Two Obelisks: The Geography of an Ancient Needle & Modern Monument
By: Adam McManus
In 2014, the Central Park Conservancy made a conservation effort to preserve a stone monument that has been a permanent installation in New York City for 133 years. Cleopatra’s Needle, near 82nd Street, was covered with paraffin and decades of atmospheric particulates, so the structure was thoroughly cleaned. Though many park visitors are familiar with the obelisk, they might not realize that the monument dates back to the biblical days of Moses. The obelisk weighs approximately 220 tons, approximately equivalent to the collective weight of 220 of the Belgian horses that are occasionally seen pulling carriages through the park.
The Egyptian monument was originally erected to pay homage to a sun god. With the passage of time, changes in ownership and the structure’s relocation to New York City from Egypt, the monument’s original creative intent of the obelisk has been lost. Ismaa’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, presented Cleopatra’s Needle as a gift to New York City. The Egyptians who built the obelisk believed it was intended to house spirits. Now the monument is an artifact of an ancient era, a phantom of a former empire, a massive granite stone carving with picture words that visitors cannot read. While the monument has outlived its era by thousands of years, it is a reminder of an ancient belief system held by the great builders of the East. This Egyptian symbol of antiquity stands in bold contrast to its modern urban surroundings in a relatively young county, America.
When comparing the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. with Cleopatraas Needle, there are obvious shared physical properties, as well as significant differences. Each monument was erected approximately 130 years ago. Both are obelisks: stone pillars, typically having a square or rectangular cross sections and pyramidal tops. The Washington Monument, 555 LF tall and comprised of marble, granite and gneiss blocks, was completed 130 years ago. Cleopatra’s Needle, comprised of red granite and at a much more modest height of 70 LF, was constructed approximately 3,500 years ago. There is an interior space in the Washington monument where as Cleopatra’s Needle consists of a monolithic stone. Though each monument is named after a figurehead, Cleopatraas Needle is not considered the original name since it was built during the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egyptian rule, at least 1,450 years before Cleopatra.
The Washington monument stands along the Washington Mall surrounded by open space. Whether from the ground or air the monument’s towering height, combined with the open expanse surrounding it, makes it very visible from afar. It is one of the most recognizable structures, not only in our nationas Capital, but in the entire county. Though Cleopatra’s Needle is the tallest structure in Central Park, the height of the monument is dwarfed by skyscrapers and tall buildings that have been erected in the past 100 years. Cleopatra’s Needle can rarely be seen from a plane due to the vast mature trees of Central Park. The Washington monument is clearly an iconic structure, constructed in the United States capital, to pay homage to one of Americaas founding fathers, and, like the other memorials and monuments nearby, chronicle the history of American government. Cleopatra’s Needle was dug up from the sands of Egypt and found a home in the center of America’s most prominent city. Like its sister monuments located in a public square in Paris and a public park in London, it has no Egyptian historical connection to its adopted surroundings, nor does it seem to physically transcend the park setting. The Metropolitan Museum is not large enough to house the obelisk near akin artifacts and exhibits such as the Temple of Dendur, therefore, this piece of ancient Egyptian history is preserved in the American context of an old city park.