Hawass fears for Cleopatra's Needle

Nevine El-Aref, Saturday 8 Jan 2011

The secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities says that an ancient Egyptian monument on New York's Central Park should be restored or brought back to Egypt



In New York City's Central Park stands a 21-metre-tall red granite obelisk carved during the 18th Dynasty to commemorate King Tuthmose III, grandfather of King Tutankhamun. This obelisk is one of a pair originally erected in Heliopolis, then floated to Alexandria, where they fronted a temple dedicated to the deified Julius Caesar. 

During the 19th century, the Khedive of Egypt, who governed as a viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey between 1879 and 1914, donated both obelisks to Western industrialised nations in exchange for foreign aid to modernise Egypt. The London obelisk was raised in 1879, and the other erected in Central Park in 1881. Since then it has been known as “Cleopatra Needle”.

During his last visit to New York, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the obelisk has been severely weathered over the past century and was not properly conserved and that no efforts have been made to conserve it. This led Hawass to write a letter to the president of the Central Park Conservancy and the mayor of New York City asking for their assistance in caring for the distinguished artefact. At the end of the letter Hawass warned that if the obelisk couldn't be cared for he would take the necessary steps to bring it home.

This warning created a brouhaha in the US press.

“I am responsible for all Egyptian monuments and one of my duties is to monitor Egypt’s heritage, whether in the country or abroad,” Hawass told Ahram Online. He continued: “Because one of the main focuses of my tenure as SCA’s secretary general has been the conservation and protection of Egyptian antiquities, I feel it necessary that I fight for the restoration of this obelisk.”

Hawass added that recent photographs he received show that the obelisk has suffered severe damage, especially to the hieroglyphic text inscribed on it.

According to The New York Post, the Parks Department has said that the monument is in great shape for its age and is in no need of a facelift.

“We have great regard for this Egyptian artifact, one of the few true antiquities in our vast monument collection,” Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities at the New York City Parks and Recreation Department told the New York Post. He continued that a 1980s report found that the monument had some damage to the inscriptions on its sides, but that the damage was done before the 20th century.

“We have been working in recent years with the Metropolitan Museum and the Central Park Conservancy to further analyse the condition of the obelisk and monitor its condition," Kuhn said.

A Mayor Bloomberg official said that Hawass wrote a similar letter four years ago requesting repairs to the monument, but that an evaluation by the Metropolitan Museum found no need for restoration. Reuters said that representatives of the mayor declined further comment.

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