Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cleopatra's Needle - Central Park

On Greywacke Knoll in Central Park, just south of The Metropolitan Museum, stands the oldest monument in New York, the 3000 year-old obelisk fondly referred to as "Cleopatra's Needle."  Also called Pompey's Pillar, the ancient stone is greatly ignored despite its long and riveting history.

Originally one of a pair, the 68-foot-high monolith was carved of red granite quarried in Aswan around 1450 BC on the orders of Pharoah Thutmosis III (best remembered as the pharaoh who was swallowed up by the Red Sea while pursuing Moses and the Jews).  They were installed in the Temple of the Sun in the city of On (or, as the Greeks called it, Heliopolis) as part of his jubilee.

Two centuries later, to memorialize military victories, Ramesses II added the hieroglyphs.  In 12 BC, the Romans moved the obelisks to Alexandria and installed them in the Caesareum, Cleopatra's temple in honor of Mark Antony.  Both obelisks toppled at some time, one during the earthquake of 1301, and they lay on their sides for centuries.

In the late 1800s the government of Egypt gave a similar obelisk to the city of Paris.  Then, in 1877, one of the Thutmosis obelisks was presented to London.  With typical 19th century New York City Euro-envy, public outcry arose.    New Yorkers insisted their city, too, was entitled to an ancient obelisk.

The Commissioner of Public Parks of the City of New York, Henry G. Stebbins, started a fund raising effort to move an obelisk to New York.  William H. Vanderbilt stepped up with a donation of more than $100,000--and with the signing of that one check the fund raising was completed.  Stebbins then wrote two acceptance letters to the Khedive of Egypt and sent them to the Department of State.  The City of New York had eagerly accepted the gift of an Egyptian antiquity before the Egyptian government knew anything about  it.

Judge Elbert Eli Farman, then US Diplomatic Agent and Consul General to Egypt, approached the Khedive in March of 1877 and requested an obelisk.  Because of the exceptionally friendly terms between Egypt and the United States at the time, the gift was promised in writing in May of that year.  (Farman was also responsible for a large number of other Egyptian antiquities and coins ending up in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The problem of transporting the 240-ton, 68-foot-long obelisk was turned over to Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe, on leave from the United States Navy.  Three years later, in 1880, the plans were finalized.  The first task was to get the monument from vertical to horizonal.  After one scare during which the obelisk nearly came smashing to the ground, it was transported seven miles to Alexandria to the waiting steamship Dessoug.

The Dessoug was put in dry dock, an entrance opened in its hull far below the water line and the giant pillar rolled into the hold.  On June 12, she shoved off for New York City, arriving on July 20.  A team of 32 horses pulled the oversized souvenir to Central Park.

The ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone was held on October 2, 1880.  An elaborate parade from 14th Street to 82nd Street was composed of over 9,000 Masons.  Reports estimated the spectators along the route at over 50,000.  The Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York presided over a full Masonic ceremony.

An early postcard shows the hieroglyphs were stunningly intact.

Cleopatra's Needle was a destination for strollers through Central Park in the 19th century.  Unhappily, the obelisk no longer enjoys that celebrity.  Few visitors to Central Park pause before the relic that stood in Egypt during the time of Moses.  The hieroglyphs, which in 1880 were crisp and deep, have suffered more than a century of exposure to New York weathering.  Some sections are mostly illegible and in others the inscriptions have totally disappeared.

Far from the place where it was carved three millennia ago, Cleopatra's Needle continues to inspire awe in those to pause to appreciate it.

No comments:

Post a Comment