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It has been long incumbent on the British government to bring one or other of the Alexandrian obelisks, called Cleopatra's Needles, to England, especially from the number of accounts and diversity of opinions promulgated by travellers and writers, many of whom, from the commencement of the present century, have attributed the prostration of the fallen obelisk to a different nation or individual.
The cause of the obelisk not having been brought home after the Egyptian campaign, may be learned by the following extracts, with which I have been favoured by Captain Larcom, R.N., from papers of his father, who then commanded H.M.S. Hind, and also Admiral Hollis, then commanding H. M. S. Thames.
"H. M. S. Hind, Egypt, 1802. “ The French had partially cleared away the rubbish from around the prostrate obelisk called Cleopatra's Needle, and it was determined to attempt the transport of this obelisk to England, as a lasting memorial of the triumphs of the British army in Egypt. Subscriptions were entered into by the officers of the army and the naval squadron then at Alexandria for this purpose. On the part of the army, the obelisk was completely cleared from the surrounding ruins, a road commenced to the port, and a pier in progress to the deeper water, and all preparations in forwardness for embarkation, while the navy had weighed the hull of a small Venetian frigate, the · Leobon,' that had been sunk by the French during the siege, in the old harbour, calked and rendered her sea-worthy for the voyage. The weight had been estimated, and the position it ought to occupy in the hold of the vessel ; it being intended that when firmly placed at the proper height from the keel, and there secured by shores, &c. that the vacant spaces should be filled up with bags of cotton, and to those who had seen the stowage of vessels in the cotton trade, not a doubt remained of the feasibility of the plan proposed to be adopted; but at this stage of the proceedings, in March, 1802, an order arrived from General Fox, the commander of the forces in the Mediterranean, and Lord Keith, the naval commander-in-chief on the station, forbidding the removal of the obelisk, on the plea that it would give offence to the Turkish government. Thus was lost to England the honour of having erected in her capital a trophy peculiarly appropriate to the conquerors at the Nile and at Alexandria.”
“H. M. S. Thamce, Egypt, 1802. “ It was the intention of the heads of the army and navy, who were left in Egypt after the peace had taken place with France, in 1801, to have
taken the fallen obelisk to England, as a trophy of the very gallant achievements of those brave men who were employed in the reduction of Egypt, and for which purpose a subscription was raised, and one of the French frigates which had been sunk during the siege of Alexandria was got up, and fitted to embark it on board ; but most unfortunately, from some secret and unaccountable cause, the scheme met the positive disapprobation of the two commanders-in-chief of the army and navy, who were at Malta, and the two commanding officers at Alexandria were ordered to desist from their plan of sending the obelisk to England. I carried the orders to Egypt. The only public reason given for it, was a supposition that it might give offence to the Turks; but this was not the case, as it had been previously guarded against, by a formal permission being asked, which was most readily granted by the Aga who commanded in Egypt, observing, at the same time, that the Turks cared not if we took every stone in the country; but he rery sarcastically asked us if we had no stone-quarries in England, that we were taking so much trouble to carry such a useless mass there, as the obelisk appeared to him to be. This order to discontinue our scheme was a great disappointment to every one, as it had become quite an amusement, and both the sailors and soldiers were volunteers for the work. As we had then nothing to do, it was proposed to raise the base of the fallen obelisk, which was an immense square mass of granite; and it was accordingly done, so as to introduce under it a flat marble slab of about five feet square, with an inscription on it in French, Italian, Latin, and English-describing the battle of Aboukirthe landing of the French in Egypt, under Bonaparte-the subsequent reduction of Egypt by the English army, under their gallant chief, Abercrombie—the lamented death of that brave general and restoring the country again to the Turks ;--all of which was very carefully executed. An excavation was then made in the mass of granite under the base, sufficiently large to contain the slab without injury, and after throwing in some coins of our good old sovereign, the base was lowered carefully down on it, where from its very great weight, it will, in all probability, remain unmoved for as many ages to come, as these monuments of antiquity are supposed to have already existed ; and if these four languages are then in existence, what a tale will the removing of it again unfold. The fallen obelisk was also turned over, but nothing of value or consequence was found under it."
A vessel belonging to Mohammad Alee Basha, having proceeded to England, and requiring some repairs, government deeming this a good opportunity of cultivating the friendship of this then rising man, had the vessel conducted into the royal dock-yard at Woolwich, where she was thoroughly repaired, fitted out like a British man-of-war, and returned to the Basha with some valuable presents from the Prince Regent: and from that period may be dated the friendly intercourse that has since existed and been cultivated by his highness the Basha. In addition to many other evidences of that good feeling, during the time of the Peninsular war, he,
in 1820, presented the obelisks, called Cleopatra's Needles, to the Prince Regent, “as a mark of gratitude and esteem for favours received." The offer was made at the suggestion of Mr. Briggs, then our consul-general at Cairo. The Prince Regent, who had in the mean time ascended the throne, was pleased to accept the offered gift, and Major Wright, of the Royal Engineers, was sent from Malta, to form a plan, and estimate the expense of removing it. Major W. thus writes to a friend :
“ The only hitch against our project was the expense--the feasibility never was doubted. I think the cost in round numbers would have been about £5000. The means were simply a copy of those adopted by Carburi for the removal of the granite rock on which was afterwards placed the statue of Peter the Great."
The reasons generally assigned for the non-removal of this piece of antiquity were, the expense, and the spoliation of the ancient land of its most interesting relics. As to the latter, it might, perhaps, be an insuperable objection in any other country; but in Egypt it is not so—for there, what, by a happy constitution of atmosphere, time has spared, the gross ignorance and religious prejudices of the people make them delight to destroy; and where, says Mr. St. John, “the most extraordinary monuments of antiquity are daily liable to be converted into materials for building cotton-mills and other factories, as we see in the case of the Temple of Dendera, the false pyramid, and the superb portico of Ashmouneim, it seems excusable to endeavour, by conveying them to some more civilized land, to rescue such relics from destruction.” And I myself can vouch for the fact of these very obelisks being daily subjected to the most wanton attempts at mutilation by every donkey-boy who guides a traveller to their site. Some years afterwards, the Basha, seeing that his present was not removed, although presented as a mark of “gratitude and esteem,” stated, that as his intention of making a present of some fine pieces of antiquity to his majesty, had been known to the world, and had appeared in many of the public papers—“ he wished the gift should be one of the greatest possible value in general estimationthat he regretted the mutilated state of the Alexandrian obelisk, and offered in its stead one of the finest of Upper Egypt, or any other piece of antiquity in his territories which could be deemed a present more worthy of his majesty's acceptance;" adding, in conclusion, that, nevertheless, should the Alexandrian be the one ultimately selected, he begged it to be fully understood that it was his wish to defray every expense attending its removal, until it was placed close to the very stern of the vessel appointed to convey it to England.
Captain T. C. Head, who, in 1833, brought this matter strongly before the public, adds, “that twelve years had elapsed since the notification was made, and the Needle of Cleopatra remains in its neglected state.” There seems to be a disregard of courtesy, as well as of policy, in not accepting the offer of a grateful prince.
The subject has been frequently discussed; and some years ago the master-builder at Chatham was directed to fit out the mast-hulk of that place for the purpose, and £12,000 were mentioned as the amount of expense. Afterwards the subject was discussed in the House of Commons, and the sum of £15,000 proposed to be granted; but it was again abandoned on the objection of its robbing the country of its relics.
We have thus seen, that although three obelisks are now in possession of Great Britain, (that at Luxor having been presented some years ago,) a system of over-stretched economy has prevented us from placing one of them in any of our capitals--although the French, asking theirs from the Basha as a boon, no sooner had permission granted them, than a vessel was fitted out, the obelisk removed from its site at Luxor, conducted 500 miles down the Nile, carried into the heart of the French capital, and now decorates the Place de la Concorde. “ Trente ans se sont écoulés depuis la prise de possession de cette terre célébre; et rien de grand ne serait resté de cette expedition, si l'idée n'etait venue enfin de transporter en France une des obelisques.* And another author, when speaking of this obelisk, says—“The column of the French to be conveyed to France, and become a characteristic trophy of conquest.” And, long before, Denon, speaking of our obelisks at Alexandria, says, “ They might be conveyed to France without difficulty, and would there become a trophy of conquest, and a characteristic one, as they are in themselves a monument; and as the hieroglyphics with which they are covered render them preferable to Pompey's Pillar, which is merely a column, somewhat larger, indeed, than is any where to be found.” What this possession, and what this conquest was, thus vaunted by Parisian savans, and emblazoned in the French capital, let those brave men who fought and bled in Egypt tell.
I should prefer the prostrate one at Alexandria to that at Luxor, on account of its vicinity to the scenes of British conquest, and the feasibility of its removal, and on account of the hieroglyphics on it being in much better preservation than those upon the one still standing beside it, which many persons might think a pity to remove, as, owing to the increase of civilization in that country, a hope may be entertained of its preservation where it stands, and the associations so pleasing to the traveller thus be continued. Should it, however, be deemed advisable to do so, the plan adopted by the French for the removal of theirs, which, as well as that at Rome, is smaller than either of the Alexandrian ones, might be put in operation. See “ Description des Obelisques de Luxor, et précis des operations relatives au transport d'un de ces monumens dans la capital. Par M. Alexandre Delaborde."*
It is worthy of being known to those who may engage in this work, that there are two ephinxes, which were taken by our troops from the French at the capture of Alexandrix, still remaining there, and now built up in the wall of the custom-house, near the principal wharf or
As regards the removing of the prostrate obelisk at Alexandria, it would be a slur upon our many scientific engineers for me to propose a plan-but of its possibility no doubt can exist. In 1824, Admiral Donally, in a letter published in the Appendix to W. Rae Wilson's Travels, submitted a plan for its removal. This consisted in fitting out the frame of a flat-bottomed vessel in England, and sending her to Alexandria, “ and what in ship-building are called 'ways,' laid on an inclined plane from the needle to the harbour; an excavation should then be made under one end of the obelisk, and a shore or prop placed under it. At a certain distance from that, (depending upon the stability of the substratum,) let another excavation be made, and a second shore placed, and so on according to circumstances-I think one at each end, and one in the centre would answer. Thus the obelisk would be suspended upon three points. The frame of the flat vessel might then be easily placed under it, and strongly fastened together, and then planked and caulked, taking care that the 'ways' or inclined plane be properly placed. The shores then cut away, one by one, and the hole they make in the bottom closed, and the vessel, which will draw very little water launched into the harbour; temporary masts placed in her, and attended or towed by another ship, she might, I think, arrive safely in the Thames." Objections have been made to launching it at all at the new harbour, on account of its rocky and unsafe character; and it has been suggested by a distinguished officer, Major-General Sir John Burgoyne, who, to a knowledge of the country, adds engineering talents of the highest order, now happily employed for the benefit of Ireland, that it would be better" to roll and drag the monster across the isthmus, on which the present town is built, to the good harbour, and then embark it by means of a sufficient jetty." This jetty might, I think, be easily constructed near the Mahmoudie canal, where the water is sufficiently deep, and without rocks; perhaps, the construction of a mere raft of timber, or coating it in a case of timber with airtight boxes would be sufficient, and then towing it away, during calm weather, with a steamer to England. Although the proposal which I made in April, 1839, of having the obelisk erected as the “Nelson Testimonial," has not been attended to ; yet, I do not despair of seeing it one day ornamenting the capital of Great Britain. Several gallant officers have expressed a desire of seeing it standing in the square of Greenwich Hospital; and, certainly, it would not only be an appropriate site, but one that affords many facilities for its erection. A penny subscription from all the inhabitants of London would place it in any part of England.
landing-place. I have no doubt that, if asked for by the French, Mohammad Alee would give permission for their removal, when they would be placed without loss of time in Paris, as another * characteristic of conquest." It is likewise interesting to notice the fact of this obelisk's construction in the reign of Thothmes III., the Pharaoh supposed to have been destroyed in the Red Sea.