Cleopatra's Needle (New York City)
Cleopatra's Needle in New York City is one of three similar named Egyptian obelisks and was erected in Central Park (at , west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) on 22 February 1881. It was secured in May 1877 by judge Elbert E. Farman, the United States Consul General at Cairo, as a gift from the Khedive for the United States remaining a friendly neutral as the European powers – France and Britain – maneuvered to secure political control of the Egyptian government.
Made of red granite, the obelisk stands about 21 metres (69 ft) high, weighs about 200 tons, and is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis on the orders of Thutmose III, in 1475 BC. The granite was brought from the quarries of Aswan, near the first cataract of the Nile. The inscriptions were added about 200 years later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories. The obelisks were moved to Alexandria and set up in the Caesareum – a temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Mark Antony or Julius Caesar – by the Romans in 12 BC, during the reign of Augustus, but were toppled some time later. This had the fortuitous effect of burying their faces and so preserving most of the hieroglyphs from the effects of weathering.
Securing the obelisk
The original idea to secure an Egyptian obelisk for New York City came out of the March 1877 New York City newspaper accounts of the transporting of the London obelisk. If Paris had one and London was to get one, why should not New York get one? The newspapers mistakenly attributed to a Mr. John Dixon the 1869 proposal of the Khedive of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, to give the United States the remaining Alexandria obelisk as a gift for increased trade. Mr. Dixon was the 1877 contractor who arranged the transport of the London obelisk and denied the newspaper accounts. In March 1877 and based on the newspaper accounts, Mr. Henry G. Stebbins, Commissioner of the Department of Public Parks of the City of New York, undertook to secure the funding to transport the obelisk to New York. However, when railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt was asked to head the subscription, he offered to finance the project with a donation of over $100,000.
Stebbins then sent two acceptance letters to the Khedive through the Department of State which forwarded them to Judge Farman in Cairo. Realizing that he might be able to secure one of the two remaining upright obelisks — either the mate to the Paris obelisk in Luxor or the London mate in Alexandria — Judge Farman formally asked the Khedive in March 1877, and by May 1877 he had secured the gift in writing.
The obelisk was placed on an obscure site, some yards behind the museum. This location appeared to be a site decided by Vanderbilt's wishes. Gorringe wrote, "In order to avoid needless discussion of the subject, it was decided to maintain the strictest secrecy as to the location determined on." He noted that the prime advantage of the Knoll was its "isolation" and that it was the best site to be found inside the park, as it was quite elevated and the foundation could be firmly anchored in bedrock, lest Manhattan suffer "some violent convulsion of nature."
Moving the obelisk
The formidable task of moving the obelisk from Alexandria to New York was given to Henry Honychurch Gorringe, a lieutenant commander on leave from the U.S. Navy. The 200-ton granite obelisk was first shifted from vertical to horizontal, nearly crashing to ground in the process. In August 1879 the movement process was suspended for two months because of local protests and legal challenges. Once those were resolved, the obelisk was transported seven miles to Alexandria and then put into the hold of the steamship SS Dessoug, which set sail 12 June 1880. The Dessoug was heavily modified with a large hole cut into the starboard side of its bow. The obelisk was loaded through the ship's hull by rolling it upon cannonballs.
Despite a broken propeller, the SS Dessoug was able to make the journey to the United States. The obelisk and its 50-ton pedestal arrived at the Quarantine Station in New York in early July 1880. It took 32 horses hitched in pairs to bring it from the banks of the East River to Central Park. Railroad ramps and tracks had to be temporarily removed and the ground flattened so that the obelisk could be rolled out of the ship, whose side had been cut open once again for the purpose. The obelisk was carried through the Hudson River. The final leg of the journey was made by pushing the obelisk with a steam engine across a specially built trestle bridge from Fifth Avenue to its new home on Greywacke Knoll, just across the drive from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It took 112 days to move the obelisk from Quarantine Station to it resting place.
Jesse B. Anthony, Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York, presided as the cornerstone for the obelisk was laid in place with full Masonic ceremony on 2 October 1880. Over 9,000 Masons paraded up Fifth Avenue from 14th Street to 82nd Street, and it was estimated that over 50,000 spectators lined the parade route. The benediction was presented by R.W. Louis C. Gerstein. The obelisk was righted by a special structure built by Henry Honychurch Gorringe. The official ceremony for erecting the obelisk was held 22 February 1881.
The surface of the stone is heavily weathered, nearly masking the rows of Egyptian hieroglyphs engraved on all sides. Photographs taken near the time the obelisk was erected in the park show that the inscriptions or hieroglyphs, as depicted below with translation, were still quite legible and date first from Thutmosis III (1479–1425 BC) and then nearly 300 years later, Ramesses II the Great (1279–1213 BC). The stone had stood in the clear dry Egyptian desert air for nearly 3,000 years and had undergone little weathering. In a little more than a century in the climate of New York City, pollution and acid rain have heavily pitted its surfaces. In 2010, Dr. Zahi Hawass sent an open letter to the president of the Central Park Conservancy and the Mayor of New York City insisting on improved conservation efforts. If they are not able to properly care for the obelisk, he has threatened to "take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin."
The image above shows the obelisk's hieroglyphics with translations.
- Jackson, Kenneth T. (2011). The Encyclopedia of New York City. Second revised and expanded edition (2nd ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300114652.
- “Egypt and its Betrayal” by Elbert E. Farman, 1908. Chapters XIV–XV document the history of the New York City obelisk from its origins to how it came to rest in Central Park. Judge Farman was the 1870s U.S. Consul at Cairo who secured the obelisk for the United States and New York City
- "centralpark2000.com". www.centralpark2000.com. Retrieved 2018-02-26.
- “Egypt and its Betrayal” Chapters XIV
- Gorringe, Henry H. (1885). "Removal of the Alexandrian Obelisk, 'Cleopatra's Needle,' to New York". Egyptian Obelisks. London. p. 31.
- “Egypt and its Betrayal” Chapter XVI
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-07-03. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
- "NOVA Online | Mysteries of the Nile | A World of Obelisks: New York". Pbs.org. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
- “Egypt and its Betrayal” Chapters XVII – History of Obelisk and Inscriptions
- Obelisk in Central Park, drhawass.com <"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-11-09. Retrieved 2016-04-19.>
- https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1878/08/19/140541452.pdf 1800s translation before damage
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- D'Alton, Martina (1993). The New York obelisk, or, How Cleopatra's Needle came to New York and what happened when it got here. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 0870996800.