When Cleopatra’s Needle was commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III around 1450 BCE for the Heliopolis sun temple, the island that would be Manhattan was mostly woodlands. Yet through an unlikely journey the 69-foot, 220-ton length of red granite would arrive in 1880 in New York City and become one of the icons of Central Park. Now the obelisk is needing a little care after centuries of movement and decay, and in anticipation of the Central Park Conservancy’s Spring 2014 conservation project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition on the obelisk, which rests just outside its walls.
Cleopatra’s Needle actually isn’t just an exhibition on that one ancient artifact, but a small exploration of obelisks as a whole, from their symbolism of the sun in ancient Egypt, to monuments of power for Rome, to connections to the past in the Renaissance, to their proliferation through Victorian cemeteries and Egyptomania. The exhibition is only two small galleries, but it still gives a rather thorough overview of the major points of obelisk lore. Although it sidesteps one of the more ready questions about their symbolism in its wall text, stating: “Egyptians would instinctively have recognized the obelisk’s phallic symbolism, although such a statement is a modern concept.”
Now the hieroglyphic-adorned obelisk is the oldest manmade object in New York City that’s not kept inside, and the exhibition starts with a sort of moving photograph of the obelisk with clouds streaming by. (The museum seems to be into these video-photos right now as there’s also one in the Silla exhibition on Korea’s Gold Kingdom.) Most of the objects on display are from the museum’s collections, but aren’t ordinarily out in the galleries, although that wasn’t the case for the bronze crab when the museum’s new building completed in 1880 opened (apparently a big year for that stretch of Fifth Avenue). The crab is one of a pair held by the museum that supported the obelisk when it was relocated to Alexandria in 12 BCE under orders of Augustus Caesar. It was placed with its companion obelisk in front of the Caesareum, built by Cleopatra. It’s perhaps there that the obelisk gets its misnomer title, as it was ancient even when Cleopatra was alive. The crabs that line the obelisk today are replica casts, but the originals were founding objects for the Met’s Egyptian collections and were prominently on display when the new museum building opened.
While that relocation of the pair of obelisks to the Caesareum was an incredible undertaking, it wouldn’t be the last traveling for the two obelisks. One of the pair was given to England by Egypt in 1819 (it now sits on Victorian Embankment along the Thames in London), and then the other was gifted to the United States in 1869. Both involved sea voyages that proved incredibly arduous, the British one being especially disastrous with the death of six sailors and the obelisk itself almost being lost to the waves. The American one was slightly less chaotic, mostly thanks to an intrepid Navy Lieutenant-Commander named Henry Honychurch Gorringe. When it finally arrived in the New York harbor, it still took 32 horses and months of labor to get it up the Hudson River and over to the park. Egyptologist Bob Brier described its triumphant arrival in his 2002 article ”Saga of Cleopatra’s Needles“ for the Archaeological Institute of America:
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.
While this alone would make a great story for an exhibition, Cleoptra’s Needle is a bit more ambitious throwing in Victorian funeral art (obelisks give you a great bang for your buck in terms of the cost of stone and cemetery lot, as well as something of an erudite air to your death), Freemasons adopting the symbol, the Papal use of them as signs of authority in Rome, and even the 555-foot Washington Monument which I suppose gets credit as the most famous of the American obelisks. Now with the conservation plan underway, which will address the residue that has built up from pollution as well as more ancient wear from when it and its companion toppled in Alexandria and were left on their sides, submerged in sand by the Nile for centuries, the obelisk enters just another stage of its strange existence that has brought it to its perch on Greywacke Knoll in the park just outside the museum.
Cleopatra’s Needle is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side) through June 8, 2014.
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