The oldest man-made structure in Central Park might be older than you realize. It’s actually an ancient Egyptian obelisk from around 1500 BC. Located behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 81st Street, the obelisk has been drawing visitors to the east side of Central Park since it was first erected there in 1881. A thank-you gift from an Egyptian official in exchange for U.S. aid, it took months to transport the obelisk from the Hudson River to its Central Park location — including 19 days just to cross the park via the 86th Street transverse road!
The obelisk is known in NYC as “Cleopatra’s Needle,” though the artifact has nothing to do with the Queen of the Nile. It was actually commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmosis III in celebration of his 30th jubilee in 1449 BC. One of a pair of obelisks (the other now overlooks the Thames River in London), the red granite artifacts once stood on either side of the portals to the Temple of the Sun in the sacred city of Heliopolis on the Nile River.
Today the obelisk stands 71 feet high over Central Park, and weighs more than 200 tons. It’s also inscribed with hieroglyphics, which are greatly weathered after more than a century in New York City (Recently, Egypt threatened to take the obelisk back if it wasn’t better cared for, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see it eventually move into the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, which already has a sizable Egyptian collection, including the impressive Temple of Dendur).
The base of each corner is supported by huge, 900-pound bronze replicas of sea crabs that were originally crafted by the Romans while the obelisk was in Alexandria. To see the original crabs, cross the grassy knoll to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they are on display in the Sackler Wing.
Buried beneath the obelisk is a time capsule that contains, among other things, an 1870 U.S. census, a copy of the Bible, Webster’s Dictionary, the complete works of Shakespeare, a guide to Egypt and a replica of the Declaration of Independence.
So what would you add to the time capsule today?