Since 1881, an ancient Egyptian monument—the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, popularly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”—has stood in New York’s Central Park, a gift to the City of New York from the khedives of Egypt. It is the only monumental obelisk from ancient Egypt in the United States. The obelisk can be seen from several vantage points within The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located nearby. As the Central Park Conservancy begins to develop a plan to conserve the monument, the Metropolitan Museum will present an exhibition about the construction and evolving symbolism of obelisks from antiquity to the present day. The exhibition Cleopatra’s Needle opens 3 December.
The exhibition will feature objects from the Museum’s Egyptian Art Department and a selection of prints, textiles, and other works of art from the departments of Drawings and Prints, European Paintings, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Photographs, and The American Wing. Nine additional works from the Brooklyn Museum, American Numismatic Society, Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, Museum of the City of New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and private collections, most of which are seldom on display, will also be included. A highlight of the installation will be a dramatic time-lapse video of the obelisk in Central Park taken during the course of a day.
The obelisk in Central Park is one of a pair—each of which has come to be called “Cleopatra’s Needle”—originally installed by Thutmose III (r. ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) in front of the sun temple in Heliopolis, the ancient Egyptian city dedicated to the sun god Re. Over time, both obelisks toppled.
In the late 19th century, after Khedive Ismail offered the United States the obelisk of Thutmose III as a gift, US Navy engineer Lieutenant-Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe (1841–1885) was charged with the task of transporting the monument to New York and installing it in Central Park. He studied drawings made of Fontana’s earlier work—one of which will be on display—to learn how the feat had been accomplished in earlier times. Gorringe successfully lowered the obelisk in Alexandria, Egypt, and loaded it after some difficulty into the hold of his ship the SS Dessoug.
Unloading the monument in New York was no easy task. It took nearly six months to move the obelisk from the dock in Staten Island to the East River at 96th Street, and finally to Central Park. On October 9, 1880, a crowd of 9,000 Freemasons led a parade to Central Park for a cornerstone ceremony for the foundation platform of the obelisk, which had also been brought from Egypt. The baton carried in that parade by the Grand Secretary of the New York Grand Lodge Edward M. L. Ehlers will be on view in the exhibition. On 22 January, 1881, after months of effort, the obelisk reached its destination, Greywacke Knoll in Central Park. Gorringe carried out his task perfectly and the obelisk rose into position. He received a gold medal to commemorate his amazing feat.