Cleopatra’s Needle: How This Egyptian Monument Came to Be in London

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On the north bank of the River Thames in central London stands an Egyptian obelisk flanked by two sphinxes. The obelisk is called Cleopatra’s Needle, a nickname given to it when it was still in Egypt. But how did this tall Egyptian beauty come to be in London? Well, that’s an interesting story…

It’s a Gift

Did you ever receive a gift you really didn’t want? Or one that was just too big to carry home? Well, that’s what happened to Great Britain in 1819. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the new ruler of Egypt, wanted to cement his friendship with the UK. And what better way to do that than by giving them a gift? He would present them with something to commemorate their victories over France in the battles fought in Egypt during the Napoleonic wars.

As he looked around wondering what those British folks might like, he remembered a big granite obelisk that had fallen over long ago. It had just been lying there covered by sand for hundreds of years. “It might be nice to get rid of that,” he thought. “And the English are mad for that sort of thing. They have a whole museum full of Egyptian artifacts, but they don’t have an obelisk. It’s the perfect gift. I can tidy up a bit and win favor with the Brits at the same time.”

This particular obelisk had been carved and erected in Heliopolis around 1450 BC under orders of Thutmose III. Two hundred years later Ramesses II had added his own hieroglyphics on all four sides proclaiming his military victories. In 12 BC the Romans moved it to Alexandria and placed it outside a temple. It fell in an earthquake in 1303 and had been lying partially buried in the sand ever since. 

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Come and Get It

Muhammad Ali contacted the British Prime minister and said, “We value your friendship so highly that we want to give you a token of our appreciation. We have an amazing piece of Egyptian architecture to give you. All you have to do is come and get it.”

The prime minister was thrilled then confused. How does one transport a 224 ton granite stone that is 69 feet long? The British government replied “Well, that’s very kind and thoughtful, but we’ve had a lot of expenses lately. So right now, we’re not able to take it. Just leave it there in the sand and we’ll let you know when we come up with the cash to move it.” 

Parliament discussed it and some suggestions for moving it were thrown around, but nothing came of it. The obelisk was left to sleep in the sand for another 59 years. Then Wiliam James Erasmus Wilson, a British surgeon and dermatologist who also had an interest in Egypt, heard about the obelisk and decided to do something about it. He gallantly stepped forward and said, “I’ll bring our obelisk home!” He funded the £10,000 transportation cost himself.

He had a special tube-shaped ship built to carry it. The heavy stone would be put into the cylinder where it would sit in the bottom and act as a ballast to keep the ship steady. A deck house was added on top of the tube where it would be steered by a small crew of six. The unusual ship was christened the Cleopatra, then it was tied to the steamship Olga to be pulled to England. 

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Lost and Found

All was going swimmingly until they got caught in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. The Olga and the Cleopatra were tossed about and it looked like the Cleopatra would sink. The captain of the Olga was afraid that if the heavy tube were to sink, it would take his ship down with it. He sent six men in a small boat to evacuate the Cleopatra’s crew. But their boat capsized and they were all lost.

The Olga finally managed to pull alongside the Cleopatra and the Cleopatra crew scrambled to the safety of the big ship. The obelisk-bearing tube was cut loose, and everyone believed that the Egyptian gift had sunk to the bottom of the sea. 

Then one day a Spanish boat saw the strange tube ship bobbing along and towed it to port. Spanish officials sent word to the UK. “Good news! We’ve found your floating obelisk. It’s safe in our port and you can come and get it… just as soon as you pay our towing and storage fees.” Dr. Wilson grumbled, paid the fee, and sent another ship to pull the Egyptian gift back to British shores.

After its harrowing journey, Cleopatra’s Needle finally arrived in London. In 1878 it was erected on the north bank of the River Thames (near Embankment Station) where it has remained ever since. Two sphinxes were made to keep it company and the benches along the river have an Egyptian theme to match.

If you look at the obelisk pedestal and the sphinx to its right, you will see some pitting and damage. This was caused by fragments of a bomb that was dropped nearby during World War I.

You can find the obelisk on the north bank of the Thames near Embankment Tube Station — Address: London WC2N 6PB

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Margo Lestz
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  1. Thank you Margo, how interesting. All these years and I have only ever known half the story. I shall be a much better London guide for my visitors now! It reminded me of a friend of mine, years ago, was ‘given’ a hogshead [56 gallons] of whisky by a friend of his who owned a distillery on a Scottish Island. My friend had to pay to get it out of bond [duty], to bottle and label it and finally to have it transported to the south of England. Several thousands of £s later we all got to taste it and fortunately, as it would have been illegal to sell it, we all enjoyed it – for years! Makes the Christmas Pudding scented candle from Aunt Lilian that’s been languishing in the cupboard a few years, pale into insignificance !

  2. Thank you Margo. Another of your excellent researches and as always, very well written. So interesting. Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. Glad you enjoyed it. I don’t suppose very many Egyptian relics have made their way to Australia, have they? It’s quite a distance to travel.

  3. How much of this story is actual facts? (many stories like this are told just to hide the facts) its a very nice story but the common thread is that Europeans stole lots of the world antiquities and claim they were gifted to them by county’s that they dominated by force !!

    1. This story is indeed based on fact – as are all my stories unless it is clearly noted that they are legends, etc.
      There are many Egyptian artifacts in many countries. Some were obtained legally and some were not. But Cleopatra’s Needle in London was a gift and the British didn’t even want it – which is why they left it laying in the sand for nearly 60 years.

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