Egypt Questions Condition of Central Park Antiquity

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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.

A Central Park Conservancy worker clears snow from Cleopatra's Needle.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.

Cleopatra's Needle being loaded into the hull of the Dessoug.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.

What do you think of Cleopatra's Needle? Please let us know by posting a comment below.

Cleopatra's Needle, in its spot behind the Metropolitan Museum
Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC
Cleopatra's Needle, in its spot behind the Metropolitan Museum
The obelisk as it stood in Alexandria Egypt in 1880.
Wikipedia Commons
The obelisk as it stood in Alexandria Egypt in 1880.

From “Egypt and its Betrayal” by Elbert E. Farma.

Cleopatra's Needle being loaded into the <em>Dessoug</em> steamship in 1880.
Wikipedia Commons
Cleopatra's Needle being loaded into the Dessoug steamship in 1880.

From “Egypt and its Betrayal” by Elbert E. Farma.

But other sides show significant erosion.
Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC
But other sides show significant erosion.
The Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy have pruned some of the trees around the obelisk so Cleopatra's Needle can be seen and is not damaged by falling branches.
Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC
The Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy have pruned some of the trees around the obelisk so Cleopatra's Needle can be seen and is not damaged by falling branches.
The base of the obelisk has what look like crab claws on its corners.
Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC
The base of the obelisk has what look like crab claws on its corners.
The hieroglyphs are still intact on this face of the monument.
Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC
The hieroglyphs are still intact on this face of the monument.


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Comments [8]

Richard Paschal from Northern New Jersey

Ms. Swanson,

Thank you for your in-depth article. Dr. Hawass was right to call attention to the condition of Thutmose III's obelisk. I am very glad that he made the effort to call attention to the state of the obelisk. Its companion obelisk in London several years ago received a good cleaning by English Heritage. I saw the London obelisk before, during and after the cleaning. I spoke with English Heritage in October of 2010 to find out what efforts they used to protect and maintain it. The London Obelisk was in better condition than the NYC obelisk before it was cleaned. The London obelisk is in even better condition from the cleaning. I think the maintenance needed on the NYC obelisk is more extensive than cleaning the chemicals, salt and grime off its surfaces.

I am encouraged the NYC study is underway and I hope the appropriate experts are on the team.

I have noted the NYC obelisk's condition has deteriorated since Dr. Hawass' January, 2011 letter. There is significant structural damage to one edge of the obelisk that appears to be getting worse, and in my opinion, the gaps along that edge requires some form of stabilization. Many of the surfaces appear to be dissolving due to being compromised, the cycles of heat and cold and chemical agents. It may be dissolving into sand before our eyes!

I am interested to know when the study results and recommendations for maintenance will be published or made available, and if there are any contacts accessible to inquire into the study.

Jul. 24 2012 05:31 PM
Jeffrey M Meshkauskas from somewherethatknows

I have visited Cleo's needle MANY times(&studied time&again the plaques4years till I got what it meant) -still till this day I pay 'tribute' to it- I can honestly say- (being hurt@"Belvadere Castle"-by A spiked fence that were all taken out later)-I almost died(very tramatic)-anyway I CAN HONESTLY say along W/ A FRIEND-that litterally experienced what had happened w/ me- THAT I have 'Felt' energy--in the form of INTENSE heat-My friend CONFIRMED it!!!-

Nov. 03 2011 01:55 AM

Thanks for correcting us, Brooke! I've heard from experts that Caesar Augustus found the obelisk in Heliopolis and re-erected it in Alexandria 12 B.C. (I've corrected the article to reflect that.) Historians say they got that date from an inscription on a bronze crab claw that was used to support the obelisk at its base. The claw is on view in the Temple of Dendur room at the Met.

Jan. 24 2011 10:10 AM
Jean Herman

The obelisk we have in Central Park, Cleopatra's Needle, was a gift from Egypt - a most valuable and generous gift, not to mention "magical" and beautiful - and it should stay where it can be seen and enjoyed by many people. In Egypt it would put on display, but fewer people would see it and wonder....

Jan. 22 2011 03:58 PM
Eric Schatz from Piermont, NY

We should send Egypt an artifact of New York equal in splendor and importance. How about the Columbus Circle Apple Store?

Jan. 19 2011 09:45 AM
Brooke Allen

Caesar Augustus couldn't have moved it in 212 BC as he lived 200 years later than that.

Jan. 19 2011 07:45 AM
shadeed ahmad from New York City

When it comes to art that is ancient and important, as is the case with Cleopatra's Needle, there should be priority status given to its upkeep.

The Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities is correct in his protest of the condition and failure to correctly preserve Cleopatra's Needle by New York City.

The above article that provides a wonderful review of the history and circumstances of this venerable monument arriving in New York City should immediately summon a surge of concern, compassion and immediate action to honor our ancestors venerable intentions to perpetuate the reverence of ancient Egypt in America.

It is extremely sad to see that art and culture of such nobility as Cleopatra's Needle is in essence being trampled by the crudeness, neglect and ungratefulness of this current age of so-called civilization.

I hope the urgency of addressing the disrespect given to Cleopatra's Needle will be recognized, as well as properly remembering and respecting the venerable intentions of ancestors from America and Egypt. When we respect our ancestors, we respect ourselves.

Jan. 18 2011 08:46 PM
JTC from NYC

Idiots. Put a glass building over, and around it

Jan. 18 2011 06:48 PM

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