Friday, 12 September 2014

12th September: Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra's needle was erected on the Thames Embankment on this date in 1878. Here are 10 things you may not know about Cleopatra's Needle.

  1. Its correct title is the obelisk of Thutmose III. It has no connection with Cleopatra, other than that she authorised its first move to Alexandria. In fact, it pre-dates the famous Egyptian queen by a thousand years. It was originally made to stand in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis around 1450BC, commissioned by the Pharaoh Thutmose III.
  2. It is made of red granite and stands 69 feet (21 metres) high, and is covered in hieroglyphs, which, according to experts, were added much later by Ramasses II to commemorate his military victories.
  3. There were, in fact, three of them. One is still in place in Egypt, and the third was transported to New York, where it resides in Central Park. A fourth, from a different location, ended up in Paris.
  4. In 1819, Muhammad Ali, the then ruler of Egypt (not the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay) presented it to the UK to commemorate Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile, and that of Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria. The UK said, thanks very much, but we can't afford to have it shipped over, so it stayed in Alexandria until 1877.
  5. In 1877, an anatomist and dermatologist called Sir Erasmus Wilson, decided to pay the £10,000 (a small fortune in those days) for the transportation. It would appear that there was a lot of money to be made in treating skin diseases in the 19th century. It is said of him that he treated rich people by ordering them to give up their luxuries, and the poor by prescribing proper nourishment and regular bathing, often financed from his own pocket. One presumes the rich people were charged an arm and a leg to be told to give things up. The textbooks he wrote on the subject helped him make his fortune, too, and being child free, he had money to spare to give to charity and education. One final bit of trivia about Erasmus Wilson, is that he is supposed to have said, in 1878, "When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more be heard of."
  6. Getting the Needle to England was no mean feat. First, it had to be dug out of the sand where it had been sitting for two thousand years, packed up in a giant floating iron cylinder-shaped pontoon vessel especially designed by engineer John Dixon for the purpose. The cylinder had a rudder, a mast and a deck house, and could be towed to London by a ship. The cylinder was dubbed Cleopatra and was towed by a ship called Olga. The mission did not go smoothly. They hit a storm in the Bay of Biscay and the Cleopatra was rolling wildly and threatening to sink. Six crewmen from Olga manned a rescue boat to rescue the crew on Cleopatra - but the rescue boat capsized and all six men drowned. If you visit the obelisk today, you'll find a commemorative plaque at the bottom which names them. Olga herself was manoeuvred alongside the stricken Cleopatra and got the crew off, but it seemed the obelisk would be lost forever. However, Cleopatra didn't sink, and was found by Spanish fishing boats four days later. A steamer from Glasgow, the Fitzmaurice, came to the rescue and towed the Cleopatra to Spain for repairs. After some wrangling and negotiating of payments to the master of the Fitzmaurice for salvage (he asked for £5,000, but got £2,000), yet another boat, the tug Anglia, was commissioned to tow the Cleopatra to London at last.
  7. Inside the pedestal is a time capsule containing A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby's bottle, some children's toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in the erection of the Needle, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the Bible in several languages, a copy of John 3:16 in 215 languages, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.
  8. As a final touch, two bronze sphinxes were installed beside the Needle. On them are inscriptions in heiroglyphs which translate as "the good god, Thuthmosis III given life". The sphinxes are supposed to be guarding the Needle, but ended up looking at it instead as they got put in place the wrong way round. This may have been because Queen Victoria thought they looked better that way. Both Needle and sphinxes survived bombing during two world wars, but one Sphinx still bears the scars of a bomb which landed nearby. The damage was left unrepaired to commemorate the event.
  9. The shipwreck and the near miss in the air raid caused some to believe that the monument was cursed and possibly haunted by the lost sailors, who, it is said, can sometimes be heard screaming and laughing in the area. There is also a ghost of a naked man who dashes from behind the monument and leaps into the river. A ghostly streaker! For some reason, for people who want to commit suicide by drowning themselves in the Thames, Cleopatra's Needle is a popular spot. One theory for the hauntings is that when Rameses II had the hierpglyphs carved on it, these were intended to be a spell preserving the Pharoah's soul inside the granite. Perhaps, then, Rameses II is not happy at having been torn from his place in hot and sunny Egypt, almost lost at sea and placed in grey, rainy England!
  10. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley once attempted to bring the Pharoah back to life by feeding a human skeleton with animal blood at the foot of the obelisk at dead of night. Needless to say, it didn't work, and some say that the spooky laughter is Rameses mocking Crowley's efforts to revive him. Another theory as to why the sphinxes face the wrong way is that they were never intended to guard the Needle, but rather to protect London from whatever is lurking inside it.

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