Monday, February 25, 2013

Cleopatra in London & New York

Providence, February 25, 2013

Sometime around 1450 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III had two large obelisks carved from Aswan red granite.  Fast forward almost 3500 years and you'll find one of the obelisks in London and the other in New York.  How come?

Once completed, the obelisks were ferried down the Nile and erected in Heliopolis, near present-day Cairo.  A couple centuries later Ramesses II added their characteristic hieroglyphic inscriptions.  Another 13 centuries and Augustus Caesar had the pair brought farther north, to Alexandria, where they were re-erected in the Caesareum, a Roman temple.  Then in the early 19th century, the Egyptian ruler Muhamad Ali, offered one of the obelisks to the United Kingdom, but it would take another sixty years--and a great deal of trials and tribulations--for the more than 200-ton gift to reach London.  At about the same time, Muhamad Ali's grandson, Isma'il Pasha, gave the other obelisk to the city of New York.

Due to their Roman associations, both monuments are known as "Cleopatra's Needle".  Separated after more than three millenniums, the twin needles found themselves in very different locations, one at the edge of a river and the other in the middle of a park.  When the initial proposal of locating it in front of the House of Parliament was rejected, the London needle was placed along the Thames, as a major feature of the embankment, complete with two bronze sphinxes at its side.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York needle took two months to cross Manhattan, from the harbor all the way to Central Park, where it was erected behind the Metropolitan Museum.

In a way, the stories of their travels and relocations are as interesting as the monuments themselves, as if they encapsulated historic epics of complex politics and elaborate technologies.  And all to move these huge chunks of stone.

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