Cleopatra’s Needle: How Did It Get There?

Andrew Rosenberg

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Subject: Cleopatra’s Needle

Location: Greywacke Knoll, Central Park (at 81st Street)

Our Mission: To discover how a gigantic, 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk wound up in NYC’s most famous green space

First off, what is an obelisk?

It is a type of tall, narrow, tapered monument, the earliest examples of which were built in ancient Egypt.

And what is Cleopatra’s Needle?

This 71-foot-tall, 224-ton granite structure points skyward from a knoll in Central Park, just a stone’s throw from the Met Fifth Avenue. It’s an Egyptian antiquity, at 3,500 years of age the oldest piece of architecture in New York City. Obviously it was not here from the time of its construction, nor was it part of the original Central Park design, which was completed in 1858. This raises the question…

How did it get here?

The obelisk is one of a pair built around 1443 BC in Egypt’s Heliopolis, under orders from the pharaoh Thutmose III. Both monuments were moved around 10 BC to front Alexandria’s Caesareum—which was named for Julius Caesar and first conceived by Cleopatra, who consolidated her rule with Caesar’s help—under the reign of Caesar’s son Augustus. (The nickname didn’t take until centuries later, reportedly coined by British traveler Paul Lucas; Mark Twain also used the term in his 1869 travel book Innocents Abroad.) In the early 1800s, one of obelisks was promised to London, though it took many years for that move to happen; upon completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Khedive of Egypt floated the idea of gifting the other to the United States as a show of gratitude. It was another decade before the deal was sealed; at that point, industrial magnate William H. Vanderbilt took care of the funding for its transport and placed naval commander Henry H. Gorringe in charge of getting it from Alexandria to New York City. This was no easy task.

Gorringe first had to secure and specially outfit a ship for the obelisk’s transport; lower it onto its side, set it into a caisson and guide it through Alexandria’s waterways to its port; sail it on the Dessoug steamer thousands of miles across the ocean, a 40-day voyage that was more or less the easy part; and then maneuver the unwieldy stone over to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Originally, Grand Army Plaza and Columbus Circle, each occupying a southern corner entrance of the park, were suggested as potential homes for Cleopatra’s Needle. However, worry over placing it in the midst of an area sure to be developed with tall modern buildings led Vanderbilt to advocate a place where the obelisk would stand in isolation—not to mention near the antiquities of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which had just opened its Fifth Avenue location). Gorringe wrote that it was “perhaps the worst [place] within the city limits for getting an obelisk to,” a rather strong distinction.

Once the Dessoug arrived on July 20, 1880, in harbor—where throngs came to see it over a 10-day period—a production still lay ahead. The pedestal was dropped ashore where West 51st Street meets the Hudson River, while the obelisk continued up to a wharf at 96th Street. On land, it had to navigate a series of turns through the streets, across the park and down Fifth Avenue, before being moved on a trestle that had been erected in the park. By the time the Needle was hoisted, on January 22, 1881 (for which more crowds had turned out), some six months had passed since it came to the waterfront.   

Fast facts

* The sides of the obelisk are covered with hieroglyphics, now strikingly visible thanks to a restoration from a couple of years ago. The preservation effort came on the heels of a threat from Egypt’s ministry of antiquities to repossess the monument, which had fallen into neglect.

* When Cleopatra’s Needle was moved to Alexandria, a set of bronze crabs was placed at its corners for stability. Two of them survived the move to NYC, were replaced by new casts and then donated by Gorringe to the Met. Visit the museum’s Egyptian wing to view them.  

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* The New-York Historical Society holds an 1881 medal issued to commemorate the City’s acquisition of Cleopatra’s Needle, as well as four cardboard plaques from the time that bear descriptions of the medal. They’re in the museum’s Luce Center, which reopens this spring after extensive renovations.

* The Brooklyn Museum, which also has an extensive Egyptian section, features a “Cleopatra’s Needle” table lamp  in its 19th-century decorative arts collection. The base of the lamp, which was produced around 1878 in Manchester, England, is modeled on the version of the obelisk that London welcomed that year.  


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