I had an impromptu trip into London yesterday. I’m currently trying to sort out a new passport for a trip I’m taking in a few weeks time, which has necessitated two trips to the Canadian embassy in Trafalgar Square. Yesterday’s visit was to replace my passport photos with another, equally dire set of images, as the ones I’d originally provided were ‘too glare-y.’
However, I didn’t have to wait too long to be seen by the very helpful staff, so was soon back out in the sunshine with some time to spare before lunch. I thought I’d take a walk along the Embankment, which is where I encountered my Wander for this week.
This is Cleopatra’s Needle in Westminster, London. One of three similar obelisks in London, New York and Paris, it is actually a pair with the one in New York, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the legendary Egyptian queen (other than being from Egypt).
The Needle is an ancient Egyptian obelisk, and originally stood in the city of Heliopolis, where it was erected around 1450 BC by the Pharoah Thutmose III. Originally it had a single column of heiroglyphics on each face, but two more were added around 200 years later, to commemorate the military victories of Ramses II. Around 12BC, the obelisks were moved by the Romans to a temple in Alexandria, where they remained, buried under sand, until 1819, when the ruler of Egypt and Sudan presented one of them to the UK in commemoration of Lord Nelson’s victories in the Battle of the Nile.
The British government were pleased with their gift (one would imagine), but not pleased enough to pay to have the obelisk shipped to the UK. That didn’t happen until 1877, when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a noted anatomist, paid the enormous (at the time) sum of £10,000 out of his own pocket to have the obelisk brought to England. The trip almost ended in disaster when the ship was caught in a storm, but eventually the obelisk arrived, towed up the Thames to its eventual resting place .
When the obelisk was installed in its current position, in 1878, a time capsule was placed in the pedestal base. It contained a set of 12 photographs of the best-looking English women of the day (!), a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in the erection, a 3′ bronze model of the monument, a complete set of contemporary British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the Bible in several languages, a copy of John 3:16 in 215 languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers. Phew!
The obelisk pedestal has several Egyptian embellishments, and is flanked by two cast-bronze Sphinxes. Placed incorrectly, they are looking at the obelisk, rather than outwards, guarding it. Benches in the area were also designed to reflect the Egyptian theme, with more Sphinxes holding up the seats.
Nowadays the obelisk looks out at the London Eye and The Shard, the waters running past it the cold grey-brown of the Thames, rather than the glistening Nile. It is an oddity, out of place and time, almost lost among the trees and buildings, traffic roaring past. I wonder whether it dreams of palms and blue sky, of desert heat, and a time when it stood, whole and proud, with its twin.
I guess we’ll never know.
Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me. See you next time!
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