The Real Cleopatra’s Needle
Stephanie Roberts tells the story of how an obelisk from Philae ended up far from home, in the gardens of a stately home in Dorset.
On the banks of the river Thames is a ancient Egyptian obelisk, often referred to as ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’. This obelisk was found near Alexandria (and in antiquity was originally located at Heliopolis) and bears an inscription of Tuthmose III and later additional inscriptions of Rameses II, so it has nothing to do with any of the seven queens called Cleopatra. In Dorset, at the National Trust property of Kingston Lacy is the real obelisk of Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII. The story begins with a group of workers in one of the many granite quarries near Aswan in Upper Egypt, an area known since the pyramid age for its high quality granite. Blocks of all sizes, many used for statues and obelisks, were shipped by barge north along the Nile as far as Giza and the Delta. The cutting and moving of these huge blocks was a major task (see the recent articles on ancient Egyptian technology in AE ). Once a section of rock had been selected for an obelisk, cutting could begin. The rock would be levelled and smoothed. Pounding and polishing to get a flat surface would have only been possible after the overlaying rock had been removed, but once this had been done, our stone workers would be able to see the quality of the rock they had chosen and decide on the exact size of the obelisk to be cut. The next step was to mark out the finished shape and begin cutting a body-width trench along the long sides of the obelisk. This work was done by using a hand-held ball of dolerite, which is harder than granite. Most of the cutting may well have required only semiskilled labour and was probably done during the annual flooding of the Nile. This was the season of Akhet and was the time of year when most work was carried out on
the temples and monuments, when farmers and others who worked on the land were available. At Aswan, it is possible to see an unfinished obelisk. Had it been completed it would have been the largest ever cut, at forty-one metres high and weighing around one thousand two hundred tons. Many obelisks were cut from the granite at Aswan and the Kingston Lacy obelisk, made of the finest pink granite was only a baby compared to the unfinished obelisk, at only just over six and a half metres high and weighing about six tons. This obelisk, loaded onto a barge, was destined for a short voyage upriver to the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae. Although short, this journey was through the most difficult navigable waters on the Nile at the First Cataract. Here over a distance of three miles the river drops about five metres, leaving many islands and isolated granite rocks exposed. Rapids between the islands made the passage of boats very tricky, even though there were special canals cut in the area. Parts of the river would have been passable only by attaching strong ropes and dragging the barge against the flow of water with teams of many men. The calm water above the Cataract would have been a pleasant relief, especially as it was only a few miles to the island of Philae. The temple on Philae was originally begun during the reign of Taharqo in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, but rose in importance in the Graeco-Roman period. Psamtik II built a small shrine there to the goddess Isis and the whole temple complex was eventually dedicated to her. One of the first buildings was a kiosk, overlooking the water, built by Nectanebo I. This still survives today (see opposite, top right) although many of the Hathor-topped pillars have been lost.
Left: the huge unfinished obelisk, still only partly cut out of the bed-rock in the granite quarries at Aswan. Above: a view of the Temple of Isis at Philae, the original home to the obelisk now at Kingston Lacy House in Dorset. Photos: RP.
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008