There are three things you need to know about Cleopatra’s Needle. First, it has nothing to do with Cleopatra. Second, it’s not a needle. Third, it was never intended to be on the Embankment, where it is now.
It is an obelisk dedicated to the Sun God made during the reign of Thutmose III, a Pharaoh who lived over 1,000 years before Cleopatra. It was intended to be located in Parliament Square, where a full size wooden replica was erected to gauge what it would look like there. But that plan fell through when the builders of the District Line demanded that the government take out insurance in case it collapsed on to the railway beneath.
At 3,500 years old, Cleopatra’s Needle is easily the most ancient visible monument in London. It is one of two granite obelisks, both 68 feet high. Its “twin” stands in Central Park, New York and a third, unrelated to the other two, is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
It was presented to the UK in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, to commemorate the victories of Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801 and Sir Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Maybe it should have been called Nelson’s Column.
Vic Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian and now the author of LondonMyLondon.co.uk. and a book of poems of the same name. Previous instalments of his Lost London series are here and here.