Cleopatra’s Needle in Alexandria, Egypt before coming to America. Image: Getty Open Content Program
Cleopatra’s Needle, the towering 68-foot granite obelisk behind the Museum of Metropolitan Art is the oldest man-made object in New York City. Its journey, a veritable odyssey, began on the banks of the Nile in 1450, then to Alexandria, Egypt c. 1800 AD and finally to Central Park in 1878. The transportation, over 4,772 nautical miles, started in the Mediterranean Sea, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, where it then traversed the Atlantic to the safety of Manhattan funded by William Vanderbilt. The obelisk offered to America by the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, in 1869 commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal a key moment in the modernization of the country.
Cleopatra’s Needle has a twin of the same name that resides on the banks of the Thames, gifted to Britain by Muhammad Ali, pasha of Egypt in 1819. Both obelisks have a time capsule buried beneath the monument to ancient civilization. They were originally carved for Pharoah Tuthmose III in Aswan, Egypt and then moved to the ancient city of Heliopolis, which is present-day Cairo. The hieroglyphics exalt the rule of Tuthmose, venerates the sun-god Ra or Re, and glories Osiris “life giving like the Sun forever.”
A watercolor of Cleopatra’s Needle in London by Frank Crane. Image from The Met archives
According to the Central Park Conservancy’s website the restoration of Obelisk’s terrace and landscape with new illumination, benches, and paving was executed in 1989. “From 2013 through 2014, The Conservancy completed a comprehensive project to clean and conserve the monument. Although the primary purpose was to enable further study of the monument and promote its long-term preservation, cleaning the monument had the most dramatic outcome, revealing its granite surface and hieroglyphs that had been obscured by decades of dirt and pollution.” The conservation project was also accompanied by an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The monument stands as a testament to eternity of both gods and art.
Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, New York City. Photo:NYCA