The oldest outdoor monument in New York City is hidden in plain sight, just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the eastern side of Central Park. Standing 70 feet tall and weighing 220 tons, the Obelisk, also known as Cleopatra’s Needle, was placed there in 1881. But it dates back to over 3,500 years ago, when Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III commissioned the construction of a pair of obelisks in 1460 B.C. in celebration of 30 years of reign. Both monuments were placed on the banks of the Nile River in the ancient city of Heliopolis where they stood for over 1,500 years. In 18 A.D. the Roman conquerors moved them both to a new location at the entrance of the Ceasarium; a temple built to honor Julius Caesar, in the city of Alexandria, Egypt.
The set of obelisks remained together in Alexandria until 1869, when the Khedive of Egypt gave one as a gift to the United States to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. The feat of transporting and erecting it at its new location in Central Park would take another 12 years. On January 22, 1881, thousands came to the park to witness as the monument was turned upright. A time capsule containing an 1870 U.S. Census, the Bible, a Webster’s Dictionary, the complete works of Shakespeare, a guidebook to Egypt, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a small box with a secret content were all buried beneath it. The other Obelisk was moved to London in 1878 where it still stands on the banks of the Thames River.
Once the fanfare faded, trees began to grow tall around it and the hieroglyphics that lined all four sides began to decay. So much so that in 2011, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, sent a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the Central Park Conservancy threatening to remove it unless steps were taken to clean and conserve it. From 2013 through 2014, a restoration project was undertaken, to clean the monument with lasers, repair the cracks and place a protective coating to help with future preservation.
On one of my recent walks through the Park, I went to visit this amazing piece of history for the very first time. I have probably walked past it a thousand times, but now that I know more about it, I will be sure to stop by whenever I am in the area. It is really quite a marvelous spectacle.