Written in Stone

An Interview with Bob Brier

Egypt’s obelisks have captured human imagination from the time of their construction to the present day, attracting the interest of the Roman emperor Augustus, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Henry Vanderbilt, among others. New York City is home to one of the most magnificent Egyptian obelisks, which followed a fraught and circuitous path from the granite quarries of Aswan to Fifth Avenue. Here, renowned Egyptologist Bob Brier explains its history and the technical genius and political savvy needed to secure this treasure for America.

The obelisk stands upright in its Alexandrian home before transport to the U.S.

Flickr. What would become New York’s obelisk stood in its Alexandrian home from the time of the Roman conquest.

Octavian Report: The Egyptian obelisk in Central Park has a fascinating backstory — can you talk about its provenance and history?

Bob Brier: Let me say first that the obelisk is one of the overlooked treasures of New York. Most New Yorkers don’t even know where it is. It’s one of a set: obelisks in general are always built in pairs. Though built is wrong. They’re carved in pairs. They’re a single block of stone. Egyptian obelisks are solid pieces of stone, always granite, because granite’s the only stone strong enough that you can have something that big. They’re almost always placed in front of temples at the gateway in pairs. The inscriptions on them are not interesting. They’re simply the pharaoh’s titles. He says, “I built this monument for my father the God,” or for Amun or something like that. It’s really a way of a pharaoh saying, “I built this temple and I’m putting my two obelisks in front of it.”

There are two called Cleopatra’s Needles. The pharaoh Thutmose III, who was a warrior pharaoh, a great pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, erected two obelisks in a city not far from modern Cairo called Heliopolis. In later Roman times, when the Romans have conquered Egypt and are running Egypt pretty much like a country — they wanted to get the grain out of Egypt — it’s decided that they’re going to move these two obelisks from the south in Cairo all the way to Alexandria and set them up in a little temple that was like a shrine to Caesar. These two re-erected obelisks are the ones called in modernity Cleopatra’s Needles because they were in front of Cesar’s temple shrine and Caesar was Cleopatra’s consort. These two obelisks are two of the three obelisks that leave Egypt in the 19th century.  By the time modern people enter into Egypt, one of the obelisks has fallen down. There’s one obelisk that’s still erect and another one that’s fallen down. In the 19th century, the ruler, Mohammed Ali, is trying to modernize Egypt. He’s currying favor with all kinds of European powers — so he was giving away obelisks. The French get one — the Luxor Obelisk; it now stands in Paris on the Place de la Concorde. England gets one. They don’t pick it up for another 40 years, but that’s all right. They’re the first ones to take an obelisk out of Alexandria. They’re smart. They say, “We’re going to take the one that’s on the ground because we’re not going to have to bother lowering it.” Once England gets its obelisk, America had obelisk envy and needed its own obelisk. New York gets the second obelisk, the one that’s erect. That’s how, in a nutshell, it ended up in New York.

Let me go back just a hair to the Renaissance, to the engineering feat that is considered the greatest of the Renaissance. That was moving the obelisk in Rome to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica where it stands today at the Vatican. This obelisk is moved by “God’s Architect,” Domenico Fontana. Fontana’s the first one to figure out what this thing weighs. Fontana moves this thing with thousands of people pulling on ropes. That’s a great feat of the Renaissance. Then nobody moves one for another 300 years, almost.

Ours was a little tough because it was upright in Alexandria. The question is: who’s going to move it? Henry Gorringe is a Navy man, Lt. Gorringe. New York got permission to take the obelisk. Interesting sidebar: people don’t know it, but the obelisk was not given to America. It was given to New York. That was the deal. I finally got the Met to change its card. They had language in the description saying it was given to America, but it wasn’t. It was given to New York. The deal was William Vanderbilt was going to pay for the moving of the obelisk. He wasn’t going to pay for it unless it was going to New York.

Some things never change. He basically said: “We don’t want these idiots in Congress deciding where it goes.” He said it’s got to go to New York. The pasha, the ruler of Egypt at that time — the Khedive, actually, is what he was called — when he ceded over control of the obelisk to us, it was to New York. It was very specifically written down, “We give it to the city of New York.”

A bit of background here. The English got their obelisk and then all of a sudden everybody’s going crazy — “We want an obelisk, we want an obelisk, we want an obelisk” — in New York and in America. The American consul in Egypt, Fairman is his name, was the one who was there. The Egyptian government is collapsing as he’s trying to get an obelisk. It’s like: who do you talk to? Because one guy’s kicked out of office, another guy’s in. How do you do it? Fairman isn’t sure if he can go ahead and ask because he has no official government. He was told by the owner of a New York newspaper that if we can get an obelisk, Vanderbilt’s willing to pay for it. There’s no official governmental thing saying, “Go for an obelisk, Mr. Fairman. You’re our representative in Cairo.”

What happens is Ulysses Grant happens to be going on a world tour. Fairman asked Grant, “What do you think, General? Should I ask for the obelisk?” Grant says, “Sure, go for it.” With an ex-president’s encouragement, Fairman goes to the Khedive and says, “We would like an obelisk.” The government is collapsing. It’s give and take. Finally the Khedive says, “Well, New York wants an obelisk. You can have one.” He gives the obelisk to Fairman for New York. They sign the deal. Then the Khedive is booted out. He’s kicked out of office. He sails away to exile. Now Fairman’s got an okay from a government that no longer exists. It works out. They finally get the obelisk. He gets it. There’s a lot of hair-raising stuff going on politically, diplomatically behind this thing.

So Gorringe agrees to move the obelisk. Vanderbilt does a contract with Gorringe which says — this is a naval term — “No cure, no pay.” The idea is that Gorringe isn’t going to get a penny unless this obelisk is successfully transported and erected in New York. He’s got to come up with the money to do it himself. He does. It’s a risk. It takes a guy who has a lot of confidence, knows what he’s doing. He’s not wealthy but he has a friend who’ll fund him the money. Gorringe decides: “I’m going to move this obelisk.”

There are a couple of difficult problems for them. One is the ship that’s going to bring it over. The French, when they brought their obelisk over in 1834, built a special ship called the Luxor which could open up. You take the obelisk in and then it sails. The Brits also built a special vessel for the obelisk. It was like a cigar tube; it was a caisson that was towed by a steamship. That didn’t work so well. They lost the obelisk at sea and later recovered it, but six men died in the effort.

Gorringe is not sure exactly what he’s going to do. He can’t get the money to build his own ship. He’s not going to do anything like the Brits did because that didn’t work so well. He goes over to Egypt to buy his own ship. He got lucky, in a way: Egypt was bankrupt. They couldn’t really continue their postal service. They had a lot of postal steamers that had been decommissioned and were just rusting in the port. He bought one of these postal steamers, the Dessoug, it was called, and he had a plan: he’s going to open the hull and slide the obelisk in on cannonballs. Which he does.

Just getting the ship wasn’t easy because they wanted to rip him off. Everywhere Gorringe went, everybody, as soon as they heard the obelisk was involved, wanted to rip him off. When he makes a fair offer for the ship, they say, “No, no, we want so much more.” Gorringe simply says, “Here’s the deal. I’m withdrawing my offer at midnight if you don’t take it.” Then they finally said, “Yes, we’ll take it. Thank you.” He buys the ship. Then the insurers want to rip him off. They want exorbitant rates to insure the obelisk. Again, he refuses and he says, “I’m going to sail it uninsured if you don’t insure it at a reasonable rate.” They finally back down and insure it. Another gamble the guy takes: for technical reasons, he couldn’t get the ship flagged. In other words, he can’t fly it under the American flag. He’s not going to fly it under the Egyptian flag. He decides to sail it unregistered. He just sails out to sea. According to the laws of the sea he could have been seized. Anybody could seize it. He takes the risk and he just sails out.

The crew — as Gorringe wrote in his account of the feat — “would do well compared to any bunch of pirates.” They were all alcoholics. One guy fell into the water twice before they left port. They had to leave him behind. It wasn’t an easy sail. But Gorringe makes it to New York with the obelisk. Then he has to off-load it. The problem is, again, they want to rip him off. There is only one dock big enough that can accommodate the obelisk. They want an exorbitant price. Gorringe refuses. He takes his ship. He sails it away from Manhattan to Staten Island. He figures out a way to get it off the ship on what’s called a marine railway. He puts it on pontoons. He floats it around all the way to 96th Street where he disembarks the thing on his own. He then gets moving along what is today West End Avenue. It’s going to make a left turn into Central Park.

“Th e obelisk is one of the overlooked treasures of New York. Most New Yorkers don’t even know where it is. ”

—Bob Brier

Another thing that is unique about our obelisk is that it’s the only one that has its original pedestal. Gorringe brought the pedestal with him. When you go to Central Park today and look at the obelisk, it’s resting on its 3,000-year-old pedestal. The reason he brought it was that Gorringe, like most of the men in his class of that era, was a Mason. (Vanderbilt was a Mason also.) He found underneath the obelisk, beneath the base, the tools of the people who erected it. There’s the equivalent of a t-square, a right angle, for figuring out if it’s true. There’s a plumb bob. Gorringe is convinced that his fellow Masons from ancient Egypt are sending him a message.

He calls in the Grand Mason of Alexandria to see what the Grand Mason thinks. He agrees. It’s a Masonic monument. Gorringe says, “I’ve got to bring the pedestal back too,” which weighs 50 tons. He brings the pedestal back with the obelisk. He’s the only one who brings the pedestal back too. He’s got the pedestal. He’s got the obelisk. He’s got it going through Central Park. Eventually, when they’re going through Central Park and the pedestal’s in place, there’s an incredible parade of 5,000 Masons (the Masons were put in charge of the ceremony).

You get 5,000 Masons going up Fifth Avenue in full regalia marching for a mile entering Central Park for the installation. The Grand Mason of New York is carrying a fabulous baton that was made especially for the ceremony. It’s made of ivory and amethyst and gold. It’s got a gold obelisk on the tip with the hieroglyphs on it. It’s really a thing of beauty. You can actually see it. You have to make a special appointment. It’s in the Grand Masonic Lodge of New York today.

You’ve got these 5,000 Masons marching up Fifth Avenue for this thing. It’s just a great spectacle. Nobody documented this great thing. Imagine it. There were lodges. This is 1880. You’ve got lodges from all over, which are organized by country. In other words, you had the Italian lodge of all the Italian immigrants. You have the Polish lodge. It would have been fabulous. We don’t have any pictures of it. I went to the library of the Grand Masonic Lodge and asked the librarian, “You know, I’ve never seen any pictures of the parade. How come? It’s such a great spectacle.” He said, “We Masons are funny. We’re never sure if we’re a secret society or not, so we tend not to document our events.”

OR: Can you give some detail about the physical specifics of the obelisk? Its size? What it says?

Brier: As for what it says, it’s really basically just the pharaohs’ titles and statements to the effect of, “I erected this monument for my father the God.” That’s from Thutmose III. But there is an interesting inscription on either side of Thutmose’s inscription from Ramses II, Ramses the Great. Ramses says, “I’m going to put my inscription on here and claim it as mine.” You’ve got two different pharaohs vying for whose obelisk it is.

At least he didn’t erase Thutmose III. We do know it’s really Thutmose III’s. Ramses wants to share in the glory. We used to call Ramses the Great Chiseler because he always chiseled out other people’s inscriptions. The obelisk itself is almost 90 feet tall. It’s as tall as a nine-story building. It’s about 320 tons — roughly the weight of a small commercial jet plane.

OR: The obelisk sustained damage whose origins are still unknown — can you explain the details there?

Brier: Yeah, that’s the great mystery. The obelisk comes under the purview of the Central Park Conservancy. They decided that they should clean the obelisk. The obelisk was getting a little dirty. They had to build a scaffolding around it. So I got to go up and see the tip of the obelisk. I had never been up to see the tip of the obelisk. I go with another couple of guys from the Conservancy. We met George Wheeler, their stone guy. We go up there. I’m blown away because it’s not a single piece on the top. The very tip of the obelisk, about nine inches, had been broken cleanly.

In the center of it is a metal thread, like a pipe with a thread on it. It fits into a thread inside the little tip. That’s how they screwed it back on. The question is: when did it break? Did Gorringe break it when he moved it and then repair it and nobody knew? I looked at pictures of it from the 1880’s in Egypt. I think it was complete then.

Maybe during the shipping it broke and Gorringe fixed it and never said anything. And it was in generally bad shape when we got it. By bad shape I mean that two sides of the obelisk had been worn down, and that when we erected it, big pieces of granite started flaking off.

The reason was that we have cold winters in New York. Rainwater would go in through the cracks in the obelisk. Then it would freeze and expand and break off pieces of the obelisk, little flakes of the surface. There were barrels and barrels of this stuff that were being gathered and taken away. Then they figured they had to do something to protect the obelisk from New York’s winters. A very simple solution saved it. They waxed it. It kept the water out. It worked for decades. There’s a protective waxing on it. That’s what the Brits did in England as soon as they got it. Their obelisk didn’t have our problem because they waxed it sooner than ours. It’s had to have some conservation. It’s looking great now.

One of the aspects of the obelisk is that when the Egyptians raised them, nothing was holding them on the pedestal other than gravity. They are so perfectly crafted. They are simply balancing like a needle on its end on the pedestal. When Gorringe moved it he was afraid, and when the Romans moved it they were afraid that it wouldn’t rest just on its base. They created crabs, big bronze crabs, looking like a real crab that you eat in a restaurant. On all four corners they had these huge bronze crabs with posts going into the pedestal and into the obelisk to fix it in place.

Gorringe moved the obelisk by lifting it straight up, getting rid of the crabs, and then taking it over. When he brought it over, two of the crabs were missing. The other two were just in fragments. They were reconstructed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They made replica crabs. These are big. They weight 600 pounds each. When you go to Central Park, you can see the replica crabs which are now holding the obelisk in place on the base. If you want to see the original crabs, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re inside in the Egyptian Department, next to the Temple of Dendur.

OR: Our magazine, obviously, takes Octavian as its namesake — can you talk about his involvement with the traffic in obelisks?

Brier: Octavian is, of course, the first Roman emperor to rule Egypt. He defeats Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. I think part of the idea is that he is sort of asserting his will, his power, over Egypt. He is the one who starts to bring obelisks over to Rome as war trophies. That’s going to be a tradition that the other Roman emperors are going to follow. You’re going to get, for example, even the poster boy for evil Caligula bringing an obelisk over.

You get Octavian wanting an obelisk for his glory. He’s bringing over an Egyptian thing. Remember: before Cleopatra, Rome was not much. They didn’t build in stone. You’re talking about a mud-brick Rome. You’re not talking about the Colosseum yet. Caesar comes back and he’s seen Egypt. He is wowed. The Roman emperors all really want to be Egyptians. Even women, in Rome, in the time of Augustus, become infatuated with Egypt. You get the cult of Isis in Rome with women wearing little vials of Nile water around their necks thinking it’ll give them magical powers. Augustus defeats Antony and Cleopatra, but I think he’s really wowed by Egypt.

OR: How did they move obelisks in antiquity?

Brier: The Egyptians rarely wrote down how they did stuff. The only account we have of Egyptians quarrying and moving obelisks is on Cleopatra’s temple in Egypt called Deir al-Bahri.

On the walls she put three of the events that were most important to her life. One of them is quarrying two obelisks and transporting them to Luxor from Aswan. She shows the barge on which the obelisks are transported. (The surprise is you put both obelisks on one barge. I would have done them one at a time.) She shows this barge, this huge barge. Now, remember, the obelisks are about, let’s say, 85 feet long. You’ve got two of them end to end on a barge. They’re not side by side. They’re bottom to bottom with the tips pointing out. This barge is towed by 22 smaller boats with rowers.

They move them on water to the banks where they are going to drag them. Then they drag them on rollers. You’ve got guys with ropes schlepping. That’s basically it. There are rollers under the obelisk. They’re hauling this thing to its site. The real mystery is: how did they get it up on the pedestal? We don’t know for sure. They didn’t have winches and pulleys to raise things up like that to give them a mechanical advantage.

What we think they did is they got the pedestal in place and then they created an artificial hill going up above the pedestal. They then hauled the obelisk up the hill and got it down the hill and onto the pedestal and then got it upright with ropes, by pulling on ropes. It’s really quite a feat because these obelisks are really heavy. They’re balanced just perfectly. They just barely fit perfectly on the pedestal.