Cleopatra’s Needle: A Touch of Ancient Egypt on the Embankment

I can remember when I first discovered Cleopatra’s Needle on Victoria Embankment, tucked away between Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges. I was intrigued to find this little oasis of ancient Egyptian history which seemed so out of place alongside the monuments, memorials and lamp posts of the Embankment.

Cleopatra's Sphinx and the London Eye

Even more intriguing is the history of this giant monument. The London Encyclopaedia says that the obelisk was cut from stone from the quarries on Aswan and then transported down the Nile in 1475 BC to be erected at Heliopolis. It stood there for several centuries before eventually toppling over into the sand.

Cleopatra's Needle

One of three obelisks gifted to Paris, New York and London by the ruler of Egypt in 1819, the obelisk remained in the sand in modern-day Alexandria because it was considered impossible to move. There it remained until 1877 before finally being dug out of the sand and put on a ship bound for England. The ship carrying the obelisk ran into trouble in the Bay of Biscay and had to be rescued and towed to safety by the crew on-board a Glaswegian steamer.

Hieroglyphics on Cleopatra's Sphinx

Cleopatra’s Needle was finally erected on the Embankment in 1878. A time capsule is hidden in its pedestal containing many typical Victorian items including morning newspapers, coins, a portrait of Queen Victoria and four Bibles among other things. I’m not really sure why people would think to look beneath an Egyptian obelisk for evidence of Victorian London if all the fabulous museums in London were lost but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Cleopatra's Needle and Sphinx

While we would be tempted to say that the two sphinxes guard Cleopatra’s Needle, that isn’t strictly true. In order to do so, the sphinxes would need to face away from the obelisk and confront intruders with their riddle. The two sphinxes were erected instead to face the obelisk.

Cleopatra's Sphinx

Nevertheless, it seems that Cleopatra’s Needle and Sphinxes have been well protected. If you take a look at the first photo, you’ll see shrapnel damage from a German bomb that landed nearby during World War I. The damage remains unrepaired in commemoration of the event.

Judging from these photos, I’ve decided that I definitely prefer evening light to morning light. By this time of the morning in summer, the sun has already been up for 5 hours and is quite harsh. It was a little more oblique when I explored around here last April on my walk from Blackfriars Bridge to Victoria Embankment Gardens.

For my next photographic outing, I’m hoping to capture the winding passages and fairy tale turrets around the Royal Courts of Justice. I’m trying to plan these outings and make sure that I have my camera on me, although I don’t deny that my iPhone can be handy at times.

Where are you heading next?

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