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  • Writer's pictureMark Vogel

My Visit to Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park: Exploring History in the Heart of New York City

Central Park, New York City

Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park

I recently visited Cleopatra's Needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk located in Central Park in New York City. This historical monument, which stands at approximately 69 feet tall and weighs about 200 tons, offers a unique glimpse into ancient history amidst the bustling modern landscape of New York.

“My visit to Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park was not only a walk through a serene part of New York City but also a journey back in time.”

Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park

History of Cleopatra’s Needle


Cleopatra's Needle is one of three similarly named Egyptian obelisks. Despite its name, it has no direct connection to Cleopatra VII but was originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis around 1450 BCE, during the reign of Thutmose III. The inscriptions on its surface are hieroglyphs that were added about 200 years later, in the time of Ramses II, commemorating his military victories.


The obelisk's journey to Central Park was quite an engineering achievement. It was gifted to the United States by the Khedive of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, in 1881. The process of transporting the obelisk from Alexandria, Egypt, to New York City was a monumental task. It involved traversing the Atlantic Ocean on the specially designed steamship SS Dessoug. Upon arrival in New York, the obelisk was hauled to Central Park using a complex system of pulleys and a railway track, a process that took several months.


Today, Cleopatra's Needle stands as a symbol of ancient civilization and the historical connection between Egypt and New York City. It is also a testament to the 19th-century engineering skills used in its transportation and installation. Preservation efforts have been ongoing, as the obelisk has shown signs of weathering due to the harsher climate of New York compared to its original location in Egypt.

Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park

Cleopatra's Needle in New York has two other counterparts. One is in London, standing on the Victoria Embankment near the Thames River. It was erected in 1878 and shares a similar history, being a gift from Muhammad Ali Pasha to the United Kingdom. The other is in Paris, situated in the Place de la Concorde. It is slightly older, dating back to around 1300 BCE, and was a gift from Muhammad Ali to France in 1829. Unlike the New York and London obelisks, the Parisian one is not a twin but is similar in appearance and historical significance.


The obelisk's presence in Central Park is not only a symbol of ancient Egyptian culture but also represents a broader narrative of cultural exchange and diplomacy in the 19th century. It was one of many artifacts exchanged between nations during this period, symbolizing goodwill and mutual respect.


The obelisk is made of red granite, typical of ancient Egyptian monuments. Its hieroglyphic inscriptions, although heavily eroded, are invaluable to understanding the language, religion, and customs of ancient Egypt. The top originally was capped with a pyramidion or a small pyramid-like structure, which would have been covered in electrum (a mix of gold and silver), but this feature is no longer present.

Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York City's Central Park

The New York City obelisk has undergone several conservation efforts to mitigate the effects of urban pollution and weathering. Unlike in Egypt, where the dry climate preserved the monument, the obelisk in Central Park has suffered from the humid continental climate of New York. Various conservation projects have been undertaken to clean and stabilize the structure.


The obelisk's integration into the landscape of Central Park is a reflection of the park's design philosophy, which blends natural and historical elements. Its location near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the park's other attractions makes it a significant cultural landmark.


Since its installation in Central Park, Cleopatra's Needle has become a beloved landmark. It has inspired local lore and is often featured in popular culture, symbolizing the city's rich and diverse history. However, there has been some debate about the historical appropriateness of moving such artifacts from their original locations. While these obelisks are celebrated as symbols of cultural exchange, they also raise questions about the preservation of heritage and the historical context of such monuments.


Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, therefore, is not just an ancient monument but a living piece of history that continues to fascinate and provoke discussion among New Yorkers and visitors alike.


Cleopatra’s Needle Visitors Guide


Cleopatra's Needle is in the Upper East Side area of Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The obelisk is situated just west of the museum, in a line with 81st Street.


The best entrance to use when visiting Cleopatra's Needle is the East 79th Street entrance. This entrance provides a direct and relatively short walk to the obelisk. After entering the park at East 79th Street, head west, and you will find Cleopatra's Needle located in a tranquil area behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Using this entrance not only allows for easy access to the obelisk but also offers a pleasant walk through one of the park's more scenic areas, with opportunities to explore other attractions nearby, such as the museum itself and the picturesque landscapes of Central Park.


Near the Needle


Adjacent to Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, there are several areas and attractions that you can visit:


1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Just east of Cleopatra's Needle, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world's largest and most prestigious art museums. Its extensive collection spans over 5,000 years of world culture, making it a must-visit destination for art enthusiasts.


2. The Conservatory Garden: To the north of the obelisk, you'll find the Conservatory Garden, a formal garden divided into three smaller gardens styled in Italian, French, and English traditions. This area is particularly beautiful in the spring and summer when the flowers are in full bloom.


3. The Great Lawn: To the west of Cleopatra's Needle is the Great Lawn, a large, open green space that is popular for picnics, sports, and outdoor concerts. It's a great spot for relaxation and people-watching.


4. The Ramble: South-west of the obelisk lies The Ramble, a wilder, more untamed area of the park known for its winding paths, rocky outcrops, and dense woodlands. It's a favorite spot for birdwatchers and those seeking a quieter, more naturalistic experience in the park.


5. Bethesda Terrace and Fountain: Heading south from Cleopatra's Needle, you'll encounter Bethesda Terrace, overlooking the Lake. The Terrace and the iconic Bethesda Fountain are popular gathering spots and offer some of the most picturesque views in Central Park.


6. Alice in Wonderland Statue: To the east and a bit north of the obelisk, near the boating lake (Conservatory Water), there's a whimsical bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland, a beloved spot for children and fans of Lewis Carroll's classic tale.


7. The Reservoir: Further north from the obelisk, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir offers a peaceful, 1.58-mile track around the water, ideal for jogging or a leisurely stroll with impressive cityscape views.


These areas contribute to the diverse experiences Central Park offers, from cultural and historical exploration to leisure and natural beauty, all within walking distance of Cleopatra's Needle.


My visit to Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park was not only a walk through a serene part of New York City but also a journey back in time. The monument stands as a tangible link to ancient history, showcasing the engineering feats of both the ancient Egyptians and the 19th-century transporters. Its counterparts in London and Paris offer similar experiences, each telling a unique story of cultural exchange and historical preservation.


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