Public Art Around The World

More Than Just The Plaque

Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra’s Needle

Public Art: Cleopatra’s Needle

Sculptor: unknown

Description: Cleopatra’s Needle is an Egyptian obelisk dating back from the reign of Thutmoses (Tuthmosis) III around 1450BC and is one of a pair found in Heliopolis. The 68 feet (21m) obelisk is made from red granite and weighs 224 tons and is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. The granite came from the quarries of Aswan in the Nile Valley. The inscriptions on the obelisks were added about two hundred years later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories. The obelisk is guarded by a pair of bronze Cleopatra’s Needle Sphinxes.

Date Unveiled: The enormous obelisk was winched into position on the Thames Embankment in September 1878.

Location: Cleopatra’s Needle is located along the Thames, on Victoria Embankment near the Golden Jubilee, in the middle of two cast iron Sphinxes, London, England. Still no idea? It’s close to the Embankment underground station.

The Background to Cleopatra’s Needle: The pair of obelisks were originally erected in the ancient city of Heliopolis for Thutmose III about 3,000 years ago. In 1819, the Egyptian obelisk was given to the United Kingdom by Sudan Muhammad Ali. It was in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. Oh, who am I kidding, it was really a gift to commemorate the British crushing of Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the generous gift, the British government was rather reluctant to pay for its transportation to London, preferring it to remain until the public could raise the cash.

Fifty-nine years later they finally had raised enough money to ship the priceless artifact. Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a well-known dermatologist, donated £10,000  and the public a further £5,000 for the £15,000 shipping cost. The original location for Cleopatra’s Needle in London was Palace Square. After much debate, the decision was given to Earl of Beaconsfield.

The Headache of Transporting the Obelisk

After the obelisk was dug out of the sand it had been buried in for about 2,000 years, a special cigar-shaped vessel (aptly named the Cleopatra)  had to be built to transport the enormous chunk of granite. This task was given to engineer John Dixon who was in Cairo constructing an iron bridge. His design consisted of a great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter for the obelisk to be slid into. The strange craft had a vertical stem and stern, a rudder, two bilge keels, a mast for balancing sails, and a deckhouse and was manned by a Captain Carter and a small crew. The Cleopatra was then towed by the steamship, Olga.


On the first attempt at transporting the obelisk inside the Cleopatra, it struck a submerged rock and the vessel had to be refloated and repaired.

On the next journey, everything was going fine and dandy until the 14th October 1877, when a huge storm whipped up in the Bay of Biscay. The Cleopatra began rolling so badly that the ballast shifted. Captain Booth from the Olga sent out a rescue boat. In the treacherous seas, the boat capsized and all six crew members were lost. Booth then decided to sail the Olga alongside the Cleopatra in a bid to rescue Captain Carter and the five crew members who were probably decidedly seasick by now. Once everyone was safely onboard, Booth declared the Cleopatra “abandoned and sinking,”.

Four days later the abandoned vessel was found floating in the bay by Spanish trawler boats. The Glasgow steamer  Fitzmaurice took the Cleopatra to Spain for repairs and then lodged a salvage claim of £5,000 which had to be settled before the vessel and the obelisk could continue the journey. Through negotiations, the price was finally whittled down to £2,000. The paddle tug Anglia, captained by David Glue, was then commissioned to tow the Cleopatra to the Thames. She finally arrived on the 21st of January, 1878.

The Time Capsule: In a very Victorian move, a time capsule was buried near the front of the Needle’s pedestal. The capsule included : a portrait of Queen Victoria,  a map of London, 10 daily newspapers, 12 photographs of English women , a box of hairpins , a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used to erect the obelisk, a man’s lounge suit, the complete dress and accessories of the kind that a fashionable woman, a 3″ bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a written history of the obelisk’s journey to London (including the near disaster), plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack and a Bradshaw Railway Guide. I’m not sure the sun god Ra would be all that impressed!

The Haunting of the Needle: There are not too many pieces of public art that can boast being haunted, but Cleopatra’s Needle can. Several people have claimed to have seen the ghost of a naked man jump from the base into the Thames without making a splash, while others have said to have heard a mocking laugh. The area near the Needle has the highest suicide rate for people wanting to end it all in the Thames. It has even been suggested that the obelisk is haunted by the men who lost their lives during the transportation from Egypt to London.

Trivia :

The obelisk’s only link to Cleopatra was she had arranged for them to be moved to Alexandra so they could be placed outside the Caesareum, which is a temple built in honor of Mark Antony.

At some stage, both obelisks were toppled and the faces buried which miraculously preserved most of the hieroglyphs from the effects of weathering.

The other Cleopatra Needle is in New York’s Central Park.

None of Pharaoh Thutmoses III obelisks are standing in Egypt.

Cleopatra’s Needle was originally destined for outside the Houses of Parliament but the idea was rejected.

The original Master Stone Mason who worked on the granite foundation was William Henry Gould (1822–1891).

During World War I and II, Cleopatra’s Needle was hit by enemy bombs. On Tuesday 4th September 1917 a bomb exploded near the base of the obelisk, killing three people and injuring nine.  It also left one of the Sphinxes damaged.  In March 1941, the obelisk was chipped once again following a raid.

Obelisks: An obelisk is a tall four-sided pointed pillar which ends with a pyramid-like shape on top (which is said to resemble a “petrified ray” of the sundisk). Obelisks were very popular in ancient Egyptian architecture. Built in pairs they were placed at the entrance to their temples. The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra and many thought that the god existed within the structure. It is believed that there are 29 ancient Egyptian obelisks still standing, more than half of which are scattered around the world.

So where are these obelisks?


Pharaoh Tuthmosis I, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Pharaoh Ramses II, Luxor Temple
Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Pharaoh Senusret I, Al-Masalla area of Al-Matariyyah district in Heliopolis, Cairo
Pharaoh Ramses III, Luxor Museum
Pharaoh Ramses II, Gezira Island, Cairo
Pharaoh Ramses II, Cairo International Airport
Pharaoh Seti II, Karnak Temple, Luxor
Pharaoh Senusret I, Faiyum (ancient site of Crocodilopolis)


Pharaoh Ramses II, Luxor Obelisk, in Place de la Concorde, Paris


Caesarea obelisk


Pharaoh Tuthmosis III / Tuthmosis IV,” Lateranense”, Piazza di San Giovanni , Laterano, Rome
Pharaoh unknown, “vaticano”, Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City
Pharaoh Seti I / Ramses II, “Flaminio”, Piazza del Popolo, Rome
Pharaoh Psammetichus II, “Solare”, Piazza di Montecitorio, Rome
Pharaoh Ramses II, “Macuteo”, Piazza della Rotonda, Rome
Pharaoh Apries, “Minerveo”, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Pharaoh Ramses II, “Gogali”, Baths of Diocletian, Rome
Pharaoh Ramses II, “Matteiano”, Villa Celimontana, Rome
Pharaoh unknown, Piazza del Duomo, Catania (Sicily)
Pharaoh unknown, Boboli Gardens (Florence)
Pharaoh unknown, Urbino Obelisco di Benevento


Pharaoh Ramses II, Poznan Archaeological Museum, Poznan (on loan from Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin)


Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, in Square of Horses, Istanbul


Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, “Cleopatra’s Needle”, on Victoria Embankment, London
Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in the Oriental Museum, University of Durham
Pharaoh Ptolemy IX, Philae obelisk, at Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne Minster, Dorset
Pharaoh Nectanebo II, British Museum, London (pair of obelisks)


Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, “Cleopatra’s Needle”, in Central Park, New York


Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) Tue 25 Mar 1941 , CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE CHIPPED AGAIN

Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907) Sat 2 Feb 1878 , Cleopatra’s Needle.

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