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Volume 26, Number 4July/August 1975

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An Obelisk for Central Park

"Forgive the pun, Your Highness, but any old obelisk will do."

Written by Edmund S. Whitman
Illustrations courtesy of New York Public Library

Shortly after the Suez Canal Inaugural of 1869, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, had a conversation with William Henry Hurlbert, editor of the New York World. Hurlbert was an ardent advocate of closer Egyptian-American relations and he knew that the Khedive was keen to move Egyptian cotton onto the markets of the West. With cotton production in the Southern States still paralyzed following the Civil War, this might be an auspicious moment for the Khedive's vessels to start moving cotton in New York harbor.

"A great way to open the harbor and the hearts of New York would be for Your Highness to present America with an Egyptian obelisk. After all, both London and Paris have been so honored."

"There is no insurmountable obstacle to preclude such a gift. Have you a particular obelisk in mind?"

"Forgive the pun, Your Highness—but any old obelisk will do. There's one hanging over the seawall in Alexandria for instance. It could readily be moved."

"Ah yes. The so-called Cleopatra's Needle. Yes—I think it might be arranged."

So began a project that would spark a minor rebellion in Alexandria, cost philanthropist William Vanderbilt $102,576 and, in less than 100 years, do more damage to the misnamed obelisk than 35 centuries of wear and tear in Egypt.

The "needle"—a modern term for obelisks apparently deriving from the shape—had its genesis in the 15th century B.C. when Thothmes III dispatched a 120,000-man contingent 600 miles up the Nile to the Aswan quarry with instructions to provide him with a pair of red granite obelisks for the great Temple of Tum. As was customary, all the quarrying, carving and polishing was done right on location and the finished product—69 feet 6 inches high and weighing 224 tons—was barged down the Nile to Heliopolis and erected. But first the obelisk was sheathed in electrum—one part silver to four parts gold—so that its facets would catch the sun's rays and reflect them like a heliograph. It is said that the Pharaoh had his only son lashed to the point, there to remain until the needle was safely in place. His workers knew full well what would befall them should the monument—and the son—fall.

This took place in 1475 B.C., and for more than 1,000 years it stood there, one of a pair standing guard before the great temple. Then came the Persian conqueror Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, who laid the needles low. Thereafter, for five centuries, they lay in the dust of the once noble but now ravaged City of the Sun ignored by everybody—including Cleopatra. She, last of the Ptolemies, was too busy with her friend Antony and her enemy Caesar Augustus.

Enter then Caesar Augustus, conqueror of Egypt who, in the year 13 B.C., learned of the desecrated obelisks in Heliopolis and decided that the one with its flanks incised with hieroglyphics might well adorn the waterfront entrance of his Caesarium—a great temple in Alexandria erected to commemorate the Roman conquest of Egypt. What did it matter that the inscriptions attested to the glory of Thothmes III and Rameses II? Neither of these rulers, dead for some 1,500 years, challenged the greatness of the mighty Caesar.

And so, eight to ten years after the death of Cleopatra, the obelisk was re-erected. As Caesar had placed it before the very structure where Cleopatra and Antony were lovers, it became known as "Cleopatra's" obelisk, despite the fact that she had never seen it and, indeed, may never have heard of it. As Secretary of State William M. Evarts put it, in accepting the obelisk in New York, "Cleopatra got more credit for this Needle, or rather this Needle has got more credit from Cleopatra than the fact justified."

Erecting the shaft in Alexandria proved to be a ticklish task for Pontius, the architect in charge. He discovered that the monument's lower angles were badly broken away and would have to be reinforced. The problem was complicated by the need to do so in a manner that would not offend the Egyptians to whom the obelisks were divine symbols. Pontius adroitly solved both problems by casting great bronze crabs with dowels fitting into both the pedestal and the obelisk. As the supports had the shape of a crab, a creature associated in Roman mythology with the worship of Apollo and the sun—and by extension the divinity of the Pharaohs—they were acceptable to the Egyptians. And as each of the crabs weighed 922 pounds they were strong enough to support the obelisk for the 1,880 years that elapsed before Hurlbert of the World visited Ismail Pasha and suggested that it be sent to the United States.

The Khedive, as we have seen, was willing. But it was to be another 10 years before the project got underway and in the interim, as Lieut. Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe wrote later, "The constant washing of the surf had begun to affect the foundation and for the last 15 years, the obelisk had been inclining more and more toward the sea. In a few years it must have fallen and almost certainly been broken by the fall."

Even worse, according to Commander Gorringe, some of the foreign residents of Alexandria were planning to build an apartment house around the obelisk "which was then to adorn the courtyard." In short, Commander Gorringe had arrived in the nick of time.

Gorringe, more than any one individual, was the moving spirit of the project. A veteran of the American Civil War, an author and an acquaintance of William H. Vanderbilt, who financed the project, Gorringe won the engineering contract, negotiated the financing and, eventually, overcame all the obstacles in his path.

One of those obstacles was the animosity of the entrepreneurs who had wanted the obelisk to decorate their apartment house. The opposition was strong enough to preclude his moving the shaft through the back streets of the city and across a spit of land to the waiting ship as he had originally planned. This was a blow. It meant that Gorringe had to move the obelisk 10 miles by water instead of one mile by land, scrap specially designed equipment to haul it by land, and replace it with pontoons to float the obelisk to the ship. It also meant he had to find another $21,000—in those days a large sum of money.

In the meantime Gorringe also had to overhaul the S.S. Dessoug, a ship he had bought for the move right out of the mothball fleet of the Egyptian Postal Service. The Dessoug only cost £6,100 but she was no bargain. Her deck planks had buckled, her hold reeked to heaven and her engines had not been overhauled since she came down the ways in 1864.

Gorringe, however, persevered. Although the ship was a wreck she was his to do with as he pleased—and what he pleased was to cut a hole in her starboard bow so he could simply shove the crated obelisk into the hold point forward and then seal the gaping aperture. And while floating the obelisk to the ship he found that the sea route was a blessing in disguise. Special divers, employed to clear away sunken temple ruins so the floats could come alongside the ship, located and rescued two of Pontius's massive bronze crabs that had fallen off the needle's pedestal. Gorringe took them along and they are now on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum.

With the obelisk aboard, Gorringe discovered that no Egyptian seaman would sign on to sail with the obelisk. In desperation, he brought a Yugoslav crew to Alexandria from Trieste only to learn that no member had ever been to sea and that not a single one spoke any language but Serbo-Croatian.

Nevertheless, Gorringe prevailed. The S.S. Dessoug weighed anchor on June 12, 1880, just eight months after the resolute officer had first arrived in Alexandria, and, despite heavy seas in the Atlantic, docked at West 51st Street in Manhattan on July 20.

In New York there were further troubles. Gorringe got the 50-ton pedestal ashore where, slung on chains and hauled by 32 horses, it was moved to Central Park. But before he could offload the obelisk, functionaries in Manhattan imposed so many restrictions that Gorringe had to move the Dessoug to Staten Island for unloading. There, the ship's bow was lifted, the hole in the bow was reopened and the obelisk was raised, turned and eased onto a wooden landing stage built on piles. Afterwards it was rolled ashore, first, and ingeniously, on steel cannon balls and then, when the pressure became too great, on rollers mounted on top of flat steel bars.

On wooden pontoons the monument was then floated across the river from Staten Island to a slip at West 96th Street, hoisted to the dock and moved two miles by block and tackle to Central Park. In the park the obelisk and the pedestal were mounted on a bed with rollers and moved across a huge wooden trestle to a knoll chosen by city authorities as the site. To budge the massive weight of stone, Gorringe mounted a donkey engine behind the bed, anchored a rope some distance ahead on the trestle and then reeled in the rope on a drum attached to the donkey engine. As the load inched forward, the rollers over which it had passed were moved to the front and used over and over again. Altogether it took 112 days to move the obelisk from the river to the site.

While all this was going on, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was casting replicas of the original four bronze crabs and foundation stones aggregating 87 ½ tons were being laid in Central Park—in the exact arrangement and position and with the same orientation to the sun, as in Alexandria. Gorringe also arranged to leave a space between the foundation stones to serve as a time capsule into which he placed lead boxes containing documents, records, obelisk data, coins and medals, the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, a dictionary and samples of various tools in common use.

All was in readiness then for the erection and on Jan. 22, 1881 it was swung into place.

At this critical juncture, Lieutenant Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe might have been seen wiping his brow with relief as he reviewed what he had accomplished and perhaps wondered if it had been worth it.

For New York it certainly was. The obelisk cost Vanderbilt a mere $102,567 compared to the $200,000 spent by the British for their needle and $500,000 spent by the French for theirs—and the Metropolitan got the priceless crabs as a bonus. But Gorringe himself, it turned out, netted a total of only $1,156. Furthermore his fame was short-lived. He died in an accident three years later. As for the obelisk it soon faded into obscurity and its lovely hieroglyphics, ravaged by New York's corrosive fumes, eventually vanished almost as completely as the civilization they represented for nearly 35 centuries.

Edmund S. Whitman, author of several novels and two children's books, is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a member of the Explorers Club.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the July/August 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1975 images.