Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Saga of Cleopatra's Needles Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Bob Brier

A century ago, moving 220-ton obelisks from Alexandria to London and New York was no mean feat.

Scores of obelisks once stretched skyward along the Nile, standing in pairs in front of temples, their inscriptions proclaiming the glory of the pharaohs. Now less than half a dozen remain standing in Egypt. The Romans brought obelisks home as trophies of a conquered land and today there are more standing in Rome--13 of them--than in all of Egypt. The urge to adorn modern cities with ancient obelisks continued into the nineteenth century. The last two to depart Egypt were taken from Alexandria to London and New York in the late 1870s. Disaster struck during the British attempt: six sailors perished and the obelisk was almost lost at sea. If the Americans were more successful, it was largely because of Henry Honychurch Gorringe, a U.S. Navy Lt.-Commander of remarkable ingenuity and perseverance.

On July 20, 1880, the ship anchored off Staten Island. The obelisk was floated up the Hudson River to 96th Street--the only spot in the riverbank that wasn't too high for landing it. The pedestal and steps were unloaded at the 51st Street dock, placed on a specially reinforced truck, and pulled by 16 pairs of horses across 51st Street, up Fifth Avenue, and then into Central Park to Graywacke Knoll, the spot selected by the park commissioners for the obelisk. As the cornerstone of the steps was being laid, the obelisk was already well on its way to Central Park. Huge crowds of New Yorkers turned out to see it move down Fifth Avenue and make its turn at 82nd Street into the park. By the time it finally entered Central Park, it was the dead of winter. The official ceremony for erecting it was January 22, 1881. Thousands of spectators crowded around to see Gorringe give the signal and the obelisk moved effortlessly to about a 45-degree angle. Then he ordered the movement stopped so photographer Edward Bierstadt could document it and then gave the sign to bring the obelisk to its final position. New York finally had its obelisk.

Bob Brier is an Egyptologist at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

Further Reading
   Martina Dalton's The New York Obelisk or How Cleopatra's Needle Came to New York and What Happened When It Got Here is a delightful account with excellent illustrations (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993). Henry Gorringe's Egyptian Obelisks (New York: 1882), which he published privately, is both a wonderful read and the best on the subject of moving the New York obelisk. Labib Habachi's The Obelisks of Egypt (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977) is perhaps the finest overall popular book on obelisks.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America