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Egyptian Obelisk map_it

History

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

The oldest man-made object in Central Park is this Obelisk, located directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle soon after its installation, the stone shaft has nothing to do with the legendary Queen of the Nile. Thutmosis III, an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from 1479-1425 B.C., had a pair of obelisks made to celebrate his third jubilee (30th year of reign). This is one of them, and the other stands on the bank of the Thames River in London. Made from the quarries at Aswan, the two pink granite monoliths once stood on either side of the portals to the Temple of the Sun in the sacred city of Heliopolis on the Nile River. The shafts themselves are sixty-nine feet high from base to tip, and weigh somewhere between 193 and 200 tons. The base and steps, which were added in Alexandria, are 27 feet high and weigh over 50 tons.

The obelisks remained in Heliopolis until the Romans, under Emperor Augustus, floated them down the Nile to Alexandria around 12 B.C. They were placed in front of the Caesarium, the temple dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar, where they remained until the late 19th century. The Khedive of Egypt, who governed as a viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey between 1879 and 1914, donated Egyptian antiquities to western industrialized nations in exchange for foreign aid to modernize his country. The London obelisk was raised in 1878, and this one arrived in New York three years later.

The Obelisk’s trip from Egypt to New York was a complicated engineering feat. The delicate moving process required laborers to inch the monument on parallel beams, aided by roll boxes and a pile-driver engine. It took nineteen days just to cross the 86th Street transverse road, and it took another twenty days to move it from Fifth Avenue to its resting place on Greywacke Knoll due to a winter blizzard. All together, it took one hundred and twelve days from the time the Obelisk touched upon the banks of the Hudson River until it reached this place. A huge crowd was on hand for the turning of the obelisk upright on January 22, 1881. A crowd of thousands stood in the snow to watch the event. As reported in the New York World, “Bonfires had been built on each side and the scene was most picturesque as the huge mass of 220 tons swung majestically from the horizontal to the vertical position.”

The base of the Obelisk is supported at each corner by replicas of bronze of sea crabs crafted by Roman artisans, each of them weighing approximately nine hundred pounds. Visitors can find the original crabs on display in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. Jacob Wrey Mould (1825-1886), the designer behind many of Central Park’s most famous structures, created the decorative fence. The plaques that translate the hieroglyphics were donated by the famous filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), who fondly remembered playing in the area as a boy. A recently restored plaza surrounding the Obelisk has benches positioned to invite a closer look at the monument’s hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Photo of The Obelisk in Central Park

Egyptian Obelisk Details

  • Architect: Pontius
  • Description: Obelisk supported by bronze crabs at four corners of base, on a block on a square terrace, plaques
  • Materials: Obelisk ---Syone granite; Block---Egyptian limestone; Crabs, plaques---bronze.
  • Dimensions: H: 71' W: 18' D: 18'
  • Cast: ca. 1461 B.C
  • Dedicated: January 22, 1881
  • Donor: Ismail, Khedive of Egypt; William H. Vanderbilt; Cecil B. DeMille
  • Inscription: Inscriptions on crabs holding obelisk:

    1. REMOVED TO ALEXANDRIA EGYPT / AND ERECTED THERE B.C. 12 / BY THE ROMANS /

    2. REMOVED TO THE UNITED STATES / OF AMERICA A.D. 1880 AND ERECTED IN / NEW YORK CITY JANUARY 22, 1881

    3. RUTHERFORD BURCHARD HAYES PRESIDENT / WILLIAM MAXWELL EVARTS SECRETARY OF / STATE OF THE UNITED STATES/

    4. LIEUTENANT COMMANDER / HENRY H. GORRINGE UNITED STATES NAVY/ DESIGNED THE PLANS FOR AND SUPERINTENDED / THE REMOVAL AND RE-ERECTION/

    Plaque at base:
    THE COST OF REMOVING / FROM EGYPT AND PLACING ON THIS / SPOT THIS OBELISQUE PEDESTAL AND BASE / WAS BORNE BY WILLIAM H. VANDERBILT/

    Plaque, translation of west face:
    THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-BELOVED-OF-RA, THE KING [OF] UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT RA, CHOSEN OF RA, CREATED BY THE GODS, WHO FOUNDED THE TWO LANDS, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, [---] THERE IS NO-ONE WHO DID WHAT HE DID, IN THE HOUSE OF HIS FATHER, THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN OF RA, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, THE BELOVED OF AMUN, GRANTED LIFE LIKE RA. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-APPEARING-IN-THEBES THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, MEN-KHEPER-RA, WHO EMBELLISHES THE HOUSE OF HIM WHO CREATED HIM, [---] (THE SON OF RA, THUTMOSE), BELOVED OF (ATUN) LORD OF HELIOPOLIS, MAY HE LIVE FOREVER. [------] THE HORUS, STONG-BULL-SON-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN OF RA, THE GOLDEN HORUS, MIGHTY-IN-YEARS-AND-GREAT-OF-VICTORIES, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, [---] THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, THE SON-OF-RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-O-AMUN.

    Plaque, translation of north face:
    THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-LOVING-TRUTH, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, LORD OF FESTIVALS LIKE HIS FATHER PTAH-TATENEN, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, WHOM RA CREATED IN ORDER TO MAKE HELIOPOLIS FESTIVE AND TO PROVIDE THE SANCTUARIES OF HIM WHO CREATED HIM WITH FOOD-OFFERINGS, THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN GRANTED ALL LIFE LIKE RA. [------] THE HORUS, HIGH-OF-THE-WHITE-CROWN-BELOVED-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, MEN-KHEPER-RA, THE GOLDEN HORUS, CONTENTED-WITH-STRENGTH-WHO-SMILES-[AT]-THE-RULERS-OF-FOREIGN-LANDS-WHO-ATTACK-HIM, ACCORDING AS HIS FATHER RA HAS ORDAINED FOR HIM VICTORY AGAINST EVERY LAND AND STRENGTH IN HIS EFFORTS TO EXTEND THE BOUNDARIES OF EGYPT, THE SON OF RA, THUTMOSE, GRANTED ALL LIFE FOREVER. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-SON-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, HE OF THE TWO GODDESSES, PROTESTOR-OF-EGYPT-AND-CURBER-OF-FOREIGN-LANDS, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, A VALIANT KING ACTIVE WITH HIS ARMIES IN THE PRESENCE OF EVERY LAND, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, GRANTED ALL LIFE LIKE RA.

    Plaque, translation of south face:
    THE HORUS STRONG-BULL-SON-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, HE OF THE TWO GODDESSES, PROTECTOR-OF-EGYPT-AND-CURBER-OF-FOREIGN-LANDS, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES BELOVED-OF-AMUN, A KING EXCELLENT, LIKE RA. [---] THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-BELOVED-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, MEN-KHEPER-RA; HE MADE (IT) AS HIS MONUMENT FOR HIS FATHER ATUM, LORD OF HELIOPOLIS, ERECTING FOR HIM TWO GREAT OBELISKS, WHOSE PYRAMIDIONS ARE OF FIND GOLD, [---] HELIOPOLIS [---] (THE SON OF RA, THUTMOSE), MAY [HE?] BE FOREVER. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-LOVING-TRUTH, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, LORD OF FESTIVALS LIKE HIS FATHER PTAH-TATENEN, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, VERITABLE GOD STAR OF THE TWO LANDS, WHO IS VERSED IN THE LAWS AND IS WORTHY (IN HIS ACTIONS), THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, GRANTED LIFE.

    Plaque, translation of east face:
    THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-SON-OF-KHEPRI, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, THE GOLDEN HORUS, MIGHTY-IN-YEARS-AND-GREAT-OF-VICTORIES, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, WHO CAME FORTH FROM THE WOMB IN ORDER TO RECEIVE THE CROWNS, OF RA, WHO CREATED HIM TO BE SOLE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA-CHOSEN-OF-RA, THE SON OF RA. RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, ONE SERVICEABLE TO RA AND GRANTED LIFE LIKE RA. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-APPEARING-IN-THEBES, HE OF THE TWO LANDS, GODDESSES, ENDURING OF KINGSHIP-LIKE-RA-IN-HEAVEN, BODILY SON OF ATUM, WHOM THE MISTRESS OF HELIOPOLIS BORE TO HIM, THUTMOSE, WHOM THEY CREATED IN THE TEMPLE OF THEIR MEMBERS, KNOWING THAT HE WOULD EXERCISE ENDURING KINGSHIP THROUGHOUT ETERNITY, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, MEN-KHEPER-RA, BELOVED OF ATUM, THE GREAT GOD, TOGETHER WITH HIS ENNEAT, GRANTED ALL LIFE, STABILITY, AND DOMINION LIKE RA FOREVER. [------] THE HORUS, STRONG-BULL-BELOVED-OF-RA, THE KING OF UPPER AND LOWER EGYPT, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, RA, CREATED BY THE GODS, WHO FOUNDED THE TWO LANDS, THE SON OF RA RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, THE NOBLE YOUTH, BELOVED LIKE ATEN WHEN HE SHINES ON THE HORIZON, THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, USER-MAAT-RA, CHOSEN-OF-RA, THE SON OF RA, RAMESSES, BELOVED-OF-AMUN, ONE SERVICEABLE TO RA AND GRANTED LIFE LIKE RA.

Please note, the NAME field includes a primary designation as well as alternate namings often in common or popular usage. The DEDICATED field refers to the most recent dedication, most often, but not necessarily the original dedication date. If the monument did not have a formal dedication, the year listed reflects the date of installation.

For more information, please contact Art & Antiquities at (212) 360-8143

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