Secret London | Cleopatra’s Needle: An Authentic Ancient Egyptian Obelisk in London

Close-up of one of the fake Egyptian sphinxes in London. Visible is its face and paws with a few hieroglyphs in a vertical row on its chest. Behind the sphinx street lanterns and leafy trees are visible on the right while the river Thames is on its left. There's an old rusty sea container in the water near the sphinx and a bit further in the distance there's the London Eye and Hungerford Bridge

The remarkable story of a surprising find in London: Cleopatra’s Needle, an authentic ancient Egyptian obelisk in London.

You know what the funny thing is about ‘secret’ London spots? They’re often staring you right in the face without you realising it. 

Take the authentic ancient Egyptian obelisk in London for example. Located in one of the most tourist-heavy areas in Central London, it’s often a sight overlooked by the thousands of daily passers-by. 

Honestly, how could you not see such an unusual object?! 

Probably because there are just too many other iconic London sights in its vicinity. 

At least that’s my excuse for not spotting it for many years. 

But I’ll let you into my not-so-secret London spot here and give you all the relevant ins and outs on the London obelisk so you won’t ever miss it (again)!

What is the London obelisk?

Aerial view of Cleopatra's Needle, the London obelisk. The photo is taken from the east, either in the river Thames or, more likely because of the aerial view, from the London Eye. Visible are the obelisk and its hieroglyphic inscriptions on one side, the back of the left sphinx facing the obelisk, the bottom of the right sphinx slightly because the rest is obscured by leaves. On the riverside part of the obelisk there's a little plateau where you could stand and also steps going down. The obelisk is right next to the pavement and road and there are large green-leaved trees on the pavement, and a large big white building behind Cleopatra's Needle on the other side of the road from it.
Aerial view of Cleopatra’s Needle London on Victoria Embankment (Photo credit: MrsEllacott / Wikimedia Commons)

Known as Cleopatra’s Needle, the London obelisk isn’t just some mere replica but an authentic ancient Egyptian obelisk! This 21-metre-tall granite monument was originally erected in the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, Egypt around 1450 BC. 

It was created on the orders of pharaoh Tuthmosis III and contains hieroglyphics praising him. Pharaoh Ramesses II had inscriptions added 200 years later, humbly commemorating his own battle victories.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Because, this is pretty wild, right? 

I mean, it’s one thing to realise London was founded by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago and that you can still find Roman sights in London, but to have actual ancient Egyptian artefacts just ‘lying around’ in the streets, fairly inconspicuously?

That thought is nearly as mind-blowing as the length of the previous sentence.

Why is it called Cleopatra’s Needle?

Vertical photo with a close-up of Cleopatra's Needle, the London obelisk. Looking up there are three vertical rows of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Hieroglyphic inscriptions on Cleopatra’s Needle London (Photo credit: James Stringer / Flickr)

Unlike you would suspect from its name, there are no hieroglyphics on it telling fabulous tales about Cleopatra. She actually never had plans to use the obelisk in any way. 

So why is the obelisk then called Cleopatra’s Needle and not Tuthmosis’s Needle instead? 

Well, there is some convoluted connection to this enigmatic pharaoh which would justify its name. 

You see, the obelisk lay buried in the desert sand of Alexandria where Cleopatra had started building the Caesarium, a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

Sadly, she never got to witness its completion as she was defeated by Emperor Augustus beforehand. He kindly finished her work after her death, and very modestly dedicate it to himself instead. 

It was also Augustus who had the obelisk moved from its original location to this new site.

Although most of the temple was built during Cleopatra’s reign, I suspect that the decision to name it Cleopatra’s Needle thousands of years later, was mostly based on popularity.

After all, her name, image and history appeal to a much wider audience than those other pharaohs and Romans mentioned above.

Old black and white drawing of the deserts of Alexandria (c.1798) with Cleopatra's Needles visible, one standing and one buried in the sand. There are more ruins in the area and also men with horses and camels. The location is near the water, there are vessels in the near distance
Old drawing of Alexandria (c.1798) with two Cleopatra’s Needles visible, one standing and one buried in the sand.

Where is the London obelisk?

You can find the London obelisk on the Victoria Embankment in the City of Westminster. It’s located between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. You have a good view of it from either of these two bridges, but you can also get up close to it on street level. 

Locating the obelisk won’t be difficult when you arrive there after crossing these bridges as you would have seen where it is. But if you’re coming from the opposite direction, it might be a bit tricky to find it due to the trees on the street. Just follow the embankment closely and you’ll get there, I promise!

The London obelisk isn’t the only amazing great ancient Egypt site in London though. Another fairly unknown gem in London is the free Petrie Museum which houses the world’s 4th largest ancient Egyptian collection!

How to get to the London obelisk

The nearest Tube stations to Cleopatra’s Needle are Embankment (3-minute walk), Charing Cross (4-minute walk) and Temple (6-minute walk).

Other convenient stations in an approximately 10-minute radius are Covent Garden (8-minute walk), Leicester Square (11-minute walk) and Waterloo station (13-minute walk).

The latter includes a walk over either of the two bridges which gives you great views of the obelisk and other famous London sights such as the London Eye.

How did the obelisk end up in London?

Now for the million-dollar question you’re all probably dying to hear the answer to. 

How did Cleopatra’s Needle end up all the way in the streets of London from ancient Alexandria?

Unlike many other Egyptian finds excavated since the 19th century, the obelisk wasn’t found and then moved by British archaeologists. The obelisk’s move was actually legit. Better yet, it was presented as a gift from the Egyptian government to the United Kingdom in 1819.

This was done in commemoration of Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile (1798) and Sir Ralph Abercromby’s victory at the Battle of Alexandria (1801).

Close-up of the plaque on the London obelisk. The text is as follows: This obelisk quarried at Syene was erected at on (Heliopolis) by the Pharaoh Thothmes III about 1500 B.C. Lateral inscriptions were added nearly two centuries later by Rameses the Great. Removed during the Greek dynasty to Alexandria the royal city of Cleopatra it was there erected in the 18th year of Augustus Caesar B.C. 12.
Plaque on the London obelisk (Photo credit: Man vyi / Wikimedia Commons)

The only downside of this great gesture was that the UK had to finance the transportation costs themselves and that was a big no-no for them. Weighing 224 tons, you can imagine how much manpower, not to mention equipment costs, it would take to get this extraordinary yet highly impractical object across the Mediterranean.  

And thus the obelisk lay in the scorching Egyptian desert sand for several decades again. 

It wasn’t till 1877 that the obelisk finally was on its way to London thanks to the generous efforts of British citizens. The esteemed anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson donated £10,000 while a further £5,000 was raised by public crowdfunding. In present-day this total would add to about £1,500,000! 

Money wasn’t the greatest hurdle though. Because during the obelisk’s transportation from Egypt, disaster struck. Big time.  

There were two vessels involved in this process. First there was the specially engineered iron cylinder aptly called Cleopatra that contained the obelisk. This highly sophisticated barge was towed by the Olga and both vessels were manned.

Now, if you’ve seen any sea ‘adventure’ movie, you get the gist about what happened next. Yep, the crew found themselves in a terrible storm one night. A deadly storm in fact killing all six crew members of the Olga who were sent on a rescue mission to the Cleopatra which had become out of control in the tempestuous winds and waves.

Painting depicting the storm during the transport of Cleopatra's Needle to Britain. The cloudy skies look grey and the sea looks wild. There are bits of wood in the water. The two vessels look like they're in trouble and in the far distance there are sails of another ship visible.
Cleopatra’s Needle being brought from Egypt to England, 1877 by George Knight

While the crew of the Cleopatra got rescued by the captain and remaining men on the Olga, the special vessel with its precious cargo were lost forever. Or so they thought! Because a few days later it was found drifting in the Bay of Biscay by Spanish boats. 

Omitting some details from the story here, (before you fall asleep) the obelisk was finally towed from Spain to the Thames by a British tug where it arrived on 21 January 1878. This was such a joyous day that schoolchildren were given the day off! 

When the initial plan to install it outside of the Houses of Parliament was rejected, it was finally erected at its current location on the Victoria Embankment on 12 September 1878. 

Phew, what adventures this poor obelisk had to endure during its 3,300+ years of existence. Just think of all the things it’s witnessed and people who might have seen and touched it! But its tragic story doesn’t quite end here yet…

Vertical photo with a close-up of Cleopatra's Needle London with the plaque underneath the hieropglyphs commemmorating the crew members who died during its transport
Close-up of Cleopatra’s Needle London with the plaque commemmorating the crew members who died during its transport (Poto credit: Ethan Doyle White / Wikimedia Commons)

Bomb damage to Cleopatra’s Needle London

Having survived thousands of years eating dust (well, desert sand) and an eventful boat journey, Cleopatra’s Needle unfortunately didn’t see the other side of WWI unscathed. In the night of 4 September, several German bombs were dropped across the city. 

One of them fell in the road at Victoria Embankment, close to the London obelisk. It killed the driver of a passing tram and damaged some surrounding buildings. The shrapnel also damaged the pedestal of the obelisk, the pedestals of the guarding sphinxes and one of these sphinxes. You can still see the holes in monument and there’s a plaque on the base that commemorates this event.

The sphinx on the right of the London obelisk seen from the side (the sphinx is facing left). On the far left there's a little girl seated to presumably have her photo taken, her face isn't visible. Underneath the sphinx on its base there's a small plaque which can't be read from this distance but at the bottom of the base there are large holes which is the damage caused by the bombing in WWI.
Bomb damage to the base of the sphinx on the right of the London obelisk (Photo credit: Christine Matthews / Wikimedia Commons)

The real deal about the sphinxes on the river Thames

Hey, hang on a minute. You never said anything about the sphinxes yet!?

Hold your horses, I was just getting there!

There are indeed two winged sphinxes guarding Cleopatra’s needle, one at each side of it. In ancient Egypt, sphinxes were guards typically installed at the entrance of a tomb or temple. But unlike the obelisk, these sphinxes aren’t authentic ancient Egyptian artefacts. Instead, these bronze sculptures were made in London. As a nice detail they bear hieroglyphics, dedicated to Thuthmosis III.

A wonderful nod to ancient Egyptian culture, don’t you think? Just too bad about a little faux pas they made when they installed the sphinxes the wrong way round. Whereas sphinxes should be facing outward so they can indeed stand guard properly, the sphinxes in London are facing the obelisk instead. This deviation was suggested by Queen Victoria who thought it would look better that way. And there ain’t no arguing with a queen, innit? 

Fortunately, there are more winged sphinxes standing guard nearby. You can find them on the benches along Victoria Embankment.

Photo of a wooden bench in London near Cleopatra's Needle which has three iron sphinxes incorporrated in it, two on the outsides and one in the middle. The bench seems to hold 4 to 6 people. The wings of the sphinxes form an elegent curl which could be used as an arm rest. They end in a curl at the top of the bench which is also slightly curved at the top.
Sphinxes on a bench near Cleopatra’s Needle London (Photo credit: Man vyi / Wikimedia Commons)

The hidden time capsule beneath Cleopatra’s Needle

Thought you were all wowed out after learning so many incredible stories surrounding Cleopatra’s Needle already? Well, get ready for even more wows. Because, while the fact that there’s an Egyptian obelisk in London might be enough to rock your socks off, there’s also something very curious hidden underneath Cleopatra’s Needle.

Just before they installed the obelisk along the Thames, they buried a time capsule in the ground. It contained all the necessary items to give an accurate picture of our species for future aliens visiting and exploring Earth, from hairpins to children’s toys, an Indian rupee and more. 

More relevant are the translation of the inscriptions and a document chronicling its challenging transport. The portrait of Queen Victoria I can sort of understand as well. But I’m not sure what to make of the photographs of the twelve most beautiful women in England of the day. Was it a special calendar I wonder, a different beauty for each month? I guess we’ll never know.

How many Cleopatra’s Needles are there?

Despite its unique story, the London obelisk isn’t the only of its kind. There are actually three Cleopatra’s Needles in the world. You can find the other two in New York’s Central Park and Place de la Concorde in Paris.  

Strictly speaking, the latter is the odd one out of the trio. The obelisks in London and New York were an original pair, twinned at its former Egyptian locations of Heliopolis and Alexandria. 

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, New York. It's located on the right of the photo and on the left stands a man who is painting the scene in front of him. He's standing too far to see exactly what he's painting. It looks peaceful in the park with only a few people walking, the grass and trees look green but there aren't many leaves on the trees. In the further distance behind the obelisk there's a patch of pink blossom visible, so it's probably spring.
Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, New York (Photo credit: Ingfbruno / Wikimedia Commons)

The obelisk in Paris originally hails from Luxor where it stood on one side of the entrance to the Luxor Temple. Being one of a pair, the other Luxor Obelisk still remains at its original location where it has been since 1250 BC. 

And now I’m all done wowing you. Pretty impressive stuff, eh?

Are there are any monuments with remarkable backstories where you live?
Tell me in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx

*Photo credit feature image: James Stringer /Flickr

6 thoughts on “Secret London | Cleopatra’s Needle: An Authentic Ancient Egyptian Obelisk in London

  1. Wow, what a lot of information, never imagined this from just looking at it. And what a journey it made to get to London. Thanks again for this Sunday morning post! xx

    1. You’re very welcome! So happy to hear you enjoyed it again. I love uncovering the stories behind London sights we either are so familiar with or which we overlook so easily in passing them by on a regular basis even. London does have so many incredible sites like these!

      1. Op de lagere school in Haarlem leerden wij om tijdens een wandeling door het centrum, waar mensen gewoonlijk alleen de winkels en etalages bekijken, omhoog te kijken naar de gevels en gevelstenen. Dan gaat er een heel andere wereld voor je open. Idem dito met alle verborgen hofjes in de stad, ook zo mooi! In Londen is er vast heel veel meer moois te ontdekken, ik kijk uit naar je posts hierover! xx

  2. Truly fantastic piece and so illuminating on something that thousands of people pass every day and probably never even ‘see’ anymore or know the origins. Wonderful!!

Leave a Reply