Wednesday Wander – Cleopatra’s Needle, London

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,[6] 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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Wednesday Wander – Museum Of Traditional Architecture, Dubai

We went to Dubai a few years ago, taking several days as a stopover to break up the lengthy flight between Australia and the UK. While there, we opted to stay in the older part of the city, our hotel looking out at the creek, a mosque and the oldest building in Dubai, a towered mud brick fort (which is now a museum).

My husband had a school friend who lived on Palm Island and he was kind enough to take us for a drive on our first day there – however, lack of sleep and a long flight meant we were drooping in the desert heat, and all I remember of the Atlantis Hotel is a glimpse through half closed eyelids, my daughter asleep against me.

Dubai Palace 2

Looking along the creek

On subsequent days we wandered through the textile market and along the banks of the creek in forty degree heat, my heart in my mouth as I saw the flat topped boats ferrying passengers across the water, thinking of the impossibility of holding my then two-year-old steady if we went on board. (We decided not to, in the end). We did go to Jumeirah beach,  the famous Burj Al Arab Hotel like a white sail against the blue waters of the Gulf, then sped along the motorway past gleaming towers, the unfinished Burj Khalifa towering over everything.

Dubai Palace 1On our second last day there we once again walked along the creek, to where it curved like the letter ‘U’. At the apex of the curve stood what was once a Royal Palace, now restored and opened to the public as The Museum of Traditional Architecture. Intrigued, we decided to pay a visit. The thick walls and long verandahs provided welcome respite from the heat, and its position at the curve of the river meant it caught the breeze as well. Inside, the rooms all opened onto a central courtyard, so you had to exit into the courtyard to enter each room on the ground floor. The white-painted walls were almost a foot thick, and one had been left unfinished so we could see the mix of sand and seashells and stones that went into their construction. The decor was neither glittery nor opulent, as you might have expected – instead it was simple and beautiful, with varnished wood, painted walls and carved stone panels, cool stone floors that echoed as we walked through.

Dubai Palace 4The other thing about the Palace was that we were essentially the only people in there, other than a security guard. We did see one other tourist, but he left not long after we arrived. So the security guard took it upon himself to give us an unofficial tour. I remember him taking us into a room where there were two scale models, one of Dubai in the 1950’s and one in the present day – he was obviously immensely proud of what had been accomplished to create this glittering city in the desert. I also remember thinking, as he unlocked one massive wooden door after another, leading us through the palace, that he could just as easily lock the door behind us and no one would know where we were. An uncharitable thought, I’m sure – he was a very nice man and nothing in his manner indicated he would do such a thing. I think it was more that we were the only people in the place – something I found a bit unnerving.

Dubai Palace 5

Finally we had seen both levels, sat in the shaded terrace overlooking the river, wandered up and down the open staircases and across the dusty courtyard. As we went to leave, another man appeared. A cleaner, still holding his broom. He came up to our group and held out his hand. ‘Baksheesh,’ he said with a smile. The security guard looked at us and nodded, also smiling. So we hunted around for dirham coins, not wanting to give too much or too little, conscious of wanting to do the right thing. We counted our coins into the cleaner’s still outstretched hand and the security guard inspected our gift, poking it with his finger. Then he smiled and nodded once more. ‘Thank you,’ he said. It seemed we had managed to give the correct amount. Then we exited through the double doors and back onto the riverbank, the noise and bustle of boats and markets surprising after the cool solitude of the Palace.

Dubai Palace 3

Palace interior – my daughter’s legs just visible 🙂

I found Dubai a fascinating place. Of course it is known for luxury shopping and modern resorts, a gleaming jewel on the shores of the Gulf creating land from water and building ever taller towers. Yet beneath all the glamour the spirit of the original place remains, the people we encountered friendly, welcoming, and immensely proud of their city. I realise that there can be a dark side, as there is to most places, yet in our time there it was not apparent, though we took care to dress and behave appropriately in public, as did the majority of foreign visitors we saw.

So this is my Wednesday Wander for this week – thank you for coming along with me.