One of the most prominent features along the Victoria Embankment is Cleopatra’s Needle.
This Ancient Egyptian obelisk is one of three that were re-erected during the 19th century. One can be found in Central Park, New York City, and the other in the Place de la Concorde, Paris.
The London and New York obelisks are a pair that were originally erected in the ancient city of Heliopolis, and the one in Paris was also one of a pair from Luxor where its twin still remains.
The London and New York ‘Needles’ were erected for Thutmose III around 1450 BC and remained in Heliopolis (now swallowed up by the city of Cairo) until the Romans carted them off to Alexandria. It couldn’t have been no mean feat as they each weigh over 200 tons.
Research seems to suggest that the obelisks didn’t arrive in Cleopatra’s home city until some 15 years after she committed suicide, but I suppose Cleopatra’s Needle has a better ring to it than Thutmose III’s Needle.
So how come one of these 21 metre high monuments ended up on London’s Embankment?
In 1819, after spending centuries lying prostrate in the Egyptian sand, Muhammad Ali, the country’s ruler, offered the United Kingdom one of them for services rendered in defeating the French in the Battles of the Nile and Alexandria – but I’m perplexed as to why they would offer one to the French as well, even though it was several years later.
The task of bringing it back wasn’t at all straightforward. To begin with there seemed to be a reluctance to cough up the fifteen grand that it was going to take to do it, and it wasn’t until 21st September 1877 that the ship left Alexandria for London – but it nearly never made it at all.
The ship that was commandeered to bring Cleopatra’s Needle to London was the Olga. It involved towing the massive structure encased in an iron cylinder nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’, but when it reached the Bay of Biscay it encountered a tremendous storm which not only put Cleopatra at risk but also its crew – six were drowned – but Cleopatra survived.
She was found drifting and towed to Ferrol in Northern Spain, where a tug boat then transported her to Gravesend.
Eventually Cleopatra’s Needle was erected in its present location on 12th Sept 1878 – 59 years after the gift was offered.
At the base are plaques including one dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Bay of Biscay, but the two sphinx that lie next to the monument are not Egyptian but made in Victorian London.
An Ancient Egyptian obelisk lining the banks of the Thames in Central London may not be what tourists expect to see, but if the bomb that was dropped in WWII was a few feet closer they wouldn’t be able to – and that would be a great shame considering its amazing history.