Cleopatra’s Needle

It once cut into the skyline of London, a dramatic outline against the Victorian architecture of the city. Now over a hundred years later it remains in place, flanked by its guardian sphinxes yet many people in the city hurry past it, too caught up in their busy lives to give is a second glance. Its peak no longer stands proud of the buildings that surround it, as over the decade larger structures have started to dominate the skyline. Yet for those who are new to the city the sight of an authentic Egyptian obelisk on the embankment should at least raise an eyebrow or two.

Photo by Elliott Brown
Photo by Elliott Brown

Cleopatra Who?

Although the obelisk is commonly referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle in truth she has nothing at all to do with it, other than the fact that the monument was shipped to England out of Alexandria, which was known as the Royal City of Cleopatra. The monument was constructed in 1460BC at the orders of Pharaoh Thotmes III, which makes it well over three and a half thousand years old and probably the oldest thing in this already ancient city. The needle was shipped to England as a monument to commemorate the victory of the British over Napoleon, sixty three years after the battle had been won. It still makes no sense, but it seemed to be what the population of London wanted at the time to be a fitting monument to their military might. In fact the money needed to ship the obelisk from Alexandria was raised by eager subscribers, all £15,000 of it.

Troubled Waters

The journey of the obelisk was a troubled one. The vessel that was to carry the stone over to England had to be specially designed and constructed, the likes of which had never been built before. All was going reasonably well until October 14th in 1877 when the vessel encountered treacherous seas off the western coast of France, the ship floundered in the Bay of Biscay. Her escort ship, the steamer Olga sent men to help rescue the crew but their boat became swamped by water and the men from the Olga lost their lives. The names of the men who lost their lives to the sea on this momentous journey are emblazoned on one of the plaques around the base of the needle. The vessel remained afloat, unmanned and adrift in the Bay of Biscay, all the crew having made it to safety aboard the Olga.

Britain Held Her Breath

If was a full five days later that the vessel was spotted drifting in the waters off northern Spain, and after being towed into port she was then towed to her new home by the steam ship Anglia in 1878. Crowds lined the embankment and cheered as the ships came in. Many of the people that view the needle today have no idea of how terrible the journey was to bring the monument to London. Though if you pause as you walk by, and take the time to read the plaques at the base of the monument you can give a nod of thanks to the brave men who lost their lives to bring this ancient wonder to our shores.

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