On the banks of the River Thames in central London, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, reaches towards the sky. Carved from a single slab of red granite, it is 69 feet tall, weighs a substantial 224 tonnes, is decorated with hieroglyphs, and was made for the Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC.
In 1877, six sailors lost their lives transporting the obelisk from Alexandria. Mohammed Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, gave it to the Prince Regent in thanks for the British victories over the French at the Battle of the Nile and Battle of Alexandria. The Cleopatra, a specially designed iron cylinder container, was used to carry it, towed by a steam-ship. A hurricane off the Bay of Biscay resulted in the brief disappearance of the Cleopatra and the drowning of half the crew.
The Cleopatra and its precious cargo were rescued. As it arrived at Falmouth, obelisk fever spread. When the ship docked, local schoolchildren were given the day off. At the inauguration of the obelisk, couples danced to the ‘Cleopatra’s Needle Waltz’. Silver obelisk pencils dangled from the necks of fashionable ladies.
London’s obelisk is one of three that left Egypt between 1831 and 1881 for foreign lands. The other two are in Paris and New York, and all are named after Cleopatra, even though none had anything to do with the Egyptian queen. It’s a romantic misnomer.
The engineering breakthroughs that facilitated the making and moving of these and other ancient Egyptian obelisks, and the pharaohs, emperors, imperialists and egos desperate to possess them, are the subjects of this well-researched and amiable account by the American Egyptologist Bob Brier. Tutankhamen’s gold mask and the Great Pyramid are all very well, but Brier believes the obelisks are the most remarkable achievements of ancient Egypt: ‘They have become symbols of endurance and eternity,’ and ‘a tribute to the human spirit’.
If you want to know how to quarry, carve and erect a huge block of granite, then Brier is your man. He meticulously reconstructs the steps taken by the Egyptian stonemasons to make and position what were among the heaviest monoliths ever moved over land, turning then to document the later transportation of obelisks to foreign places. It took seven years for the French to transport their obelisk to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. A whole village was torn down to build a road from Luxor Temple to transport it to a ship and then on to the French capital. On 25 October 1836, 200,000 people watched the establishment of the obelisk. Perhaps we learn more than we need to about how obelisks were moved around through the ages. There is only so much discussion of ropes, windlasses, scaffolding and pulleys that one can take.
The Victorians were not the first to have been gripped by obelisk mania. The Roman emperors, who first transported them from their original locations, regarded them as trophies of conquest. There are more standing obelisks in Rome than in any other city in the world — more than in Egypt’s cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor combined. Augustus had one brought from Heliopolis in around AD 10. The following inscription was carved on its base: ‘Augustus son of divine Caesar dedicated the obelisk/ To the Sun when Egypt had been brought under the sway of the Roman people.’ Pope Sixtus V rediscovered this obelisk in the late 16th century. Its re-erection in St Peter’s Square was the engineering triumph of the Renaissance. Following an exorcism performed by the Pope himself, this pagan obelisk became a symbol of Christianity’s triumph over paganism.
Brier touches on the politics of ownership. Egyptians have expressed disquiet over the historic acquisition of the obelisks, and as with the Elgin Marbles, there has been talk of repatriation. He raises the question of what should be done with Egypt’s patrimony, offering, ‘It is not an easy decision. If an object is freely given, isn’t it OK to keep it?’ We certainly benefit from the one on the Thames. So do its creators, for they are ensured immortality. Carved onto London’s obelisk is the ancient Egyptian expression ‘To say the name of the dead is to make him live again.’ That’s about right.