Visitors to London, walking along the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames, might be surprised to see a genuine Egyptian obelisk standing about halfway between the Waterloo and Hungerford bridges. It has been there since 1878, although it underwent a lengthy and tortuous journey before it arrived at its current destination.
The Needle is nearly 60 feet high and weighs about 186 tons. It was cut from the quarries of Aswan in Upper Egypt. In about 1475 BC it was transported down the Nile to be erected at Heliopolis and was carved with dedications to various gods and symbols representing Pharaoh Tethmosis III. it was later moved to Alexandria.
The connection with Queen Cleopatra is a tenuous and possibly fictitious one. One tradition supposes that it was carved with Cleopatra’s name as a memorial to the son whom Julius Caesar had by Cleopatra, but there is no real evidence for this.
The obelisk stood at Alexandria for many years until it toppled over into the sand. Later Egyptians had little idea what to do with it until the Turkish viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, presented it to the British in 1819. The question then was how to transport it to London?
It was not until 1877 that Gen Sir James Alexander suggested to John Dixon, an English engineer living in Alexandria, that he might turn his attention to the problem. Helped by an enormous £10,000 contribution by Erasmus Wilson, a surgeon, Dixon built a cylindrical iron pontoon to contain the obelisk which would then be towed all the way to London.
The venture nearly foundered during a gale in the Bay of Biscay, off the French coast, which cost the lives of six seamen. However, the obelisk was able to continue its journey and eventually reached London in January 1878.
The original plan was to erect the obelisk outside the Houses of Parliament, but the site proved to be unstable. It was therefore moved to its present position overlooking the River Thames.
Buried beneath Cleopatra’s Needle is a curious time capsule containing contemporary newspapers, a set of coins, a razor and a box of pins, four Bibles in different languages, a copy of Bradshaw’s railway guide and photographs of 12 of the best-looking Englishwomen of the day!
Visitors might notice a number of indentations on the plinth that supports the Needle. These are the result of bomb damage caused by a Zeppelin raid during World War I.