Cleopatra’s Needle: London’s Fascinating 3500-Year-Old Structure

Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra’s Needle

There is a granite monument on the north bank of the River Thames that often goes unnoticed. Despite walking past it multiple times, we only took notice of it on a sunny afternoon. If you have strolled along the north or south banks of the Thames in central London, you might have come across it as well but never noticed it. The monument is an Egyptian obelisk famously called Cleopatra’s Needle.

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What is an obelisk, you ask? In Egyptian times, it was a respectful monument commemorating the dead, representing their kings, and honouring their gods.

It’s only once you get up close and personal with Cleopatra’s Needle that you start to realise how interesting it is. Unremarkable at first, this obelisk has been a fixture on the Thames Embankment since 1878 and has a fascinating story.

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Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle is an ancient Egyptian obelisk that now stands on the Thames Embankment in London. It is one of a pair of obelisks, the other of which stands in New York’s Central Park. The obelisk is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient Egyptians and the Victorian engineers who transported it to London.

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History of Cleopatra’s Needle

The history of Cleopatra’s Needle dates back to the time of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. The obelisk was commissioned by the Pharaoh Thutmose III and was completed around 1450 BC, making it almost 3500 years old. It is made of granite, stands over 20 metres tall, and weighs in at an impressive 224 tons.

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It’s a remarkable piece of ancient Egypt covered with hieroglyphics and inscriptions. Thutmose III had a single column of hieroglyphics carved on each face. Around 200 years later, other inscriptions were added by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories.
The hieroglyphics and inscriptions on Cleopatra’s Needle have fascinated historians, and Thutmose III’s inscriptions were translated by a chap named Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge.

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The Journey to the UK

It’s worth noting that the Needle was initially found in Cairo, but it stayed in Alexandria for 60 years after it was gifted to Britain before it was finally taken to the UK. The journey of Cleopatra’s Needle from Egypt to London was no small feat. The obelisk was transported by ship and arrived in the UK in January 1878.

Because of its massive size and weight, the engineers who transported it to London had to develop a unique cradle to guarantee its safe and secure loading onto the ship. And along the way, the ship got caught in a storm leading to the death of six crew from the towing vessel, whose names are mounted on a plaque on the obelisk’s base. It was finally erected on the Thames Embankment on the 12th of September 1878.

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WWI Bomb Damage

One of the most interesting things about the Needle is the bomb damage it suffered during the First World War. A bomb was dropped by German aircraft just before midnight on the 4th of September 1917 on a nearby road.

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The fragments of the bomb caused damage to parts of the obelisk and the sphinxes. The damage is still visible today with damage to the stonework, and there are even holes in the paws of the right-hand sphinx.

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A Victorian Time Capsule

When the Needle was finally erected, the Victorians planted a time capsule under it, uncovered in 1951. Contained within the capsule are said to be some pretty interesting things, which are listed below. The last one is the best – a series of portraits. They were hand selected by a guy called Captain Henry Carter, who helped transport the Needle to London. We suspect these things wouldn’t happen these days!

  • A hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in the erection.
  • Plans on vellum.
  • A 3-inch bronze model of the monument.
  • A written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument.
  • A translation of the inscriptions.
  • A portrait of Queen Victoria.
  • A rupee.
  • A complete set of British coins.
  • Copies of the Bible in several languages.
  • Copies of 10 daily newspapers.
  • A Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London.
  • Some children’s toys.
  • A baby’s bottle.
  • Several tobacco pipes.
  • A shilling razor.
  • A copy of Whitaker’Whitaker’s.
  • A box of cigars.
  • A box of hairpins.
  • Twelve portraits of ‘pretty ladies.’
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It’s Not Named After Queen Cleopatra

There’s no doubt you know who Cleopatra is – the famous Queen of Egypt. But guess what? The Needle isn’t named after her. It’s called Cleopatra’s Needle because it was transported from Alexandria, the royal city of Cleopatra.

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Visiting Cleopatra’s Needle

If you are planning a trip to London or already live in the Big Smoke, it’s worth stopping by the Needle. The obelisk is located on the Victoria Embankment in central London. You can see the hieroglyphics up close and learn more about the history of the obelisk on the plaques dotted around the monument. Below is all the location info, including a link to Google Maps by the red pin.

Cleopatra’s Needle Map & Location

Nearest tube: Embankment (Bakerloo, Circle, District line & Northern)

📍 London, WC2N 6NU

💷 Free

🕙 Always open

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Is Cleopatra’s Needle worth visiting?

Yes, it is. It’s conveniently located to make it easy to access, but it also has a pretty interesting history. It’s remarkable to see some genuine Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you can still see the bomb damage left by a German bomb during WWI. And it won’t take much of your time to see it!

What is the history of Cleopatra’s Needle?

Cleopatra’s Needle is an ancient Egyptian obelisk completed around 1450 BC. It was gifted to the United Kingdom in the 19th century and was transported to London in 1878.

Where is Cleopatra’s Needle?

The Needle is located on the north bank of the River Thames, slap bang in the middle of Waterloo Bridge and the Hungerford Bridge and Golden Jubilee Bridges. The nearest tube station is Embankment, serviced by Bakerloo, Circle, District line & Northern lines.

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Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle

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