Should An Egyptian Obelisk in NYC Get Preservation Money?

05.11.12 Bucky Turco

Even before she was yanked out of the ground in Egypt, loaded into the bow of a specially modified ship, sailed across the Atlantic to New York City, barged from Staten Island, rolled through the streets of Manhattan for over three months and finally re-erected in Central Park on February 22, 1881, the millennia-old obelisk commonly referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle was slightly battered and bruised.

Standing at little over 68 feet tall and weighing 220 tons, the obelisk, one of a pair that were carved from red granite more than 3,000 years ago and festooned with hieroglyphics were originally commissioned by Thothmes III in 1475 BC and only later took on Queen Cleopatra’s namesake. The monoliths stood in Heliopolis until a bunch of Persian jerks knocked them down over a thousand years later. Then, Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus came along and decided to have them installed at Alexandria. In 1301, an earthquake knocked one of the obelisks down where it remained until the Brits snatched it up and brought it to England centuries later. The other stood firm and that’s the one New York City eventually finagled despite it not being in the best condition. Lieutenant Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe gave the following assessment of it after inspecting it in Alexandria:

“The constant washing of the surf had begun to affect the foundation and for the last 15 years, the Obelisk had been inclining more and more toward the sea. In a few years it must have fallen and almost certainly been broken by the fall.’ Worse, foreign residents of Alexandria were planning to build an apartment house around the obelisk ‘which was then to adorn the courtyard.'”

It was in the late 1870s that diplomatic officials pressured the Khedive of Egypt to give the monolith to the Unites States. After all, England and France had their own respective obelisks along with other antiquities and believed it was now America’s turn. After years of political maneuvering, the Khedive agreed and specifically gifted the obelisk to the City Of New York.

A ceremony for the laying of the corner-stone took place on October 10th, 1880 and was quite the Freemason-studded affair. The New York Times reports, 132 years ago:

Yesterday’s ceremonies were entirely Masonic, and several thousand members of the order took part. The escort of Knights Templar was composed to the commanderies in New York, Brooklyn, and neighboring cities, under command of the Acting Eminent Grand Captain-General.

According to author Robert Lomas, “over 9,000 Masons in full Masonic regalia, paraded up Fifth Avenue from 14th Street to 82nd Street, and over 50,000 spectators lined the parade route.”

The obelisk has stood faithful ever since, but has been subjected to chemical weathering. Ignoring its scarred past, Egypt’s then Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, stirred some controversy when he said that NYC isn’t properly taking taking care of the structure and demanded it be given back unless something has done. Central Park officials said that was bullshit and the damage cited by the prickly archaeologist happened long before it even made its voyage to the United States. However, they do admit that natural processes have taken its toll on the phallic slab and wouldn’t mind getting some money to ensure its survival and to keep people like Zahi Hawass’ mouth shut.

New York City has dozens of historical sites that are competing for a $3 million grant to aid in their restoration and upkeep courtesy of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. People can vote online; the location with the most votes gets the glory (and the money). To read more about the Partners in Preservation program, go here. We were chosen as contributors and are getting paid to write about these historic sites which we probably would’ve been covering anyway. Win-win.

(Photo: Ed Gaillard/flickr)