Among the huge variety of Egypt’s ancient monuments one type was to gain a particularly lasting impression: the obelisk. Despite their enormous size and weight, and in obvious contrast to the pyramids, obelisks were moveable and tempted later rulers and wealthy men to own them. It is no surprise that the dangerous journeys of Egypt’s obelisks from their original positions in front of temple pylons along the Nile to their final resting places on squares and river banks in the Western World have been described in many books. With Cleopatra’s Needles. The Lost Obelisks of Egypt in the Bloomsbury Egyptology series, the Egyptologist Bob Brier continues this tradition. Beyond the two obelisks cited in the book’s title (Cleopatra’s needles, now in London and New York) many other obelisks are discussed in Brier’s vivid writing style.
The author starts with a short introduction to Egyptian chronology, before providing some background information on Pharaonic quarrying methods in general and those for obelisks in particular.
In the following five chapters (2-6) Brier discusses the fate of many obelisks that were removed from Egypt from Roman times until the 19th century AD. Rome (Ch. 2), possesses more standing obelisks than any other place worldwide including Egypt, their former home. Brier cursorily describes these and the famous Istanbul obelisk in this chapter, ignoring the largest of all, the Lateran obelisk. By contrast, he devotes an entire chapter (Ch. 3) to the Vatican obelisk to demonstrate the engineering achievements of the Renaissance, by explaining how this monument was moved and re-erected by Domenico Fontana within Rome.
In chapters 4-6 the reader learns a great deal about the long and dangerous journeys of obelisks erected in Paris (1836), London (1878) and New York (1881). Brier’s lively descriptions cover political and financial situations as well as stunning technological inventions, but also the risk of transporting the heavy obelisks by ship, which cost the lives of six crew members in the case of the London obelisk.
The last chapter “Postscript on the Obelisks” deals foremost with the author’s recent investigation of the New York obelisk’s damaged and repaired tip and the question whether it was broken before Gorringe moved it out of Alexandria. Comparing old photographs Brier argues that the tip was damaged when the obelisk was still standing in Alexandria and was already repaired when it was erected in New York. He favours the idea that it was Gorringe who completed it in Alexandria before the obelisk travelled to New York. The author tries to connect the presence of eight bolt-holes towards the bottom of the pyramidion’s four sides with a possible cladding executed during Gorringe’s restoration, but this reviewer doubts it. Such bolt-holes are regularly attested on obelisks and derive from their original gold or electrum coating.
The book closes with a short bibliography and a very useful index. It is illustrated with many black and white figures of differing quality. Whereas most of the old drawings, engravings and photographs are fine, the more recent photographs show little contrast and/or low resolution (e.g. figs. 2.7 and 7.3).
Some final remarks: Bob Brier brilliantly draws the reader’s attention to the adventurous stories of these obelisks in times when the Western World was caught up in obelisk mania. For readers interested in the history of science, this book will be highly welcome. It might be less attractive to those expecting in-depth information on the obelisks’ original purpose, as monolithic cult pillars devoted to the sun-god Re.