The sad state of New York's obelisk of Thutmose III

Zahi Hawass, Sunday 9 Jan 2011

Monuments from Egypt's ancient past adorn the world but with the passing of time, some have been neglected by their hosts

Zahi Hawass

A few years ago I saw the obelisk in New York City’s Central Park and was saddened by its bad condition. I felt that the obelisk needed to be restored, but I also thought that it could be placed in a more prominent location within Central Park. As the oldest monument in the park, dating back to 1,500 BC, I had hoped that the obelisk would be more centrally located, but instead I felt like it was hidden away.

This week I sent a letter to the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and the President of the Central Park Conservancy, Douglas Blonsky, to ask for their help in conserving this monument. I sent a similar letter four years ago but I never received a reply. One of the reasons I have raised this issue again is because two Americans, Richard Paschal and Dorothy McCarthy, recently sent me a memorandum outlining a process that they believe would conserve the obelisk. They also included photos highlighting the damage to the hieroglyphic text.

It is important to mention that the obelisk in Central Park, referred to as “Cleopatra’s Needle”, is 3,500 years old and was constructed for one of the greatest pharaohs in Egyptian history, Thutmose III. The obelisk in New York City is one of a pair, which originally stood in the city of Heliopolis, the “city of the sun” called “Iunu” in ancient Egyptian. The two obelisks were originally erected along the banks of the Nile to mark 30 years of rule by Thutmose III, a celebration referred to as the heb-sed festival in ancient Egypt. They remained in Heliopolis from 1,500 BC until 18AD when they were moved to Alexandria.

In 1879 the first obelisk was moved to Westminster in London and two years later Egypt’s Khedive Ismail Pasha offered the second obelisk to America as a means of cementing diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was a long and delicate process to transfer the 244 ton granite monument, but it finally reached Central Park and was erected in front of thousands of people on January 22, 1881. A time capsule was buried underneath the obelisk and included objects such as an 1879 U.S. census, a Bible and a guidebook to Egypt.

Not all the damage and erosion the obelisk has suffered is modern. It is, after all, over three thousand years old and has been moved half way across the world. The purpose of my letter was to draw the attention of the City of New York and Central Park to the obelisk so that they can undertake a project to protect this monument from any future damage. I am confident that something can be done to preserve this priceless artefact.

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