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 Ptolemy II Philadelphus erected the great entrance into the temple, which we know as the first pylon. Other parts of the building were erected by Ptolemy IV Philopater, and Ptolemy V Epiphanes, who are depicted in most of the wall carvings, worshipping or offering to the gods. All this was history as the obelisk made its way upriver through the Cataract and past Agilika Island to the smaller of two islands. The larger was called Biga and was in Ptolemaic times the legendary burial place of Osiris, while the smaller, Philae, was the obelisk’s destination. The inscription on the obelisk was carved by the priests of Isis during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, son of Ptolemy V, who was probably one of the worst kings ever to rule Egypt. His relationships with the rest of his family were, to say the least, bloody and too complex to go into here. We do not know the exact date of the obelisk’s arrival and the inscription may have been added after its erection at the site. The inscription carved into the obelisk itself was in the ancient hieroglyphs but the base had an additional inscription Greek. This was a complaint to Ptolemy VIII that the temple should not be expected to fully maintain all the passing government officials and their staff from temple funds. There seem to have been four obelisks erected at
Philae. The remains of one, mostly rebuilt now in concrete, still stand at the water’s edge as part of the kiosk of Nectanebo I. Nearby is another base, and this is a possible site for the Kingston Lacy obelisk, as the record of its removal mentions that the fallen obelisk was only a short distance from the water’s edge. However, in front of the first pylon are another two obelisk bases. The eastern one of the pair is said by many to be the original site of the Dorset obelisk although it is further from the water. These bases are now guarded by two small granite lions, who both sit there on duty, seemingly unaware that the obelisks are long gone. These lions may have been a later addition. They do not appear in the well-known lithographs of David Roberts in 1834, although much of the temple was partly buried under later layers of habitation, which probably hid them.
Top: the small kiosk of Nectanebo I at Philae, showing the reconstructed remains of one obelisk; the kiosk was probably the site of at least one other. Above: the view of the outer court of the temple from the pylon. On a granite base, next to the granite lion, stand the remains of the the western obelisk; a matching base on the other side of the pylon entrance may be where the Kingston Lacy obelisk once stood.
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008