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  • Sarah


In central London is the rather unexpected sight of an Egyptian obelisk covered in hieroglyphs, standing on the edge of the river. Flanked by a pair of stylized Sphinx, this small piece of Egyptian history on the Embankment has a long and unusual history, defying the odds to be here at all.

The Egyptian Obelisk on the banks of the thames
Cleopatra's Needle as seen from Waterloo Bridge

Standing 86 feet high, weighing 180 tonnes and made of syenite granite, this obelisk is one of a pair, the other being in New York. The name 'Cleopatra's Needle' is something of a misnomer, as it was created at least 1,400 years before she was born.

The obelisks were made over 3,460 years ago from a quarry near Aswan, a city on the banks of the River Nile in southern Egypt. They were made by order of Pharaoh Thutmos III, who reigned from the age of two until his death 54 years later in 1425 BC. Thutmos III had a single column of hieroglyphs carved on three sides:

A close up of the obelisk

"King of the two countries. He made this tribute to his father Harmachis. These two obelisks he built and stood up and tipped them with gold at the time of his first 30 years festival. As he desired it, he did it. Son of the Sun.

He multiplied, Lord of the gods, festivals of the Persea tree in the midst of the temple of the Phoenix; he is his son; he is the sacred and divine body whose limbs extend everywhere. Son of the Sun.

Of Harmachis beloved. His father Tum set up his name within the precincts, in the Palace of On, giving him the seat of Seb the dignity of Kepha-ra. Son of the sun. Of the spirits of On beloved - eternal."

The obelisks were floated down 700 miles of the Nile and erected in Heliopolis, a scared city filled with temples dedicated to the worship of the sun, and the obelisks were set up in front of one of these temples, where they stood for 14 centuries until Egypt became a province of Rome.

During this time, Rameses II added hieroglyphs describing himself as a 'Chastiser of foreign nations', 'Giver of life like the sun' and that 'nothing has been said against him'.

In 23BC, the obelisks were transported to the Palace of the Caesars in Alexandria. The palace, or Caesareum of Alexandria, was begun by Cleopatra to honour Julius Caesar, her lover, although they didn't arrive until after she had committed suicide.

"This palace stood by the side of the harbour of Alexandria, and was surrounded by a sacred grove. It was ornamented with porticoes, and fitted up with libraries, paintings and statues, and was the most lofty building in the city. In front of this palace Augustus set up the two ancient obelisks which had been made by Thothmes III, and carved by Rameses II, and which, like the other monuments of the Theban kings, have outlived all the temples and palaces of their Greek and Roman successors.” (Cleopatra's Needle - A History of the London Obelisk, with an Exposition of the Hieroglyphics)

The plaque at the base of the obelisk explaining its history
The plaque at the base of the obelisk explaining its history

The obelisks later toppled over, whether by a deliberate act or sea erosion is unknown, and they remained buried face down in the sand, which helped to preserve the hieroglyphics. Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops invaded Egypt in 1798, finally being defeated by the British in 1801, releasing Egypt from French rule. English soldiers wanted a souvenir of their campaign, and tried but failed to remove the obelisk.

A portrait of Mehmet Ali
Mehemet Ali, Ottoman ruler of Egypt

On the ascension of George IV to the throne in 1820, Egyptian ruler Mehemet Ali gifted him the obelisk. It remained where it was however, as the UK didn't want to pay the shipping costs for such a huge item.

Various people offered to pay for it, but each time it was rejected, until 1867 when the land it was on was bought by a Greek businessman, who threatened to break it up for building materials if it was not removed.

Explorer and British officer, General Alexander, pleaded for ten years with the Greek businessman not to destroy it, and persuaded his wealthy friend, Professor Wilson, to pay for its transportation to England. In 1877 It was enclosed in a watertight, iron tube and attached to a steam tug, The Olga, with its own crew of six men.

Twenty days into the voyage, the ship was caught in a severe storm in the Bay of Biscay and the captain cut the connection. The six crewmen were rescued by a lifeboat, which then tragically sank in the heavy seas. The obelisk was assumed sunk, but soon turned up and was rescued by a Spanish ship, who towed it to their port of Vigo. Three months later, it finally made it to England and in 1878, it was finally put into its current position on the Embankment.

A close up of a sphinx
One of the pair of inward looking sphinxes

Buried underneath it is a Victorian time capsule, containing items such as clothing of the time, newspapers, a portrait of Queen Victoria and, rather bizarrely, pictures of the most beautiful women in the realm.

A black and white photo of the bomb damage on the sphinx
After the bombing. Photo © IWM

The needle is flanked by a Victorian pair of stylised sphinxes which were originally facing outwards. Turned inwards in error by a contractor, they have never been put back into their correct position.

The needle suffered some damage in 1917, when 11 Gotha bombers reached London and bombed the city.

One fell on the Victoria Embankment, by Cleopatra’s Needle, rupturing a gas main and killing the driver and two passengers of a passing tram.

Shrapnel from the bomb damaged the plinth and tore holes in one of the Sphinxes - the damage is still visible and there is now a small plaque next to the rear foot of the right-hand sphinx explaining the damage and the hole in his paw.


How to get to Cleopatra's Needle

Postcode: WC2N 6PA

what3words: foam.debate.years

Public Transport: Embankment tube station

When is Cleopatra's Needle open?

The needle is accessible at all times

How much does it cost to Cleopatra's Needle?

The site is free to visit


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