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Cleopatra's Needle: Egypt's Gift to England

September 20, 1987|MARGUERITE OLIVER | Oliver is a free-lance writer and social anthropologist living in San Diego. and

LONDON — When guests at the Savoy Hotel finish their morning tea and look through the leafy gardens to Victoria Embankment, they glimpse a startling sight.

There in the soft, misty air of the river side one of the last colossal obelisks to leave Egypt stands silhouetted against the sky.

Residents of the city may be used to seeing the rose-granite shaft called Cleopatra's Needle, but tourists strolling by often wonder why a landmark of ancient Egypt stretches high above the bustling water traffic of the Thames.

The story of this odd monument, which has nothing to do with Cleopatra, and its hazardous travels from the brown, sloping dunes of Africa is a stranger-than-fiction adventure you probably won't find mentioned in guidebooks.

Dating back about 3,500 years, the 69-foot needle was raised by Pharaoh Thutmose III during his reign in Egypt's Golden Age about 1501-1450 B.C.

Prayers Written on Stone

It originally stood in front of the temple of Ra, the sun god, in Heliopolis, the Old Kingdom religious city now in ruins six miles north of Cairo. Thutmose, and later Ramses II, wrote long prayers on the face of the sun-baked stone, graceful carvings that still dazzle with their rich detail.

In 10 B.C. the Roman Emperor Augustus had Cleopatra's Needle, along with its near-twin now decorating New York City's Central Park, taken from Heliopolis to Alexandria to decorate the new Caesarium, the Palace of the Caesars. It stood there for 13 centuries until toppled by an earthquake and it gradually disappeared beneath the sands of the Nile Delta.

The fallen monolith was nearly forgotten, but in the 19th Century, with France and England competing for souvenirs of the Egyptian Empire, the ruler of Egypt decided to make the 187-ton obelisk a gift to England.

The question of how to get the trophy to London was solved when engineers hit upon a scheme to encase the obelisk in an iron cylinder of 10 watertight compartments, roll it down the slopes to the sea and tow it to England.

The contraption, 93 feet long, was fitted with a keel, plus a cabin for a crew of six, christened Cleopatra and attached by a wire towline to a chartered steamship.

Early on a searing autumn morning in 1877 the tug steamed out of Alexandria's harbor with the buoyant but unwieldy Cleopatra plunging behind it, bound for England via Gibraltar.

An Interrupted Journey

"The Cleopatra rode like a duck," said the captain, until they reached the Bay of Biscay, where mountainous seas churned up by gale winds loosened the towline and swamped the heavy cylinder.

In the early dark, its storm-tossed crew struggled to safety aboard the tug, while six volunteers pushed off in a launch to chase the heavily listing needle. By daybreak the seamen (whose names are inscribed in a poignant memorial on the needle's base) and the Cleopatra had disappeared.

Believing the obelisk had sunk, the survivors continued their interrupted voyage to England. The following evening the astonished skipper of a Glasgow steamer sighted the pitching obelisk and recognized it from London press accounts.

Within a few hours he hooked it and limped into a nearby Spanish port where the Cleopatra was refitted for the last leg of its journey.

The moment the cylinder was towed up the Thames and moored near the Houses of Parliament, Cleopatra fever gripped London.

Crowds cheered at its sight, Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory telegram, and visitors included the Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and Benjamin Disraeli. Floated at high tide to Victoria Embankment and lifted without mishap by hydraulic jacks, the obelisk of Thutmose III swung majestically onto its pedestal on the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1878, just as Big Ben chimed 3:30.

Many of today's visitors are unaware that officials buried a time capsule in the needle's marble pedestal before it was erected. When or by whom the sealed capsule will be opened is anybody's guess, but the contents are a rich slice of Victorian London's social history.

Inside the container are a box of cigars, several Bibles in various languages, a straight razor, that morning's London Times, some hairpins, a baby bottle, a complete set of British coins plus one rupee, the official picture of Queen Victoria, a map of London, Bradshaw's railway timetable, and photographs of 12 of the most beautiful English women of the day.

Genuine Sphinxes

The mighty structure, flanked by its two genuine Victorian sphinxes, had another close call in 1917 during World War I, when an enemy bomb fell close enough to damage it. The scars were left unrepaired as a reminder of that war.

The monument draws hordes of curiosity seekers. You can climb the shadowy steps of the obelisk's base for a close look at the pictograph prayers carved during the age of the pharaohs, but for another view of Cleopatra's Needle cross the street to Victoria Embankment Gardens.

Only about 300 yards long, the garden, like most London parks, is artfully planted and tended. The murmur of traffic outside the wall is muted and, among the flower-strewn nooks and crannies, a small pond reflects the sky.

But walk farther along the path and the obelisk soars into view, the massive symmetry of its stone softened by the supple branches of the trees arching overhead. There are plenty of park benches there and along the embankment, if you'd like to sit and enjoy a memorable view.

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