Cleopatra’s Needle is a familiar London landmark. Almost seventy feet high, the red granite obelisk stands on Victoria Embankment on the north side of the Thames and is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes. It is arguably the dominant feature of the Embankment on the north side of the river.
The obelisk, the cast bronze sphinxes and the decorative sphinx-themed benches along this stretch of the river demonstrate the Victorian fascination with Egypt as well as Britain’s political involvement with the country.
The obelisk – one of a pair, the other of which went to New York – was a gift to the British government from the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, Mahommed Ali, as is recounted in the series of plaques around the base of the obelisk.
‘This obelisk quarried at Syene was erected at On (Heliopolis) by the Pharaoh Thothmes 111 about 1500 B.C. Lateral inscriptions were added nearly two centuries later by Rameses the Great removed during the Greek dynasty to Alexandria the Royal City of Cleopatra. It was there erected in the 18th year of Augustus Caesar B.C. 12
‘This obelisk prostrate for centuries on the sands of Alexandria was presented to the British nation A.D. 1819 by Mahommed Ali Viceroy of Egypt as a worthy memorial of our distinguished countrymen Nelson and Abercromby.’
Getting the obelisk from Alexandria to London was a tremendous feat of engineering and human endeavour.
‘Through the patriotic zeal of Erasmus Wilson F.R.S. this obelisk was brought from Alexandria encased in an iron cylinder. It was abandoned during a storm in the Bay of Biscay recovered and erected on this spot by John Dixon C.E. in the 42nd year of the reign of Queen Victoria 1878
‘William Askin Michael Burns James Gardiner William Donald Joseph Benbow William Patan perished in a bold attempt to succour the crew of the obelisk ship “Cleopatra” during the storm October 14th 1877.’
Erasmus Wilson – an eminent surgeon and dermatologist, with a special interest in hydrotherapy – paid £10,000 for the transport of the obelisk after the government of the day refused to fund the operation.
Lives were lost when the obelisk – encased in a purpose-built iron cylinder – sank during a storm. The obelisk was recovered and finally arrived at Gravesend in January 1878. An elaborate timber structure was designed by engineer Benjamin Baker to lift it into place once it had been brought upriver.
The Victorian public had followed the process with interest and the so-called ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ (a name adopted from the obelisk that had gone to Paris) quickly became an iconic sight.
Erasmus Wilson was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1881 and died three years later in 1884 at Westgate-on-Sea in Kent.
The perils did not end once the obelisk was erected in London.
It came close to destruction during the very first bombing raid of London of the first world war. Another plaque – this one on the plinth of one of the Sphinxes – records the damage sustained.
In these days when travel to Egypt is sadly very difficult, the obelisk and sphinxes – and the remarkable story told on them – provide a little piece of Egypt in London.