Needles from the Nile

BookNeedles from the Nile

Needles from the Nile

Obelisks and the Past as Property


May 1st, 2022



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In the hearts of London and New York stand their two oldest public monuments, Cleopatra’s Needles, the last of a series of obelisks from Ancient Egypt to be moved abroad during a period of over two thousand years. This book uses the Needles to examine how objects embody the cultures that create them, and how the use, value, and meaning of these objects change as they are transferred between cultures by gift, sale, barter, or theft. It explores the way in which obelisks functioned as imperial trophies, how their transfer was part of the complex political manoeuvring between European powers, America, the Ottoman Empire, and the semi-autonomous rulers of Egypt, and how their acquisition reflected the relative power of these parties. In contrast, it also examines the crucial role that private individuals and finance played in the acquisition and transport of the obelisks, and how popular understanding of them, and of the culture they came from, often differed from those of social and professional elites. It also relates the Needles to contemporary debates about the ownership of cultural artefacts, the legacy of colonial history, and the nature of reception as the process of understanding and valuing the past and its surviving material and immaterial culture.

'The author of this new study has explored a whole range of elements which make up the complex tapestry of the subject.’
Hilary Forest, Ancient Egypt

Author Information

Dr Chris Elliott is a Visiting Fellow, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton. He is the author of Egypt in England (English Heritage Publishing 2012) and a writer on Egypt and architectural history.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Abbreviations, Transliteration, and Prices11
1 Valuing the Past13
Objects and Understanding14
Needles from the Nile14
Materials and Culture16
2 The Needles in Egypt33
The Ancient World33
From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment46
Empires and Obelisks: The Needles in the Nineteenth Century71
3 Our Egyptian Obelisk141
England’s Obelisk142
The Nature of the Needle166
The Monolith as Metaphor183
Class, Culture, and Cleopatra191
4 From Antiquity to Icon217
The Corrosive Capital217
Stolen out of Egypt222
The Obelisk as Icon225
5 The New York Needle241
An Obelisk for Jonathan241
The New World Needle264
6 Property, Perception, and the Past281
Obelisks and Empires281
Works Cited293