What’s the oldest monument in London? It’s often said to be Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk that stands on the north bank of the Thames at Victoria Embankment. It dates from around 1,500 BC.
The obelisk was given to Britain in 1819 as acknowledgment of Britain’s role in frustrating Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition. However, the large piece of granite remained in the Alexandrian desert for the next 60 years, due to the cost and difficulties of transporting it. When it finally it arrived in London there was some debate about where to put it. The picture here shows the spot that many people preferred, outside the Houses of Parliament.
After much debate, it was finally erected on the new Victoria Embankment in 1878. This was one of London’s newest developments, a marvel of modern engineering, only completed four years earlier. The embankment created a new wide promenade along the north bank of the Thames. Beneath the road lay tunnels housing the trains of the Metropolitan Railway and a modern city sewer.
Placing the ancient obelisk in a place that represented London’s modernity must have appealed to the Victorians’ sense of history. They also thought about the future. The pedestal contains two large earthenware jars, a time capsule containing an odd selection of things chosen by the public. They include “wire ropes and specimens of submarine cables, presented by Mr R.S. Newall”, and “photographs of a dozen pretty Englishwomen, presented by Captain Henry Carter”.
The obelisk doesn’t look out of place in London, where Egyptian architectural styles have long been a favourite. North London has an Egyptian-style Art Deco former cinema (The Carlton Cinema) and a building supposedly modelled on a temple to the cat-goddess Bubatis (Carreras Cigarette Factory, which used to produce Black Cat cigarettes).
The Museum of London has two large statues of the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, which used to stand on the façade of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The statues now stand on either side of the museum’s car park entrance, where we hope they bring the museum good luck!
A guest blog by the Museum of London as part of our Visiting the Past series. More London history next week.