The Sphinx, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Psychogeography of London

The Great Sphinx as seen by Dominique Vivant Denon in 1798.

The ancient Egyptian empire came to a close so long ago that it can be difficult to get a sense of just how long-lived it was. When Thutmose IV excavated the Great Sphinx of Giza from the sands that buried it up to the neck, it was already a monument of great antiquity, well over a thousand years old. To the people of Thutmose’s time, the builders of the Sphinx belonged to the ancient past.

Thutmose erected the world’s tallest Egyptian obelisk at the Temple of Karnak. Seventeen centuries later, the Roman emperor Constantius II had it transplanted to Rome were it was stood in the Circus Maximus. At some stage, it fell, possibly due to an earthquake and became lost beneath the rubble. At 36 m tall and weighing 230 tons, the site of such a massive slab of granite crashing to the ground must have been spectacular.

The raising of the Lateran Obelisk.

Twelve hundred years after arriving in Rome, the obelisk was rediscovered and, at the command of Pope Sixtus V, was erected near the Lateran Palace, providing its current name, the Lateran Obelisk. That was a mere four hundred and twenty years ago. In all, the obelisk had survived almost three thousand years of being hauled about, knocked down, buried and dug up, more than enough time for Thutmose’s efforts at excavating the Sphinx to come completely undone – it was buried up to the neck in sand again and would not be completely excavated until 1936.

A major element of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, From Hell, a speculative autopsy of the Jack the Ripper murders and their relevance to the twentieth century, is the disturbing psychogeography of London. At one point, William Gull discusses the seemingly cursed history of Cleopatra’s Needle, the 21 m tall red granite Egyptian obelisk that stands on the Thames Embankment.

Built during the reign of Thutmose III in 1450 BC, it stood with an identical twin in Heliopolis before being moved by Augustus to Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria in 10 BC. During the journey, the road beneath the cart carrying the obelisk supposedly collapsed, revealing a hidden prehistoric tomb. Around 1300 AD, the obelisk was toppled and gradually enveloped by sand.

The viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, gifted the obelisk to the United Kingdom in 1819. Initially unwilling to take on the cost and logistics of transportation, it remained buried in Alexandria until 1877 when it was loaded into a bizarre cigar-shaped craft and towed through the Mediterranean.

En route to England, a storm erupted. Six crewmen were killed attempting to rescue the sinking obelisk, which was abandoned and assumed lost. Days later, it was found drifting in the Bay of Biscay by Spanish fishing boats and eventually made its way to London where it now stands, supposedly haunted by the ghosts of those who have committed suicide nearby. Buried beneath is a time capsule containing an odd assortment of Victoriana – tobacco pipes, a razor, a portrait of Queen Victoria and photographs of English women.

The raising of the needle (left) and at night in 1910 (right).

The obelisk’s twin sits in New York’s Central Park, a gift to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Although its hieroglyphs survived three thousand years’ exposure to the Egyptian air, they have virtually disappeared after 130 years in New York.

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