The International Magazine/Volume 4/Issue 3/Cleopatra's Needle

But a few years ago, the imperishable records of the Assyrian empire were discovered amidst the sands of the Euphrates by the intelligence and enterprise of a single English traveller. What is the value of the ruins of Pompeii by the side of these awful records of the genius and power of a mighty nation, which had passed from the earth apparently as a wave passes away on the surface of the sea? The official persons charged with the direction of such matters would, of course, satisfy themselves in the first instance that there was no trickery, no spice of adventure or imposition, about the project of removing the Assyrian marbles to England. When this was done, was it not natural to suppose that they would have clutched at the opportunity of adding yet another trophy to the relics of the Parthenon? The history of Mr. Layard is there to show how weak is the character of that enthusiasm which must work out its effects at a distance—in what driblets any assistance from the public purse is vouchsafed to an enterprise which is not recommended to notice by the untiring zeal of a projector! Consider the money fooled away on the basin at Keyham on the one hand, and the inefficient aid afforded to Mr. Layard for the removal of the Assyrian marbles on the other, and our meaning will be at once evident. We desire to-day to call attention to another public shortcoming of the like nature.

Englishmen who travel from their native country to the British Indian empire, as they pass through Alexandria, take occasion to visit two tall obelisks of red Thebaic granite on the south side of the Great Harbour. These relics of the remotest periods of Egyptian history are covered with inscriptions which possess great interest for the antiquarian, independently of the value which attaches to the shafts or pillars themselves. In our columns yesterday will be found a long and particular account of the traditions which must ennoble these mute interpreters of the past in the eyes of the latest posterity; we do not, therefore, deem it necessary to repeat the tale in this place. One of the two obelisks remains erect in its original site; the other lies prostrate on the sand, with which it is partly covered. A portion of its pedestal has been built into the wall which at that spot constitutes the fortification of the town. The one which yet remains upright on the spot where once stood the temple of the Cæsars is the property of the Egyptian Government; the other, which lies neglected on the earth, belongs to the English nation. It is ours by conquest—it is ours by gift. It is a trophy won by our arms when the gallant Abercromby fell at the head of his victorious troops. As though this tithe were not sufficient, in 1820 Mehemet Ali, then Pasha of Egypt set at rest any doubt which might have existed as to our title to this trophy by its long abandonment on the field of battle. He solemnly presented it to George IV. Nor has a shadow of doubt ever been cast upon our right to this memorial of past times and of our own military glory, save by a modest inuendo of the French consul in 1830, when the French were busy removing the obelisk of Luxor. That worthy and intelligent functionary suggested that, "as the English had so long neglected the Pasha's present, they might be considered to have relinquished it, and therefore it might as well be taken away in the French vessel which had come for the other obelisk." To this modest proposition the English government demurred, and accordingly Cleopatra's Needle has been left upon the sand in the harbour of Alexandria, until it may suit the English to take some efficient steps for its removal. All authoritative reports from the spit inform us that the inscription is partly defaced upon one side, but in no other respect. The sand from the desert has in great measure preserved the monument which has been so long abandoned to its fate. Truth, however, compels us to call attention to the language of our report, which adds, that if the obelisk "be not removed at once, it will doubtless, ere long, become utterly ruined and worthless." This result will not be attributable to the ravages of time, but to the injuries inflicted by idle or mischievous persons on this valuable record and monument of bygone days.

A correspondent furnishes the Times with the following interesting historical notices of this celebrated monument:

"Travellers who visit Alexandria cannot fail to observe, on the south side of the great harbor, now called the New Port, a beautiful obelisk of red Thebaic granite, or Syenite, covered with hieroglyphics, standing erect where was once the Cæsariu, or Temple of Cæesar, while near it another similar monument lies prostrate, and partly covered by the sand. To these relics of a remote antiquity the Arabs give the name of Mesellet Farán, or Pharaoh's Packing Needle, a term which is, indeed, applied by them to all obelisks. The traditions of the later periods of the Roman Empire, and of a subsequent time, seem to have attributed many objects at Alexandria to Cleopatra, and the obelisks in question are accordingly best known to Europeans as Cleopatra's Needles, a trivial designation, possessing as little historical value as that of "Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol," which is given to the great gun at Dover. The classical term obelisk is, in its origin, not less trivial, if it be true that it is derived from the Latin obeliscus, a diminutive of the Greek word οβελός, which means, literally, a spit, as indicative of the peculiar form of this species of monument.

"As far as the true history of these obelisks is concerned, which is principally to be deduced from the monarchs' names sculptured on them, they appear to have been originally cut at the granite quarries of Syene, at the first cataract in Upper Egypt, 750 miles from their present site, by Thothmosis III. This monarch was one of the most celebrated rulers of that remarkable country. We find remains of him in Nubia, at Samneh, at Premmis, and at Amada, proving that his sway extended even beyond the third cataract. He added also largely to the great temple of Karnak; and on the sculptures in one of its rooms he is represented as presenting offerings to his ancestors or predecessors of eight several dynasties, namely: the kings of Thebes, of Abydos, of Memphis, of Ethiopia, and of four other divisions of Egypt. In one of the tombs near Thebes is a painting of a grand procession of men of the several nations bordering on the Nile, who are bringing their costly gifts in token of homage to this king. Under Thothmosis III., who held Upper and Lower Egypt and Ethiopia, the kingdom of Thebes had reached its full size. Several later kings may have been more wealthy, and more powerful, and their conquests may have extended further, but those conquests were only temporary; and the glories of those later kings never threw the reign of Thothmosis III. into the shade.

"The central inscriptions on the four faces of these obelisks were sculptured by the monarch whom we have just described. The lateral inscriptions were added by a king who was, if possible, even more celebrated, namely, Amunmai Rameses II., commonly known by the name of Sesostris, the monarch under whom Upper Egypt rose to its greatest height in arms, in art, and in wealth. It is unnecessary to do more than allude to the fabled history of this monarch; but confining ourselves to the particulars recorded on imperishable monuments of stone, we find that he finished the palace of the Memnonium or Mamunei at Abydos, and also the temple of Osiris, in the same city; and on one of the walls of the latter he carved that list of his forefathers now in the British Museum, which is known by the name of the Tablet of Abydos. At Thebes, besides adding to the buildings of his predecessors, he erected a new palace, which, like that at Abydos, was by the Greeks called the Memnonium. In the first court-yard was a colossal statue of himself, larger than any other in Egypt, and in the second yard were two smaller ones, from one of which was taken the colossal head now in the British Museum.

"The two obelisks of Alexandria likewise have the names and titles of some Pharaoh of later times, by whom they may probably have been removed to Memphis; but subsequently the Ptolemies, to embellish their Greco-Egyptian capital, transferred them to Alexandria. In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when the Alexandrians completed the beautiful temple to his honor named the Sebaste, or Cæsar's Temple, which stood by the side of the harbor, and was surrounded by a sacred grove, ornamented with porticoes, and fitted up with libraries, paintings, and statues,—it being the most lofty building in the city,—they set up in front of this temple the two obelisks of Thothmosis and Rameses, which like the other monuments of the Theban kings, have outlived all the temples and palaces of their Greek and Roman successors.

"These beautiful memorials of two of the most powerful and celebrated rulers of Egypt appear not to have suffered any material injury from the vicissitudes to which the dominions of those kings have during so many ages been subjected.[1] From a very early period one of them has been thrown down from the pedestal on which it stood; but this seeming calamity has probably preserved its sculptures better than if it had remained on its pedestal, for its still erect companion, though well preserved on the sides exposed to the sea, has suffered a good deal from the beating against it of the land-wind, which blows with violence and is charged with sand. With the exception of the four corners of the base, where, like the obelisk in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, it would seem to have formerly been held to its pedestal by four cubes of bronze, the fallen obelisk is perfect, and its sculptures are in comparatively good preservation. Its length is 64 feet, and at its base it is about 8 feet square; its weight being estimated at about 240 tons.[2] The obelisk is of great value from its antiquity, its proportions, and, moreover, as an imperishable memorial of British valor.

"After the English were in possession of Alexandria (as we find it recorded by Dr. Clarke in his Travels) a subscription was opened among the officers of the army and navy for the purpose of removing the prostrate obelisk to Great Britain. With the money thus raised they purchased one of the vessels that Menon had sunk in the old port of Alexandria. This they raised, and prepared for its reception. The work went on rapidly, the obelisk was turned, and its lower surface was found to be in a high state of preservation. It was then moved, by means of machinery constructed for the purpose, towards the vessel prepared to receive it. Lord Cavan presided at this undertaking. A naval officer, who was present upon the occasion, brought over to England the plans projected for conveying this splendid trophy of the success of our arms to the metropolis of this country; and there is every reason to believe the design would have been accomplished. Its interruption took place in consequence of an order preventing the sailors from assisting at the work. An eye-witness, who is still living, states that about 5,000l. were subscribed by the army, that 300 Sepoys worked for three or four months in constructing a jetty, whence the obelisk was to have been embarked; but that the General who then commanded at Malta wrote to the military authorities in Egypt, objecting to the employment of the troops in such a work, and ordering them to suspend their operations. This was accordingly done, and the money unexpended was returned to the subscribers.

"Though the obelisk was thus left behind when the British forces quitted Egypt, the idea of bringing it to England was never abandoned; and whatever doubts might have existed as to our right to the possession of a trophy which had been taken, but afterwards (as it were) abandoned on the field of battle, were set at rest by the gift of it made in the year 1820 by the late Mehemet Ali Pasha to King George IV.

"Notwithstanding this gift, the obelisk still remained without any definitive steps being taken for its removal to England.[3] In 1830, when the French sent a vessel to Alexandria to transport to France the obelisk of Luxor, which is now standing in the Place de la Concorde at Paris, and also, as it was talked of at the time, the one of 'Cleopatra's needles' which is yet standing, the French Consul in Egypt is said to have made the modest suggestion that, 'as the English had so long neglected the Pasha's present, they might be considered to have relinquished it, and therefore it might as well be taken away in the French vessel which had come for the other obelisk.'

"This, however, was not allowed to take place. Neither have the English taken any steps to acquire possession of a monument which is the indisputable property of the British nation, and which, if not removed, will doubtless ere long become utterly ruined and worthless. The stones of the pedestal on which it stood have been carried away for building purposes; the obelisk itself has been exposed to many marks inflicted by the curious and idlers of Alexandria, and as a last indignity one end of it has actually been built into the wall surrounding the port, forming part of the new fortifications of the city.

"The subject of the removal of this obelisk has often been before Parliament. On the 2d of June last, in the House of Peers, the Marquis of Westmeath, at the request of several military and naval officers, inquired what steps had been taken for obtaining possession of or for removing it. He stated that the opinion of the late Sir R. Peel, expressed to himself, was, that it was a monument which ought to be brought to London and erected as a memorial of Sir Ralph Abercromby and others who had fought and died in Egypt. The late Sir George Murray had also stated that he joined with all his military and naval friends, who desired that the obelisk should be brought to this country. In reply to Lord Westmeath's inquiry the Earl of Carlisle admitted the importance which attached to the obelisk, not merely as a memorial of the ancient art of Egypt, but also as a monument of British heroism; but said that he apprehended there were some mechanical difficulties. This, however, can hardly be the case, inasmuch as the obelisk would unquestionably have been removed in 1801, had it not been for the reasons already stated.

"As a relic of ancient art, as a memorial of two of the most renowned monarchs of Egypt, and as a trophy of British valor, this obelisk is without price. If allowed to remain in its present state, it will inevitably be destroyed, and there cannot exist the slightest doubt that it was the bounden duty of the British nation to see to its preservation, which can only be secured by carrying out the intention of our valiant troops half-a-century ago—namely, by transplanting it to England. The appropriate site for it might either be the court-yard of the British Museum, where it would form a noble addition to the peerless collection of Egyptian monuments, of which the famed 'Rosetta Stone,' that other trophy of occupation of Egypt, forms a part; or it might, perhaps, be more appropriately set up in St. Jamnes's Park, at the back of the Horse Guards. The expense of its removal could not be great; but, whatever might be its amount, it is certain, when even Mr. Hume has expressed an interest in the subject, that the nation would cheerfully incur it. An offer has indeed been made to Government to bring it to England by contract for a comparatively trifling sum.

Notes edit

  1. Mr. Gould, in the "Builder" of August 2, says, from certain authorities, it would appear that both were standing at the close of the 12th century.
  2. On the 15th of April, 1882, when a proposition for its removal was made in the House of commons, it was stated that it weighed 284 tons. Captain Smyth, R.N., supposes it to be 230 tons.
  3. In 1822 Captain Smyth, R. N., was prepared, with the consent of Mehemet Ali, to attempt its removal, but could not procure the authority of our Government. The Pasha offered to build a pier for the embarkation of the obelisk, and to render Captain Smyth every assistance for its removal.