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The Remarkable Story of Cleopatra’s Needle

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Location: Victoria Embankment, London WC2 N6

One of the most unusual monuments alongside the River Thames is Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment. Cleopatra’s Needle is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III in around 1450 BC. Cleopatra’s Needle was located in front of the great temple of the sun in Heliopolis which was known as the city of temples dedicated to the worship of the sun. The original hieroglyphs on the obelisk  were related to the exploits of the great Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III , however 300 years later Rameses II added some extra hieroglyphs to the obelisk that celebrates his reign. The obelisk was moved to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC, where eventually it toppled over and remained until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson sponsored its transportation to London from Alexandria at a cost of some £10,000.

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In  many ways it was a gift that England did not want,  the needle was first offered in 1820 to commemorate Nelson’s victory on the Nile, it was offered again in 1831, 1849 and 1851. The question of transportation was the main  problem, it was too expensive to transfer by land and the British Government did not want to get involved . The solution  proposed by engineer John Dixon was to encase the obelisk in great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter. The creation of the iron cylinder was undertaken and on the top of the cylinder was a deck house, masts and a small set of sails. The cylinder named The Cleopatra was transported to Alexandria in parts and reassembled on the beach  under the supervision of John Dixon and Captain Henry Carter who was to command the ‘ship’ whilst being towed behind a steamship.

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Eventually the obelisk was encased in the cylinder and attached to the steamship Olga for its journey to London, all went well until 14th October 1877, when a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the cylinder to start rollling, The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six crew, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost.  Captain Carter and the five crew members aboard the Cleopatra were eventually rescued, but the cylinder was feared to have sunk. However these fears were unfounded and the cylinder was found and was taken to Ferrol in Spain. Unfortunately this was not the end of the problem because over £2,000 salvage had to be paid before the journey could be continued. The money was eventually paid and the cylinder arrived in the Thames on the 21st January 1878.

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Prior to the final settling down of the monolith, a time capsule of  two large jars containing curious and miscellaneous assortment of articles were deposited in the cove of the pedestal and of the obelisk itself.  The items included  a standard foot and pound, presented by the Standard Department of the Board of Trade; a bronze model of the obelisk half-inch to the foot; topics of engineering printed on vellum, with plans and details of the various arrangements employed in transporting and re-erecting the obelisk, together with  its complete history ; a parchment copy of Dr  Birch’s translation of the hieroglyphics ; a piece of the obelisk stone ; a complete set of British coinage, including an Empress of India rupee ; portrait of Her Majesty the Queen Victoria ; Bible in various languages, presented by the British and Foreign Bible Society ; standard gauge to one-thousandth part of an inch, as a sample of accurate workmanship, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, Whitaker’s Almanac, wirerope and specimen of submarine cable, Mappin’s shilling razor, case of cigars, pipes, Alexandra feeding-bottle and children’s toys, box of hair pins, and sundry articles of female adornment, map of London, copies of the daily and illustrated papers, a London directory, and last, but not least, photographs of a dozen pretty Englishwomen.

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Even this was not the end of the obelisk’s woes , When Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on the Embankment, two Egyptian sphinxes, designed by the English architect George John Vulliamy were added. However many people have speculated that these Sphinxes were installed incorrectly because they appear to be looking at the Needle rather than guarding it. The Embankment has a few other Egyptian motifs such as winged sphinxes on the armrests of benches.  More seriously in 1917, in the first air strike on London by the German airforce, it received some minor damage from shrapnel. The damage can still be seen  on the lower part of the plinth.

There are number of plaques that explain some of the events attached to the plinth, Cleopatra’s Needle is one of the most ancient objects in London and has survived Egyptian Pharaohs, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte  and the German Air force in Two World Wars.  It might have been an unwanted gift but for well over 100 years it has become on the main landmarks of London.

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