On a recent winter day, Central Park Conservancy workers cleared snow from the pedestal of Cleopatra's Needle, a 68-foot tall granite obelisk that dates back to around 1450 B.C. Tony Beard took a break from shoveling to gaze up at the ancient hieroglyphs on the pillar, which looks like a diminutive version of the Washington Monument. "It’s pretty empowering coming and seeing this place," Beard said. "It’s magical around here. All the history...and you think where it’s been."
Egypt gave Cleopatra's Needle to the U.S. in exchange for aid in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The New York banker and philanthropist William Vanderbilt reportedly paid $100,000 to ensure that the antiquity would land in Central Park, and a team of 32 horses carried it from the banks of the Hudson to Central Park during a record-cold winter in 1881. But now the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, has threatened to take the 3,500-year-old monument back. Dr. Hawass told WNYC that he is in talks with the authorities maintaining the obelisk—the Central Park Conservancy and the Parks Department—about how the obelisk is being taken care of. If no agreement is reached, Hawass said he may ask for Cleopatra's Needle to be returned.
Law professor Derek Fincham, who blogs about the arts, antiquities and the law at Illicit Cultural Property, says Egypt has no legal standing to get the statue back. "You know an equivalent would be France trying to ask for the Statue of Liberty back," Fincham said. "Hawass can claim that New York and Central Park, and the United States even, aren't taking good enough care of the obelisk. But he's really skinny on the details."
Some historical preservation experts say Cleopatra's Needle is the oldest manmade antiquity in North and South America. Will Raynolds, an independent heritage consultant who did his Masters Thesis at Columbia on the obelisk, explained the monument is older than the Nazca Lines, Ohio's Serpent Mound and the pyramids of Caral in Peru. "Unlike those monuments, which sort of were constructed and then fell into some state of ruin, Cleopatra’s Needle is really one that’s stuck around and has been venerated more or less continuously by a whole series of different civilizations, which means that we’re very fortunate to have it here in New York," said Raynolds.
He added that the obelisk has had a long history before it landed in Central Park. After it was carved for Pharoah Tuthmose III in Aswan, Egypt, it was moved to Heliopolis, where present-day Cairo is. It toppled to the ground in 525 B.C. when the city was sacked by the Persians, was burned and lay on its side absorbing salt for years until it was re-erected by Caesar Augustus in 12 B.C. in Alexandria. Fast forward to 1869, when Isma'il Pasha, who was then in charge of Egypt, gave the obelisk to the U.S. to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal.
"Naval Lieutenant Henry Gorringe went through a tremendous process of packaging up the obelisk where it stood in Alexandria, putting it into the hull of a ship called the Dessoug and then steaming over all the way through the Mediterranean, past the Strait of Gibraltar across the Atlantic to the banks of Manhattan along the Hudson," Raynolds said.
A twin obelisk was gifted to London, which still sits there on the banks of the Thames.
Raynolds said that in its first four years in New York, large sheaths of granite came loose from the surface of Cleopatra's Needle. An additional 780 pounds of stone were lost when a waterproofing company tried to stop the decay with a creosote and paraffin treatment in 1884. But the last major study of the monument, conducted by the Metropolitan Museum in 1983, found that the rate of decay had stabilized. The Parks Department says now there is no significant ongoing erosion on the obelisk.
"And yet, you know there are still signs that there's some gradual erosion occurring on the surface," Raynolds said, adding that you can see patches of decay where the obelisk's native pink color appears on the surface of the stone.
As discussions continue about the state of the monument today, conservators agree that the recession hasn't made it any easier to get funding for public art in New York City. "But it's very hard to justify, I guess, for the politicians spending money on public art in public spaces when a lot of people are without jobs," said architectural conservator Mary Jablonski. Jablonski started her own firm Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. in 1995. "The trouble is that it's our heritage that’s really getting damaged and that there needs to be a sort of more long term view."
Some New Yorkers agree, including Maria Vergos, who walks by Cleopatra's Needle often. Vergos said she wanted the monument to stay intact for people who can't make it out of the city to see ancient monuments. "It looks like Egypt in the middle of New York City," she said.
Although there's no word from the city on what's next for Cleopatra's Needle, the New York nonprofit World Monuments Fund says it's working with the Parks Department, the Central Park Conservancy and the Met to complete an in-depth study of the obelisk by mid-year.
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