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Cleopatra's Needle, transport of
Victoria Embankment, Westminster, London, UK
Cleopatra's Needle, transport of
associated engineer
John Dixon
Sir Benjamin Baker
date  March 1877 - 12th September 1878
era  Victorian  |  category  Monument, historical  |  reference  TQ304805
ICE reference number  HEW 2197
photo  National Maritime Museum, Flickr photostream
Cleopatra's Needle in London is one of three ancient Egyptian obelisks bearing that name. The others are in New York and Paris. In 1877, the task of moving the monolith from Alexandria to London fell to engineer John Dixon, who called on Benjamin Baker to design a container for the journey. Little did they know just how eventful that journey would be.
Despite its name, Cleopatra’s Needle was quarried at Syrene for Pharaoh Thutmose III, not Cleopatra, and erected in the city of Heliopolis in around 1500 BC. It was one of a pair marking the entrance to a temple. They are hewn from red granite and each weighs an estimated 189 tonnes and stands 21m tall. The Romans moved the pair to Alexandria in 12 BC to adorn the temple Cleopatra set up to Mark Anthony. Not long afterwards, the obelisks became buried in sand, which protected them.
London's obelisk was a gift to the government from the pasha and viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad (Mehemet) Ali, in 1819 as recognition of British victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. However, it remained under the Eygptian sands because of the cost of transportation.
Members of the Institution of Civil Engineers initiated a scheme to erect the obelisk in London, which was promoted by Sir William James Erasmus Wilson FRS and brothers John and Waymann Dixon. In 1877, Wilson offered engineer John Dixon £10,000 if he could complete the task successfully — but no fee if not. Dixon commissioned Benjamin Baker to design and supervise the project’s engineering aspects.
Baker designed a vessel that could transport the obelisk over both land and sea. It was a wrought iron cylinder, 4.6m in diameter and 28m long, pointed at both ends with a vertical stern. Other details included a rudder, two bilge keels and a mast with balancing sails. The vessel was effectively a pontoon that could be towed, by either animals or a ship.
In mid March 1877, the Thames Ironworks Company won the contract to build the craft, named Cleopatra. She was ready for use on site in Egypt by August.
With the obelisk wedged securely inside the cylinder, Cleopatra reached the coast on 8th August 1877. On 21st September, she began the voyage to England, towed by the ship Olga. Baker records that, "All went well for the first 2400 miles" (3,860km), but on 14th October a storm set Cleopatra adrift in the Bay of Biscay. Six lives were lost before she was rescued by the English ship Fitzmaurice.
After various adventures and repairs in Ferrol, Spain, she resumed her journey on 16th January 1878, arriving in Gravesend on 21st January. She received a rousing welcome, as the public had followed the story of her journey in the papers with great interest.
A site on the Victoria Embankment was chosen and a 15.2m high timber structure (designed by Baker) erected to lift the obelisk into place. It comprised four upright posts, with diagonal bracing and raking struts. The obelisk was landed in a horizontal position and manoeuvred so that its central third, which was encased in a wrought iron sleeve with knife-edged trunnions, lay in the middle of the temporary structure.
The trunnions rested on iron box girders, fitted with hydraulic jacks at their ends. These were used to raise the Needle, still horizontal, to sufficient height that it could be swung into a vertical alignment. The obelisk was placed in its final position on 12th September 1878. It was later flanked by a pair of bronze faux-Egyptian sphinxes inscribed with hieroglyphs to Thutmose III.
On 4th September 1917, German bombs from a World War I (1914-18) air raid caused shrapnel damage to the sphinxes that can still be seen.
Restoration work was carried out to Cleopatra’s Needle in 2005.
Contractor: Thames Ironworks Company
Research: ECPK
bibliography
Obituary, Sir Benjamin Baker
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 1907
www.akhet.co.uk
www.london-architecture.info
reference sources   CEH Lond
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Cleopatra's Needle, transport of