Saturday, February 19, 2011

Egyptian obelisks elsewhere

I was surprised to learn, on a program about the unfinished obelisk in Aswan (1st image) that there are more ancient Egyptian obelisks in Italy than there are in Egypt. Among these ancient monuments are the pair that originally stood in Heliopolis and are now each known as "Cleopatra's Needle." One was erected in London in 1878 and the other was transplanted to New York in 1881.* Both granite obelisks - 68' tall and weighing 224 tons - had been moved to Alexandria, Egypt, by the Romans in 12 B.C. To secure a "needle" for New York, railroad magnate William Vanderbilt (1821-1885) donated $100,000 to finance the transport of the obelisk after it was given as a gift to the United States by an Egyptian official. Under the direction of an off-duty U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, the obelisk (2nd image, as it stood in Egypt) was shifted to the horizontal and moved to the port, where it was put into the hold of the steamship Dessoug (4th image). The needle left Alexandria on June 12th, 1880, spent more than a month at sea, and was brought up the Hudson River.
A team of 32 horses pulled the obelisk from the river bank and over a specially-built trestle bridge from Fifth Avenue to its destination across from the recently-built Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Masons, 9,000 strong, presided over the October 2, 1880, cornerstone-laying ceremony, which was watched by an estimated 50,000 spectators. Cleopatra's Needle has stood in Central Park (3rd image) ever since. Despite evidence that the obelisk base had been worn or chipped away by the time it was re-erected, and a statement from the New York Department of Parks & Recreation that the monument has been monitored and has shown no significant ongoing erosion, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass has sent a sternly worded letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg that reads in part as follows:
"I am glad that this monument has become such an integral part of New York City, but I am dismayed at the lack of care and attention that it has been given. Recent photographs that I have received show the severe damage that has been done to the obelisk, particularly to the hieroglyphic text, which in places has been completely worn away. I have a duty to protect all Egyptian monuments whether they are inside or outside of Egypt. If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin....I strongly urge you to focus your efforts on saving this obelisk and preserving it for future generations. I am confident that you can find the resources in New York City to conserve this monument properly and pay this treasure the respect that it deserves."

*A 3rd "Cleopatra's Needle" stands in Paris, but this obelisk originally stood in front of the Temple of Luxor, where it's companion remains.

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