NEW YORK—As you make your way down the little path round the back of the Met Museum, past the playground, and into Central Park, one naked winter tree after another moves across your line of sight, their spindly branches and peeling beige bark blending into each other. The voices of screeching blue jays and screaming children chorus with the singing wind and you start to get lost in thought.
Then, when you emerge onto the main road running north–south through the park, an otherworldly sight appears, barely registering on your consciousness at first. If you weren’t staring out distractedly from the Metropolitan Museum’s west-facing galleries or jogging along Central Park’s East Drive, you might not even pick it out from the trees.
It’s a sand-colored obelisk several stories high, streaked with decades of rain and soot. Ancient hieroglyphs carved into its surfaces are still clearly visible on two of the four sides. Four bronze crabs, pincers menacing, emerge from the corners of its base. There’s a big crack through one face, and the writing looks smeared away on another, as if someone took a big butter knife to it.
King Thutmose III ordered the creation of this obelisk in the year 1450 B.C. The inscriptions tout his accomplishments and invoke the spirits of the gods. Later, Ramses II, who had a tendency to acquire monuments of his powerful predecessors, added his own inscriptions on either side of Thutmose’s.
Initially raised in the long-lost city of Heliopolis, the obelisk spent 500 years lying in mud and exposed to water. There it remained until 12 B.C., when the Romans unearthed it and its mate and shipped the pair to Alexandria. There they were erected by Augustus in front of the Caesareum built by Cleopatra to honor Julius Caesar. They probably got their rather poetic nickname, Cleopatra’s Needles, from the location of their second home.
The single obelisk came to be situated in Central Park when the khedive, or viceroy, of Egypt gifted it in exchange for economic investment in their country. London and Paris received similar gifts.
Transporting and erecting the 224-ton, 69-foot-9-inch-tall obelisk was no easy task.
“It took nineteen days just to cross the 86th Street transverse road, and it took another twenty days to move it from Fifth Avenue to its resting place on Greywacke Knoll due to a winter blizzard,” reads the city Parks & Recreation website. “All together, it took one hundred and twelve days from the time the obelisk touched upon the banks of the Hudson River until it reached this place.”
It went up on Jan. 22, 1881, to fanfare and a parade.
Before the Scaffolding Goes Up
The last time this ancient obelisk got a touchup was in 1885. A wax treatment was applied to protect its surface from the elements, according to Central Park Conservancy’s Director of Preservation Planning Marie Warsh.
Now, at approximately 3,500 years old, it’s getting another much-needed facelift.
“Before it arrived in 1881 it had never been exposed to a cold climate,” Warsh said. The granite’s pre-existing cracks, acquired during its time underground, were exacerbated by the freeze and thaw of New York winters.
The objective of the current conservation project is modest—there are no plans to recreate the hieroglyphs that were lost, or to return it to its original look—conservators simply want to preserve it for future generations. This will include cleaning the monument and stabilizing its surface against further erosion.
“We are still in the planning stages,” Warsh said. “We are testing products for preservative treatments. The project needs approval from the city, and then hopefully we’ll start in the spring.”
When that happens, the obelisk will be obscured by scaffolding for the duration of the project. The park and the museum hope that more visitors will see it while they still can.
Obelisks From Antiquity to Today
Met Museum Director Thomas Campbell wanted a small exhibit to celebrate the conservation project. The task of creating it fell to the curator in charge of the museum’s department of Egyptian art, Dr. Diana Craig Patch.
“The question was how to develop a show that would celebrate obelisks,” she said. “They are everywhere, and I began to ask why. In exploring this question, it led me to Rome, the Renaissance, Northern European paintings, and finally how the obelisk got to the U.S.”
The exhibit came together as an exploration of this simple but meaning-laden form.
It begins with wall reliefs depicting Thutmose III and Ramses II, the two rulers who left their marks on the obelisk.
A crab once part of the obelisk’s reinstallation in Alexandria is a highlight in the exhibit. It was the museum’s first significant ancient Egyptian object, according to Patch. Before it, the Met’s collection of ancient Egyptian art consisted of a few scarabs.
Moving into more recent times, the exhibit shows etchings of Rome’s town squares circa the mid- to late 1500s. Pope Sixtus V used obelisks to anchor these public places and, in the same stroke, took advantage of the ancient design to represent the papacy’s eternal power.
U.S. Navy engineer Lt. Cmdr. Henry Honeychurch Gorringe (1841–1885) was responsible for the Central Park obelisk’s safe passage and erection. He referenced the aforementioned Roman etchings to pull off the mammoth task. Visitors can see those etchings as well as photos of the Central Park obelisk’s journey.
Through several drawings and tapestries, the exhibit also touches upon the obelisk as a motif in Western art.
The obelisk itself came into Western use as memorials and a space-saving alternative to traditional headstones. The Washington Monument in the nation’s capital is a prime example of how little its design and intended use as memorials has changed.
Though small in size, the exhibit gives the viewer a mental framework from which to appreciate the curious monument to antiquity that stands in the museum’s backyard, and why, after so many years, it still retains its allure.
Dec. 3–June 8, 2014
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Suggested admission $12–$25