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LONDON: Cleopatra's Needle

If you are familiar with London landmarks then you will be familiar with Cleopatra's needle. Sat amongst the sites of London on the Thames Embankment it can easily be missed. While it doesn't have the visual attraction of Tower Bridge for example, the history of Cleopatra's Needle to this country is enough to look at this unique (almost) monument in a completely different light.

What is Cleopatra's Needle?

Cleopatra's Needle is the popular name for each of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City during the nineteenth century. The London and New York ones are a pair, while the Paris one comes from a different original site, Luxor, where its twin remains.

Although the needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, they are somewhat misnamed as they have no particular connection with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and were already over a thousand years old in her lifetime. The London "needle" is one such example, as it was originally made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III but was falsely named "Cleopatra's needle".

The Paris "needle" was the first to be moved and re-erected and the first to acquire the nickname.

On erection of the London obelisk in 1878 a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal, it contained:
 A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby's bottle, some children's toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.
Cleopatra's Needle is flanked by two Egyptian sphinxes cast from bronze that bear hieroglyphic inscriptions that say netjer nefer men-kheper-re di ankh:

'...the good god, Thuthmosis III given life...'

The two sphinxes are not Egyption as they were cast in bronze at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881.

Strangely, these Sphinxes appear to be looking at the Needle rather than guarding it. This is because of the Sphinxes' improper or backwards installation. Around the obelisks the Embankment has other Egyptian flourishes, such as buxom winged sphinxes on the armrests of benches. On 4 September 1917, during World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near the needle. In commemoration of this event, the damage remains unrepaired to this day and is clearly visible in the form of shrapnel holes and gouges on the right-hand sphinx.

How Cleopatra's came to London

Cleopatra’s Needle was presented to the British Government in 1820, although there had been plans to bring it back as early as 1801 as a memorial to the victories of Nelson and Abercromby over the French in Egypt. However, it was 1877 when the obelisk finally arrived in this country.

As it weighed over 200 tons it was encased in an iron cylinder which was then rolled by means of levers and chains down a track into the sea. It was fitted with a deck house, mast, rudder and steering gear and was manned by a crew of Maltese sailors. This ‘craft’ was named Cleopatra and was to be towed to Great Britain by the steamship Olga. They sailed on 21 September 1877. Captain Henry Carter (who had supervised her construction) commanded the Cleopatra and Captain Booth was in command of the Olga.

The two vessels could only make 7 knots and disaster struck in the Bay of Biscay when the tow ropes had to be cut in a violent storm on 14 October 1877.

Cleopatras Needle in transport casing
 The Cleopatra began wildly rolling, and became untenable. The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six volunteers, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost - named today on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle's mounting stone.

Eventually Captain Carter and his crew were rescued and the Cleopatra drifted away in the storm.

It was assumed she was lost but she was later sighted by the Fitzmaurice and towed in to Ferrol Harbour. 

From there, she was towed back to England by the paddle tug Anglia arriving at Gravesend on 21 January 1878.

The obelisk was eventually erected on the Thames Embankment while the Cleopatra was broken up immediately after the obelisk had been removed on 6 July 1878.

For related articles click onto:
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LONDON: Cleopatra's Needle
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LONDON: The London Eye
LONDON: The Tower of London
LONDON: Who was Guy Fawkes?
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ENGLAND: Knole House - the Ghosts!
ENGLAND: Sissinghurst
ENGLAND: What is the Eden project?
ENGLAND: What is Stonehenge?
ENGLAND: Where is Stonehenge?
Based on an article from and's_Needle
Images care of and and and's_Needle_(London)_sphinx_2.jpg