Every time I walk through Central Park I find something I had no idea was there. Two days ago it was Cleopatra’s Needle.
Rounding a corner just past Turtle Pond on the tail end of my jog, I noticed to my right an enormous stone obelisk. Hm, I thought. Obelisks have always seemed to me an odd sort of monument—more or less a tall, pointy rock—and I find them especially odd, if prevalent, in the West. Obelisks were initially monuments to the Egyptian sun god Ra. If art history taught me anything, it taught me that obelisks are Egyptian, until they’re something else.
Take, for example, the obelisk in Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican—moved out of Egypt to various cities by various Romans, the last of whom was Pope Sixtus V, in 1586. Nearly a century later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the Piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica with the obelisk as its centerpiece. Four bronze lions were added to the base, as well as a few requisite festoons, and a cross was placed on top, containing a fragment of the True Cross. Top to bottom, what began as a wholly pagan monument has been cloaked in Christianity. Voilà! Instant Relic.
Consider also the Washington Monument, which happens to be the world’s tallest obelisk. (We win again!) At the very least it’s indigenous, rather than carted off whole from a sandy nation. Even so, the obelisk’s origins as a monument dedicated to (and by some religious accounts containing) the Egyptian sun god, Ra, lend it a troubling transitive significance, in a Christian nation (sigh), with respect to the president found on our dollar mills. The one god Wa, as it were.
In the park, what stopped me running wasn’t the incongruous obelisk, but rather the four pairs of green metal crab claws I noticed protruding from its base. It was incredibly bizarre. I was reminded of the tortoise columns of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. What are those crabs doing stuck in there? Did they get squished? Is this a Wicked Witch sort of situation?
The bronze plaque at the base of the monument offered no answers, to my panting disappointment. It read “CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE” and made no mention at all of the crabs, of their purpose, their origin, or their unfortunate squishing. It contained a rather editorialized provenance of the obelisk, from the its birth at Heliopolis, Egypt in 1600 BC to its removal to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC, to its being “presented” by the Khedive of Egypt to the City of New York, eventually erected at its current site in 1881, “through the generous gift of William H. Vanderbilt.”
I’m thinking of hosting a “through the generous gift of _______ Vanderbilt” bronze plaque scavenger hunt across the city. It’s in development.
The teensy plaza surrounding the obelisk surrendered no further clues to the crabs’ plight. I looked across East Drive at the back of the Met. Someone on a nearby bench was eating a Subway sandwich. My research on the crabs, such as it was, took some creative googling—“Central Park crabs” yielding little useful and nothing pleasant.
I did learn that obelisks were originally erected in pairs, at the entrances of temples. There are in the West three obelisks known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” (a complete historical misnomer, by the way, since Cleopatra wasn’t born until 69 BC) located in Paris, London, and New York. The latter two are a pair, from Heliopolis, and the companion to what now stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris remains in Luxor. Only New York’s has crabs.
(To that end, with all due snickering, the phallic implications of this monumental motif do not escape me. I shan’t elaborate, suffice to include the following image, of our very own Washington Monument.)
Cleo’s crabs were given her by the Romans in the first century BC, upon the obelisk’s transportation to Alexandria. It seems the bottom corners had worn a bit after a millennium and a half or so of standing in the desert. The crabs are solid bronze, the Internet informed me, and weigh 900 pounds each—this from CentralPark.com. They should know, I suppose. Two of the crabs are replicas of the originals, which are in the collection of the Met. The obelisk itself weighs 244 tons, and if New York ever sinks it will be due in no small part to the nigh 500,000 pounds of Bronze-Age building materials exerting themselves on thirty-six square feet of Park.
I thought back to the guy with the sandwich. He seemed unimpressed by the granite history before him, by the chisels and symbology of its genesis, and the nineteenth-century industry of American royalty of which its current location is an object, or perhaps a byproduct. I could hardly fathom the millennia that stretched between the hieroglyphs on Cleopatra’s Needle and the swoosh on my Nikes.
I turned to leave, overwhelmed. I set out at a light jog, cursing myself with every ice cream cart I passed that I hadn’t tucked three dollars into my sock for a toasted almond éclair. (Worse fates have befallen dollar bills, you must admit.) I looked back over my shoulder at Cleopatra’s Needle, rising stoically from its pedestal. Beyond it, past the trees, I could see the tippy-tops of more modern marvels, standing as still against the afternoon sky.