Saturday, April 14, 2007

A needling question

I just downloaded Google Earth for the first time. It'd been ages (obviously) since I'd checked for a Mac version, and there it was. On my list of Cool Stuff™, this app ranks way the heck up there. Flying around the Grand Canyon was very... deep. I used the web to get an address for Angelo's, a little restaurant in Monongahela, PA where we used to get take-out pizza when I was a kid, and then flew by there. My childhood home, the Eiffel Tower, my downtown loft, lots of early Saturday morning sightseeing, all from the unshowered, bed-headed comfort of home.

So I stop by The London Eye, clicking on various photos linked through the app... And I see one for "Cleopatra's Needle" in Westminster. It's a misnomer, of course; the needle is an Egyptian obelisk, and doesn't have anything to do with Cleo.

I've seen this artifact, and its sibling in New York (There's another in Paris... The City of Lights is still on my To Do list). People who live in these cities get to see them pretty much whenever they like. Back when it was popular — and profitable — to raid Egypt for antiquities and scatter them around the world, many objects were carted off to their various destinations, although the obelisk in New York is said to have been a gift to the people of New York from Egypt in 1879.

An obelisk in Central Park

According to Egyptology News summary of a New York Sun article:

Egyptian obelisks have been swiped for centuries: They are rare and precious things. Only 22 remain in the world. Egypt still possesses five and Rome has 13. The Romans originally looted the obelisks, but the 16th-century Pope Sixtus V directed their present locations in the Eternal City. Istanbul, London, Paris, and New York each have one obelisk.

The obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Central Park, is the only ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Americas.

So, my question is, how it is that "Cleopatra's Needles" are still weathering in all of these cities, and not back in Egypt, preserved like other objects? It's said that the environments they're in now are rapidly wearing away inscriptions that had survived for thousands of years previously.

Granted, many of the objects and structures in Egypt are now weathering badly, e.g. the Great Sphynx. But wouldn't the Egyptian desert, and the care of the Egyptian antiquities officials be a better place for these artifacts than surrounded by wet winter winds and exhaust fumes in Central Park?

Many other pieces of great art and antiquities have been returned to the countries from which there were looted over the millennia. It's become a celebrated process. And it's funny... I thought a quick Gargle for "Cleopatra's Needle" controversy return Egypt would yield lots of articles on pleas and negotiations and snubs regarding these ancient chunks of chiseled red granite. But... I didn't see any in the first page of results.

Finally, at the bottom of a second page was a link. to a page that mentioned a story at

The New York Parks Department rejects claims by an Egyptian official that the city is neglecting the 3,700-year-old Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park and refuses to address his demand to give the obelisk back.

Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, wrote to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to protest the city's care of the 71-foot obelisk...

...Department spokesman Warner Johnston... calling the obelisk a Central Park treasure. ``It is a 3,700-year-old granite monument and our Arts & Antiquities division inspects it regularly.''
Perhaps... but what do they do about what they find? Are claims that
the New York obelisk is wearing away... just an excuse to get the stone returned to Egypt? One face of the New York obelisk is now said to be severly damaged— after it had been preserved in the sands near Alexandria since it was toppled sometime after the reign of Augustus Caesar. The Wikipedia article (I know, I know) says "Three sides of the New York needle's inscriptions are well-preserved due to the long burial of the needle, although one side, exposed to the New York prevailing winds, has been almost totally weathered away."

So does the City of New York deny any weathering? Does anyone have documentation of the condition of the stone over time?

Sure, the New York obelisk is "a Central Park treasure." But if the weathering is happening, would The City rather see the obelisk flake and crumble away to dust rather than give it up?

Or would New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners really mind if their versions of the needles were replaced with reproductions, and the originals were packed off to the Cairo Museum for cleaning and preservation?

I mean, there's nothing like having the real thing right there to look at or even touch... but what good is it if no one's going to have it in a few years?

Hey... I'm just asking.

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