Saturday, January 8, 2011

‘Cleopatra’s Needle in the news’

“I have a duty to protect all Egyptian monuments whether they are inside or outside of Egypt. If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.”
Zahi Hawass

Oh, Dr. Hawass? It is said to weigh 220 tons!

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An official in the government of Egypt, who has a history of making headlines with his public comments, is in the news again, having rebuked New York City this week for neglecting to care for the landmark known as Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a letter that he is “dismayed at the lack of care and attention” given to the obelisk.

“Recent photographs that I have received show the severe damage that has been done to the obelisk, particularly to the hieroglyphic text, which in places has been completely worn away,” his letter also says. “I have a duty to protect all Egyptian monuments whether they are inside or outside of Egypt. If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.”

“I strongly urge you to focus your efforts on saving this obelisk and preserving it for future generations,” the letter concludes. “I am confident that you can find the resources in New York City to conserve this monument properly and pay this treasure the respect that it deserves. I eagerly await your prompt reply.”

Read the entire letter here.

I have no photos of my own to share, but have a look at the obelisk here.

Volume 6 of the Proceedings of Supreme Council, AASR-NMJ, which spans the years 1880-82, features a facsimile of the program published October 9, 1880 by the New York World in commemoration of the cornerstone-laying ceremony when Cleopatra’s Needle was erected in Central Park. It runs a few thousand words, so I cannot share it all with you, but it contains essays explaining what the obelisk is, how it came to New York City, why it is significant to Freemasonry, and how the Masons in the city would receive it.



Of all the monuments of Egypt, the most striking and the most characteristic are the Obelisk and the Pyramid – both of them solar emblems – the one significant of the rising, the other of the setting sun; and both alike dating from that prehistoric period of civilization which was in perfection ere the Father of the Faithful had descended from Ur of the Chaldees, or the Turanian races of India were oppressed by their Aryan brethren.

For so long a succession of centuries has the Obelisk been admired and copied in the various cities of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, that the original peculiarities of the structure itself have been occasionally lost sight of, and any single vertical monument that could not be exactly described as a column has been set down as an Obelisk. Hence, there is still in popular acceptance some inaccuracy as to the exact form that an Obelisk should assume; and it becomes necessary to define what an Obelisk is. An Obelisk, or tekhen, to give it its Egyptian name, then, is a monument composed of a single quadrangular upright stone, having its four faces inclined toward each other, and in section, all its angles, right angles, and all its sides parallel to each other; its height is not less than that of ten diameters, taken at the base, and its apex is abruptly terminated by a small pyramidion, whose faces are inclined at about an angle of sixty degrees. The Obelisk is generally supported upon a quadrangular base, the height of which is approximately that of a cube and a half, and which is also, like the Obelisk, composed of a single stone; this base is further supported by two broad and deep steps. It is not necessary that the four sides of either Obelisk or base have in section the same width, provided that each opposite side is exactly equal; but it is necessary that all the lines of the monument be right lines, and that it should have no more than four sides.

The dimensions of Obelisks vary greatly, those of the earlier period being generally the largest and the simplest in execution. The loftiest now in existence is that which adorns the Court of the Church of St. John Lateran, at Rome, where it stands a monument, first of the Majesty of Thothmes III, by whom it was designed....

The Obelisk of which the corner-stone is laid to-day was erected by the famous Thothmes III, whose legend is engraved in the central column of each side. During a period of no less than three centuries, the monument existed with this legend only, till Ramses II appropriated it to himself through the addition of two lateral columns, which were carved when the monolith was upon its base in the place first chosen by Thothmes III. This Pharaoh dedicated it to Horemakhou, a form of the God Ra, or Phra (the sun), to which was also consecrated the great Sphinx at Ghizeh. The pyramidion represents a square vignette in which is figured the King seated upon a throne before the Sphinx of Horemakou upon a pedestal....


It was early in the month of October, 1877 that the first practical steps were taken toward bringing to New York this great historic Obelisk of Alexandria, incorrectly known for ages as “Cleopatra’s Needle.” Mr. John Dixon of London, was then transporting to London the prostrate Obelisk of Alexandria, which now stands on the new Thames Embankment in that city. Through his friend, Mr. Louis Sterne, an accomplished American engineer, long resident in England, then on a visit to this country, and present to-day as a Mason at this ceremony, Mr. Dixon, about the end of September, 1877, informed the editor of The World that the then Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, had intimated to Mr. Dixon his wish to present to the United States the standing Obelisk of Alexandria, and Mr. Sterne requested an inquiry whether the authorities of New York would defray the necessary expense of conveying it to America. That expense Mr. Dixon had roughly estimated at about $100,000. It chanced that the editor of The World, being in Egypt some years before, had been assured by the Khedive in person of the lively interest he took in the formation throughout the civilized world of museums and collections of Egyptian art, and of the particular gratification which it gave him to know that a beginning at least had been made in the formation of such museums and collection in America. The Khedive took at once an enlightened and a practical view of the subject... On the 7th of October, 1877, The World announced the fact that upon proper application the Obelisk could doubtless be secured for New York, and stated the probable expense of securing it. The announcement was received with general gratification by the public and the press. Many enthusiastic persons suggested that the whole cost of transportation would be subscribed in a week.

This was not the opinion of the editor of The World, who thought the project too important to be left at the mercy of a protracted financial negotiation through the press with the public in general; and the editor of The World, therefore, after communicating by cable with Mr. Dixon, laid the subject before a citizen of wealth, who promptly agreed to defray the estimated expense of taking the Obelisk down and bringing it to the New World. After some further negotiations, the sum of $75,000 was finally fixed upon as adequate....

The publication goes on to explain some behind-the-scenes obstacles that could have prevented this transaction from taking place, including the intervention of Britain and France, which were busy attempting to subjugate Egypt and trying to prevent the giving of this gift to America. In fact, Europeans in residence in Egypt in 1879-80, except the Russian and Greek authorities, interfered with the Americans charged with preparing the monument for removal and transfer to New York City. The World continues:

This operation was finally completed on the 6th of September, and on the 16th of September the monolith was safely transferred ... to Manhattan Island, at the foot of Ninety-sixth Street. Thence it is now moving with great care and skill to its destined site in the Park. To this site the pedestal, which was found by Lieutenant-Commander H.H. Gorringe in excellent condition when he took the Obelisk down, and was brought by him at his own risk and cost to America, had been previously removed, and here, on this 9th day of October, 1880, the foundation stone on which this great historic monument is, we trust, for many ages to rest, is to be laid with grand Masonic ceremonies by the Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, under the direction of the Grand Master of that Order.


In the removal of the foundations of the Obelisk there was made what is considered a very important historical discovery relating to the Order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, and confirming its claim of ancient origin. When Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe removed the Obelisk and pedestal it was found that the latter stood on nine large blocks; six of these formed the upper and middle steps – the middle steps being cut out of the face of the block – while the other three were in the space enclosed in the six. All of these blocks are of hard limestone, with the exception of one, which is of syenite granite and is placed in the east angle of the enclosed space. The corners of the foundation, like the corners of the Obelisk, were laid towards the cardinal points of the compass. The block of granite already mentioned is exactly two royal Egyptian cubits square, and two Nahud, or builder’s cubits, high; it has evidently been carefully dressed, and probably polished, while the other two blocks in the enclosed space are rough hewn and of irregular shape. After the upper tier had been removed, it was found that the lower step was formed of a tier of eighteen pieces. All of these are of hard limestone except three, two of which are of syenite, and one of a different kind of limestone. One of the pieces of syenite is an oblong block, having the upper half hewn to the form of a mechanic’s square. Its long section is 8 feet 6 inches by 1 foot 5 ½ inches, and its short section 4 feet 3 inches by 1 foot 7 ¾ inches, measuring the length in each case from the outer angle of the square. It is 21½ inches thick, and would seem to have been originally a parallelogram 8 feet 6 inches long by 4 feet 3 inches broad, and the form of a Mason’s square given to its upper surface by cutting out and lowering to the depth of 9 inches that part of the stone included between the two inner lines of the square and the continuations of the transverse lines of its two ends. The lower part of the stone still has its original form of a parallelogram. The space cut out of its upper part was filled with the ordinary limestone of the foundations, so that on its first discovery only the upper surface in the form of the Mason’s square could be seen. The thinner part of the stone has been broken, perhaps by the unequal pressure that came upon it, but the part forming the square is still perfect. The other piece of syenite is of irregular form, and differs from all the other pieces of the foundation in having the upper surface rough. Any one who examines it must be convinced that this roughness is not natural, and close examination will disclose tool marks on it, showing that pieces had been gouged out of this upper surface to make the roughness more apparent. The perfect block of syenite stood on the east end of the long arm of the square, and the piece of white limestone was in the space between the perfect block and the lower part of the block out of which the square is cut alongside the long arm. The rough block of syenite stood in the west angle of the space enclosed by the eighteen pieces forming the lower step, touching the short arm of the square and on a level with it.

When the square was discovered, it was thought to be the lid of a sarcophagus, and several gentlemen were invited to witness its removal, among them a distinguished archaeologist. Great was the disappointment when it had been raised that nothing was found under it. Every one present was struck with its peculiar form, the difference in the cement and its relative position to the perfect block. A large number of Masons of almost every nationality and creed have since examined the pieces and have had their positions explained, and every one of them fully confirms the opinion that these three pieces of syenite were intended to represent the three Masonic emblems: the perfect ashlar, the square, and the rough ashlar.

The piece of white limestone referred to as having been found sandwiched in between the perfect block and the recess of the square was broken by the workmen in their eagerness to get at the supposed sarcophagus. This accident revealed its remarkable purity and exceptional whiteness. Break it where you may, not a spot could be found in the fracture. This peculiarity coupled with its position convinced the experts that this also is a Masonic emblem – the lambskin apron. The arms of the square are not of the same width; this unusual circumstance is at once explained by measuring them, when we find that the long arm corresponds with an Egyptian royal cubit, and the short arm to an Egyptian Nahud cubit. The architect was either bent on perpetuating these measurements, or the square was removed form its original foundation just as it is being removed now. The short arm is exactly half as long as the long arm, which is exactly five Egyptian royal cubits in length. Another noticeable feature of the square is a bead that is cut at the junction of the inner edge with the lower part of the block. There are three divisions, and the middle one is much broader than the other two.

The block that lay alongside of the long arm of the square was found to have on its upper surface a piece of iron which was at once recognized as having the form of a Mason’s trowel. On examination, it was found to have been laid on the cement so as to make it adhere to the stone, which fact disposes of the presumption that it had been accidentally left there by one of the workmen.

The block next to the one forming the east angle of the lower step has a diamond-shaped recess in the side adjacent to the east angle. There was nothing in the hole, nor could it have been cut for the purpose of fastening the piece, as there was no corresponding aperture or dowel on the face of the adjacent block. Indeed this carefully cut diamond-shaped hole has no explanation, except that it was designed to represent another Masonic emblem: the Master’s jewel. All of the stones forming the tier next below the lower step were rough-hewn and without marks, except three. One of these was the keystone, and stood exactly in the center of the structure under the axis of the Obelisk and pedestal, in which position it was discovered by Mr. Zola, the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Egypt. Several figures and lines cut in relief are distinctly traceable on one of the faces of this stone. Two of the sides are cut away so as to form a right angular notch, and another face has the arc of a circle inscribed on it.

One of the figures represents a square, another a semicircle, and another the sides of a spherical triangle. The group of lines may be resolved into three figures. One is in the form of the ancient cubit measure, another is a scale, and the other one three columns in perspective. This group of lines and the figures were evidently designed to represent the trestle-board; and what more fitting position for such a design could be found than the center of the structure – the axis of the Obelisk, the keystone of the foundation? Another of the stones of this tier has on one of its faces diagonal lines running parallel to each other, others forming an angle of forty-five degrees with these. On close examination, it was found that each of these lines is not a simple scratch, but a carefully cut mark, having two indents, with a raised bead between.

Well informed Masons capable of appreciating their meaning say that they are intended to represent the ‘Master’s Mark,’ and this is certainly borne out by the position of this stone, which was alongside of the keystone, and locked into the notch above referred to.

The third stone of this tier having marks stood in the east angle of the tier, directly under that piece of the lower step that has the diamond-shaped aperture cut into the side. Its upper and lower surfaces and two of its dies are rough hewn, while two of the sides have been most carefully cut. The angle formed by these two sides has a marked similarity to the capital of an Ionic column with its spirals and beads. This is believed to have been designed to represent Wisdom – the Master.

Last of all was found in the debris removed from the foundation a piece of lead, which on examination was found to be a plummet. So the Obelisk was surrounded by a Mosaic pavement; it was approached by three steps, of which the middle one was very much narrower than the other two and united to the upper; it stood on a single block; under this block, within the steps, were a perfect ashlar in the east, a rough ashlar in the west, a square, a trowel, and an apron between them; in the axis of the structure there was a keystone, with figures cut on one of its faces to represent a trestle-board; alongside of it a stone having the ‘Master’s Mark,’ and on the same level in the east another, the emblem of Wisdom, and immediately above this a diamond-shaped aperture, representing the Master’s jewel.

The remainder of this publication shares details of logistical arrangements concerning VIPs, and how the Masons and Templars of New York City and Brooklyn (at this time, Brooklyn was not a borough of NYC, but was a city itself), would organize and proceed into Central Park. This information, plus coverage of the day itself, can be read in the New York Times here.

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