutankhamen-type treasure, they will be disappointed. A time capsule was placed inside when it was being erected in 1878. The contents include photographs of twelve women judged to be the best-looking English women of the time; a set of British coins; tobacco pipes, a baby’s bottle, toys, and a set of imperial weights.

The capsule’s contents also include a portrait of Queen Victoria, copies of the Bible in several languages, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.

Published: January 20, 2020

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