CLEOPATRA'S NEEDLES, two obelisks, formerly at Alexandria, one of which is now in New York, the other in London. They are made of red syenite, quarried at the First Cataract, and were originally erected by Thothmes III in the 40th year of his reign (about 1,460 B.C.) in front of the portico of the great temple of Heliopolis, the On of the Scriptures, and the place where Moses was born and brought up. From Heliopolis the two obelisks were removed to Alexandria in 13-12 B.C., as shown by inscriptions on the claw of one of the bronze crabs placed by the Romans under the corners of the obelisk when they set it up in Alexandria nearly 17 years after the death of Cleopatra.
How, then, they came to be called Cleopatra's Needles is not apparent; but it may be conjectured that they had been removed by her order some time before they were set up on their second site, or that their removal was the carrying out of an intention formed by Cleopatra. Mr. (after Sir) Erasmus Wilson, to whom the credit may be awarded of having been chiefly instrumental in getting the British obelisk conveyed to London, assumes that the association of Cleopatra's name with the two obelisks represents the popularity of the queen and the affectionate regard of her subjects, rather than any participation of herself in their transport or erection.
The obelisk now at London lay for a long time prostrate in the sand. In 1820 it was presented by Mehemet Ali to the British nation, but the British government never did anything for its removal, which was at last effected solely through the public spirit of several private individuals, the obelisk being erected on the Thames embankment in 1878. The other obelisk was presented to the United States by the Khedive of Egypt, and its transportation to its present position in Central Park, New York, where it was erected in 1881, was made possible by the liberality of W. H. Vanderbilt. It stands upon four bronze crabs, reproductions of the original crabs upon which the obelisk formerly stood.
Two of the originals are now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The “needle” in London is somewhat the taller of the two, being 68 feet 5½ inches in height, as against 67 feet 2 inches, the height of the other. The lateral measurements at the base are, in the British obelisk, 7 feet 5 inches in one pair of opposite sides and 7 feet 10½ inches in the other pair; in the one in New York, 7 feet 9¾ inches, and 8 feet 2¼ inches. The weight of the British obelisk is rather more than 186 tons, and its mass 2,529 cubic feet. Both obelisks are inscribed with hieroglyphs, engraved to a depth of several inches and carefully polished. The hieroglyphs are inscribed in vertical columns, which are read from the top downward; and in each case the middle column is in honor of Thothmes, by whom the obelisks were first erected, and the side columns in honor of Rameses II.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920