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Cleopatra’s Needle, London. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=735816 

If you stroll along the Victoria Embankment between Victoria Embankment and Temple underground stations, you will see a large obelisk flanked by two sphinxes jutting out into the sky. Cleopatra’s Needle is a distinctive landmark in London and a popular tourist spot but few people take the time to understand its history and the supernatural stories which surround it.

The Obelisk of Thutmose III

Although the obelisk in London is associated with Cleopatra, in reality its only connection to the famous Egyptian is that she moved it to Alexandria in 12 BCE, her royal city and set it up in Caesareum – a temple built in honour of Mark Anthony[1]. The obelisk was in fact carved over 1000 years before Cleopatra came to power. Hewed out of red granite from the quarries of Aswan and dedicated to Pharaoh Thutmose III[2], the obelisk was erected in the city of Heliopolis in around 1450 BCE. Two hundred years later inscriptions on the side lines of the shaft were carved out in honour of Rameses the Great commemorating his military victories[3].

A Gift for Great Britain

Lieutenant-General Sir James Alexander, c1880.
By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In 1819, the Albanian Ottoman governor and ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali gave the obelisk as a gift to Great Britain. The obelisk was seen as a fitting monument to commemorate the British victories over Napoleon in the Battle of Nile (1798) and the Battle of Alexander (1801)[4]. Unfortunately, the cost of transporting the 224-ton obelisk proved too much and plans to bring it over to Great Britain were dropped. The subject was again unsuccessfully revisited in 1822 and 1832.

In 1867, Lieutenant-General Sir James Alexander read a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh outlining his ideas for bringing the obelisk to Britain[5]. In 1875, Alexander visited Egypt to assess its condition. On his trip he met with the civil engineer and Egyptology enthusiast Mr John Dixon who had already been researching the obelisk. At the end of 1876, Dixon and Alexander consulted with Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist, who agreed to contribute £10,000 to the endeavour. Dixon accepted full responsibility for any other expenses incurred as well as transportation logistics. With a firm plan and the permission of the then Khedive Ismael Pasha, Dixon set about drawing up blueprints for a ship strong enough to hold the obelisk[6].

The iron cylinder barge, Cleopatra. Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.

The Cleopatra

The ship, Cleopatra, built to transport the obelisk was ingenious in its design. The cigar-shaped iron cylinder (around 92 feet long by 16 feet wide) which encased the granite monolith was constructed around it, with the sheets of metal riveted together. A bridge was built to shelter the crew. Once the iron case was complete, it was towed to the dry-dock of the Egyptian Admiralty and converted into a ship. Here the internal ballast rails, stern and rudder were added[7].

A crew of eight Maltese sailors led by Captain Carter were hired to steer the Cleopatra whilst the Olga, a steam ship was engaged to act as a tow ship under the command of Captain Booth[8]. On 21 September 1877, the Cleopatra and the Olga left Egypt bound for Falmouth.

The Deadly Bay of Biscay

Initially the journey was uneventful but on the 14 October as the ship entered the Bay of Biscay, the weather took a turn for the worse. The violent storm whipped up the sea causing the iron rails to break loose. At 9.20pm the Cleopatra signalled to the Olga that they were in trouble and a small boat manned by six volunteers were sent over to assist them[9]. Tragically, the crew of the Cleopatra were unable to secure the ropes flung to them and the small boat drifted away, swallowed up by the rough water. Having not heard from the Cleopatra, Captain Booth was under the impression that she was safe. It was only when a few hours later he received a second distress signal asking for the Olga to pick them up, that he realised the seriousness of the situation. The Olga managed to pull up alongside the container ship, collect the crew and cut the tow-rope[10]. An attempt was made to find the six men but to no avail, the boat had disappeared. The names of the men who drowned were William Askin, Michael Burns, James Gardiner, William Donald, Joseph Benton and William Patan (their names are inscribed on the base of the Needle)[11]. Thinking the obelisk lost, the Olga returned to Falmouth.

Incredibly a few days later, the container ship was spotted still afloat proving Dixon’s faith in his design correct, “its buoyancy and sailing qualities have been shown to be of a high order by one of the severest tests to which a vessel, likely to encounter ocean storms can be exposed”. The Cleopatra was picked up by the English steamer ship, Fitzmaunce and brought into the port of Ferrol. After a short and tricky negotiation (the captain of the Fitzmaunce had placed a lien for salvage on the container[12]), the steam ship Anglia was sent to bring the monolith to Britain. On the 21 January 1878, the obelisk arrived at Gravesend (school children in Gravesend were given the day off to welcome the Cleopatra[13]). Even at this stage, the obelisk’s final home had not been decided. Many sites were suggested but in the end the decision was made by the two men who had paid for its journey, Sir Wilson and John Dixon[14]. In September 1878, the obelisk was at last installed to cheers from the crowds and the 68 feet (21 metres) monolith became Cleopatra’s Needle.

The Cleopatra hits storm weather in the Bay of Biscay.
Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.


Cleopatra’s Needle has developed a strange reputation. A reputation which probably stemmed from the idea that Egyptian objects are by their nature cursed and the tragic story of its journey to Britain.

The Suicidal Lady

For some unknown reason the site of Cleopatra’s Needle has become a popular suicide spot. On two separate occasions, a policeman was approached by a distressed woman urging him to come to the banks of the River Thames to prevent someone from jumping into the water. As the policeman reach the area of the needle, they see the same woman, who had just stopped them, leap into the river[15].

The Phantom Sailor

Unearthly laughter has been heard coming from the Needle at night. This eerie sound has been linked to the ghost of a naked man who has been witnessed on a number of occasions, running from out behind the obelisk and throwing himself into the River without making a splash[16]. The first sighting of this apparition occurred a few weeks after the installation of the obelisk leading many people to believe it was in fact the ghost of one of the sailors who died in the Bay of Biscay.

An Egyptian Curse

Aleister Crowley. Unknown author, Public domain, via
Wikimedia Commons 

As with many Egyptian artifacts some believe the obelisk is cursed and that the soul of Rameses II has been imprisoned inside the granite.

There is a very odd tale relating to the obelisk and Egypt which may or may not have any basis in truth and which is closer to a horror than ghost story. In 1880, a Miss Davies, aged 27 from Pimlico, was wandering along the Embankment when she felt herself being unwillingly pulled towards the site of the Needle. As she got closer to the obelisk, she heard unearthly laughter and losing control of her legs she flung herself into the water. Luckily for her, she was saved by a vagrant. She was taken to hospital to recover. Although physically healed, she experienced terrifying nightmares in which a tall woman with a white face and black almond eyes wearing red robes appeared. As the woman opened its mouth, she revealed sharp pointed teeth and the flesh from her face is ripped off[17]. Miss Davies believed her ordeal to be caused by the obelisk. The description of the woman’s appearance conjures up the image of an Egyptian priestess or member of the Egyptian nobility.

The Crowley Connection

Another unsubstantiated story regards the occultist Aleister Crowley. It is said that Crowley performed dark sorcery one dark night at the base of the obelisk in order to release Rameses’ trapped spirit. The ceremony involved the feeding of animal blood to a human skeleton. Crowley was unsuccess and It is said that Rameses mockingly laughed at Cowley’s failure[18].

The Ill-fated Needle

Many believe that the curse of the obelisk lead to it being bombed in an air-raid during the First World War. At midnight on Tuesday, 14 September 1917, the obelisk was hit disfiguring the pedestal[19]. After the war ended, it was decided not to repair the bomb damage – the scars having become part of its history and its cursed legend.

A Haunting Time Capsule?

When the obelisk was erected, a time capsule was inserted into the pedestal. This capsule contains many objects including 12 photographs of the best looking women of the day,  box of hairpins, a box of cigars, tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, toys, a shilling razor, samples of cables used in the erection of the obelisk, a portrait or Queen Victoria, a written history of the transportation of the obelisk and a map of London[20].

Could the time capsule contain objects which are themselves haunted? Is that what is responsible for the ghostly stories associated with the obelisk?

The Guardian Sphinxes

Lastly, there are the sphinxes. The sphinxes (as well as the pedestal) were sculptured by the English architect, George John Vulliamy[21]. As with the pedestal, the sphinxes were damaged by the same bomb. It has long been said that the sphinxes were accidentally placed the wrong way round. Logically, they should have been facing outwards, symbolising protection for the obelisk, but maybe the sphinxes were positioned correctly. Maybe their role was not to stop harm from coming to the obelisk but rather to prevent anything from getting out!

Inward facing sphinx, showing shell damage from World War I. This file is licensed under the 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Subject to disclaimers

Final Word

The history of Cleopatra’s Needle is a fascinating and sad one and the obelisk itself is very beautiful. Personally, I highly doubt that there is any Egyptian curse on it. Egyptian curses became fashionable after the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun and are now a mainstay of films and books but it is a mystery as to why the site has become a magnet for those with a desire to commit suicide. Does the obelisk have some sort of power or magnetic pull? I have visited it on numerous occasions at all times of the day and night and have never felt any particular draw to it but if you are brave enough there is a legend that if you want a particular question answered you should look at the pyramidon at the top and say the words “I call spirits from the vasty deep”[22]. Maybe you will receive an answer from the spirit of the obelisk!

Cleopatra’s Needle from across the Thames. Lenora 2022

Bibliography and Further Reading

Brier, Bob (Dr), Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021

Sir Erasmus Wilson, Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes on Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks, London: Brain & Co, 1877


[1] THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: Cleopatra’s needle arrives in London from Egypt From the News Letter, January 24, 1878, https://www.newsletter.co.uk/heritage-and-retro/retro/through-archives-cleopatras-needle-arrives-london-egypt-3103696

[2] Cleopatra’s Needle: The Story Behind Three Awe-Inspiring Obelisks, https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/cleopatra-s-needle-story-behind-obelisks-007051

[3] Sir Erasmus Wilson, Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes on Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks

[4] Cleopatra’s Needle: The Story Behind Three Awe-Inspiring Obelisks

[5] Cleopatra’s Needle: With Brief Notes on Egypt and Egyptian Obelisks

[6] Ibid

[7] Cleopatra (cylinder ship), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra_(cylinder_ship)

[8] William Penman Lyon, Cleopatra’s needle, London: The Book Society, https://books.google.co.il/books?id=RoYDAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA5&dq=cleopatra%27s+needle&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjt77DGuLnvAhUIrRQKHdICBYoQ6AEwA3oECAAQAg#v=onepage&q=london&f=false

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Cleopatra’s Needle, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Cleopatras-Needle/

[12] William Penman Lyon, Cleopatra’s needle

[13] THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: Cleopatra’s needle arrives in London from Egypt

From the News Letter

[14] Dr Bob Brier, Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt

[15] Cleopatra’s Needle and Haunted Victoria Embankment in London, http://hauntedearthghostvideos.blogspot.com/2012/05/cleopatras-needle-and-haunted-victoria.html

[16] Cleopatra’s Needle, https://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/hauntings/cleopatras-needle/

[17] Cleopatra’s Needle Exorcism, https://www.wattpad.com/331285523-voodoo-creepypasta-1-cleopatra%27s-needle-exorcism

[18] Cleopatra’s Needle, https://topicaltens.blogspot.com/2014/09/12th-september-cleopatras-needle.html

[19] Cleopatra’s Needle, London, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra’s_Needle,_London

[20] Cleopatra’s Needle and Haunted Victoria Embankment in London

[21] George John Vulliamy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_John_Vulliamy

[22] The London Obelisk: Cleopatra’s Ghosts, https://glennashton.blogspot.com/2010/12/the-london-obelisk-cleopatra-ghosts.html