What exactly is a piece of ancient Egypt doing by the Thames?

If you’ve ever taken a stroll along the Embankment you may have stumbled across this wonderful, if somewhat perplexing structure and wondered what an Egyptian monument is doing presiding over the Thames in London?

This obelisk does indeed originate from Ancient Egypt, at Heliopolis to be precise, around 1500 B.C. It was built for the Pharaoh Thothmes III and made of granite quarried at Syene (known now as Aswan). Lateral inscriptions were added nearly two centuries later by Rameses III to commemorate his military victories. It’s commonly known as Cleopatra’s Needle because of its time residing in the royal city of Alexandria in 1800 B.C. It was removed from its original location at Heliopolis during the Greek Dynasty.

But why is it here? It was actually presented to Britain by the Viceroy of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali in 1819, to commemorate two major British  victories over Napoleon, the first by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the second by Sir Ralph Abercrombie at the Battle of Alexandria in 1802. Cleopatra’s Needle would not arrive in London however for well over sixty years, having not left Egypt until 1877 as the British government had refused to pay the transportation fees.

It was Sir Erasmus Wilson who eventually sponsored the shipping – the needle was encased in an iron cylinder for the journey. Unfortunately disaster struck not long into the voyage when a great storm sent the obelisk crashing into the waves at the Bay of Biscay.

Surprisingly, the needle was recovered from the ocean by the Scottish steamer Fitzmaurice, having previously taken the lives of the first rescue boat, the names of which are inscribed on the base of the memorial. The monument finally arrived at its new home in London in 1878 to great public fanfare.

Now to the two gorgeous bronze Sphinx statues at its base. These aren’t actually Egyptian, but were designed by the British architect George John Vulliamy to provide the memorial with as much grandeur as possible. Vuillamy’s work can also be seen in the sphinx and camel benches along the Thames as well as the iconic sturgeon lamp posts.

Note the damage to the Sphinx which occurred when a German bomb landed in the roadway close to the needle in the first raid on London a few minutes before midnight on Tuesday 4th September 1917.
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