Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra's Needle

An authentic Egyptian obelisk brought to London from Heliopolis, and erected on Victoria Embankment in 1878. The obelisk is one of a pair, the other being erected in Paris. Unlike many Egyptian treasures that found their way to England, Cleopatra's Needle was not removed from Egypt by British nobility, but rather it was granted to the UK government by Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt and Sudan, in 1819, to commemorate British victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria.

Though the British government accepted the gift of the obelisk, it did not want to pay the considerable expense of transporting the monument to Britain. So there the Needle lay, buried in sand, until 1877, when Sir William Wilson payed £10,000 of his own money to transport Cleopatra's Needle to England.

That journey to Britain is perhaps as interesting as the Needle itself; the obelisk was encased in a specially built cage, with a rudder and keel, sail, and wheel, manned by a captain and five crewmen, and towed like a pontoon behind a ship called Olga.

The voyage was beset by storms in the Bay of Biscay, and the Needle was separated from the Olga and almost lost at sea. It was eventually rescued by a merchant vessel, and it finally arrived in England in early 1878. It was erected on Victoria Embankment on 12 September 1878.

Stylised Egyptian lion at the base of the Needle
A stylised Egyptian lion at the
base of the Needle

Cleopatra's Needle is approximately 68 feet high and weighs 180 tons. It was made around 1450 BCE by order of Pharoah Tutmos III, from granite quarried near Aswan.

Hieroglyphic symbols commemorating military victories were added to the column two centuries later by Ramses II. The Romans later moved the obelisk to Alexandria around 12 BCE. At some point the needle fell or was intentionally toppled, and lay, protected by the surrounding sand, for centuries.

It should be noted that the Needle has nothing to do with Cleopatra; it was as much as 1400 years old before Cleopatra was born.

The Needle is flanked by a pair of stylized statues of Egyptian lions. These are Victorian additions and have no real relation to the obelisk.

When the Needle was erected a time capsule was set beneath it. In this were placed items symbolic of the British way of life. The contents of the time capsule make a fascinating statement about Victorian attitudes, for the chosen items include a gentleman's lounge suit, a selection of illustrated newspapers, a complete set of ladies dress and toiletries, Bibles, children's toys, a set of coins, a razor, and, to cap it all off, pictures of the most beautiful women in the realm.

After the Needle was erected a comical verse was inscribed on the base:

This monument as some supposes
Was looked on in old days by Moses
It passed in time to Greeks and Turks
And stuck up here by the Board of Works