MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Cleopatra’s Needle

An obelisk, one of antiquity’s most enduring forms, is celebrating its 133rd year in New York City as the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Later this year, it is also scheduled to undergo conservation.  Cleopatra’s Needle, as it has long been known, stands approximately 70 feet high on the east side of Central Park, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art near 83rd Street.  It is the city’s oldest man-made public sculpture.

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park on a postcard published in 1917 by American Art Publishing Company, MCNY F2011.33.940.

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park on a postcard published in 1917 by American Art Publishing Company, MCNY F2011.33.940.

Cleopatra’s Needle is one of a pair of granite obelisks (the other today sits on the banks of the Thames in London) from the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis (modern-day Cairo) built to commemorate the 40th year of the reign of Thothmes III (1476-1425 BCE).  In 12 BCE, Roman Emperor Augustus moved the obelisks to Alexandria.  Both obelisks were hence known as Cleopatra’s Needle, though seven years had passed since Cleopatra’s death.

In 1869, the Khedive of Egypt gave a Cleopatra’s Needle to the United States after the opening of the Suez Canal.  Because of the challenging logistics, it took over a decade to arrange its transport, which was overseen by Lieutenant Commander Henry Honneychurch Gorringe (1841-1885).  The project included the construction of a specially-designed railroad track, for which William H. Vanderbilt donated over $100,000, for transport up the Hudson River.[1]  When the obelisk was officially installed in New York City in January of 1881, tens of thousands of people turned up to see it in person, and manufacturers and retailers responded to this enthusiasm by producing souvenirs and memorabilia related to the event.  One such example, a bronze model of the obelisk, is included in the Museum of the City of New York’s collection (MCNY 89.50.4).  The model was designed by Gorringe and cast and retailed by Tiffany & Company.[2]  Its lengthy inscription honors Henry George Stebbins (1811-1881), president of the Central Park Commisson in 1880-1881 and a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanderbilt’s donation, and Gorringe’s leadership in engineering its transport and erection.

Model of Cleopatra's Needle.  Produced by Tiffany & Company for the 1881 unveiling of the obelisk.  MCNY 89.50.4, gift of Mrs. Rowland Stebbins, Jr.

Produced by Tiffany & Company for the 1881 unveiling of the obelisk. MCNY 89.50.4, gift of Mrs. Rowland Stebbins, Jr.

Inscription on the base of obelisk model, MCNY 89.50.4.

Inscription on the base of obelisk model, MCNY 89.50.4.

The City Museum’s collection also includes an assortment of memorabilia related to the obelisk’s installation, including invitations to its unveiling, tickets to view it issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and medals commemorating the event.

Postcard invitation to the opening celebration for the obelisk, 1881, MCNY 45.124.2, gift of Beverly R. Robinson.

Postcard invitation to the opening celebration for the obelisk, 1881, MCNY 45.124.2, gift of Beverly R. Robinson.

Verso of postcard 45.124.2.

Verso of postcard 45.124.2.

Today, there are over two dozen extant ancient Egyptian obelisks, only nine of which remain in Egypt.[3]  These obelisks have long been viewed by other cultures as tangible links to the greatness of ancient Egyptian civilization and installing one has been imbued with great political symbolism. The ancient Roman Emperor Augustus used obelisks in his Counter-Reformation propaganda campaign, and King Louis-Philippe of France installed an obelisk, also sometimes referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle, in the 1830s in the Place de la Concorde, the site in Paris of executions during the French Revolution. In New York City, Cleopatra’s Needle can be seen as a proclamation of New York’s status as an international city, a self-conscious statement of importance.  In the postcard from around 1945 illustrated below, the obelisk may be seen alongside other New York City architectural landmarks.

Postcard. ca. 1945, MCNY X2011.34.2735.

Postcard. ca. 1945, MCNY X2011.34.2735.

Since the obelisk’s installation, the City of New York, its caretaker, has made efforts to preserve its structure and make its history accessible to the public.  In 1940, then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses commissioned The New~York Historical Society to create a permanent plaque commemorating the monument’s history.[4]  Throughout the twentieth century, the surface of the obelisk degraded.  In early 2011, Egypt’s then-Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, wrote to the Parks department imploring it to take measures to protect the obelisk from environmental factors that he believed were contributing to its degradation.[5]  He went as far as to imply that Egypt’s government would move to have the obelisk returned to Egypt if no action was taken.  This summer, the Central Park Conservancy will begin a half-million dollar conservation program for the obelisk which will clean and stabilize its structure so it may “endure as a testament to the genius of a vanished civilization, an awe-inspiring tower holding its own on an island of modern skyscrapers.”[6]

The model can be seen alongside related objects in the exhibition “Cleopatra’s Needle” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 8th.


[1] Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture, Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 226

[2] Gorringe also published a book in 1882, Egyptian Obelisks, on the history of the form and of his involvement in the transport of Cleopatra’s Needle.  Martina D’Alton adapts this information in an issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin published in 1993 entirely devoted to the obelisk entitled “The New York Obelisk or How Cleopatra’s Needle Came to New York and What Happened When It Got Here.”

[3] The others are in Israel (1), the United Kingdom (4), Italy (11), Turkey (1), and France (1)

[4] George A. Zabriskie, “The President’s Communication,” The New-York Historical Society, Quarterly Bulletin, vol. XXIV, no. 4, October 1940, pp. 104-112

[5] Francie Diep and Joseph Castro, “Egypt or Central Park: Where Does an Ancient Obelisk Belong?” The New York Times, City Room blog, July 6, 2011

[6] Michael Z. Wise, “A Cult Object Gets Its Close-Up,” The New York Times, January 20, 2014

About Christine Ritok

Assistant Curator, Furniture and Decorative Arts

2 comments on “Cleopatra’s Needle

  1. Pingback: January 22, 1881: Ancient Egyptian obelisk ’Cleopatra’s Needle’ is erected in Central Park, New York | The Street and the City

  2. Pingback: Janeiro 22, 1881: O obelisco do Antigo Egipto ’Cleopatra’s Needle’ é montado no Central Park, Nova York | A Rua e a Cidade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Museum of the City of New York

%d bloggers like this: