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Jan 22nd in New York City History - "Cleopatra's Needle" slakes our thirst for an obelisk

Posted: Jan 22, 2013 | 3:13 PM
by Jared Goldstein

1673:  Mail service begins in America with delivery from New York to Boston along the Boston Post Road.

1881:  "Cleopatra's Needle" erected in Central Park.  The 200 ton, 35 century old monument actually has no historical connection to Cleopatra.

"It would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian Obelisk!  ...We could never rise to any real moral grandeur until we had our own obelisk!" 
The New York Herald

At the bottom of today's diaries is a piece about this obelisk's history in Egypt, the impacts of various civilizations and the vicissitudes of epochs wreaked upon it, as well as its glorious, or ignominious, erection here in an obscure part of New York City's Central Park.*

1909:  U Thant, the UN's third Secretary General, born in Burma.  He died 11/25/1974.

1922:  Telly Savalas, who portrayed the tough NYC cop Kojak, born

It seems that there is not a Greek diner in NYC that doesn't have an autographed portrait of him.

1922:  Howard Moss, the poet and editor of The New Yorker, born.  He died in 1987.

1941:  Pioneering television news reporter Ed Bradley born.  He died at 65.

1953:  Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. 

Perhaps with anti-communist McCartheyist anti-media 'witch hunts' afoot, the topic was unnerving for newspaper reviewers to face.

We visit his old neighborhood on Brooklyn Heights tours as well as Brooklyn Heights literary tours.

1953:  Happy Birthday to Director Jim Jarmusch.

1957:  "The Mad Bomber" arrested
in Connecticut after a six-year manhunt. 
George Metesky, the former Con Ed worker, planted dozens of homemade bombs in public places, injuring fifteen in 22 explosions that terrorized the city.  His motive was retaliation for a workplace injury.

1965:  Actress Diane Lane born in NYC.

1970:  The Boeing 747 went on its first regularly scheduled commercial flight, from New York to London.

2008:  Actor Heath Ledger died in his NYC loft after overdosing on normal doses of prescription and over-the-counter medications to address painful backache and persistent flu symptoms.  The combination led to liver failure.

We can go by his home on Little Italy tours and SoHo tours

* "CLEOPATRA'S NEEDLE" and how it got to Central Park (in a quiet clearing on a knoll behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The following piece was adapted by me from one written by  Paul Rush, a respected NYC tour guide for the Partners in Preservation Program, which raised money to preserve this wonderful monument.  The piece was abridged for brevity and it loses the drama and beauty of his writing.  If there are errors, they are mine.  Here is my digest:

'What is now a felicitous Central Park surprise was once a matter of international significance tracing back 3500 years to the reign of Egypt's Pharaoh Thutmose III's jubilee at the Temple of the Sun. 

900 years later it was toppled by the Persians.

500 years later, Augustus Caesar had the pair obelisks relocated to Alexandria from Heliopolis to celebrate Caesar's deification, much as they had for the Pharaoh.  There they stood for 1300 years when one tumbled due to an earthquake amidst the ruin of Caesar's temple, which had crumbled years prior. 

Nearly 600 years later the US Navy's Lt Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe was inspired by the standing obelisk.  The fallen one was removed to London.  In 1876 an Egyptian leader proposed gifting the obelisk to the US. 

By 1879 the New York (and therefore the nation's) press had obelisk fever.  The New York Herald stated:

"It would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian Obelisk!  Why, London, Paris, and Rome could point the finger of scorn at us and intimate that we could never rise to any real moral grandeur until we had our own obelisk!" 

That year Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt gave it to the City of New York. 

Now comes the challenge: moving a stone rock weighing 200 tons with a height of 69 feet and width of 8 ft, then erecting it.  It took the Roebling Factory [related to the Brooklyn Bridge project] to engineer the apparatus. 

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, protests decried the loss of the obelisk, but gold donated by the Vanderbilts to the protest leaders proved mollifying, and the stone was draped in an American flag as it boarded its steamer.

Gorringe's mission was nearly sunk by the weather. 

After arrival, it took months for this two hundred ton, yet delicate, monument to make its way across half of Manhattan using a custom-built railway.

On an icy day, the obelisk was erected amidst hushed silence.  As it rested in place the crowd roared. 

Gorringe died at 44 of an accidental fall.  His tomb is marked by an obelisk.'

Here is a link to Paul Rush's actual and beautifully written and well-researched piece.

Tangent:  as of this blog 1/23/13, the Statue of Liberty's island, and Ellis Island remain closed due to the Super Storm Sandy on 10/29/12.  The Statue and the Immigration Monument are undamaged but the landings require about $60 million in repairs.  There are no plans to fix this, so the islands remain closed.


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