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Egypt Threatens to Reclaim Cleopatra's Needle from Central Park

Egypt Threatens to Reclaim Cleopatra's Needle from Central Park

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park on January 8, 2010.

ARTINFO

January 10, 2011

CAIRO— Zahi Hawass, the ubiquitous, media-savvy Egyptian antiquities director whose blockbuster King Tut exhibition just finished its United States tour over the weekend, cannot be accused of resting on his laurels. After having convinced the Metropolitan Museum of Art to return 19 small artifacts that he said were taken illegally from Egypt, he’s now turning his sights to bigger game in the museum’s backyard — Cleopatra’s Needle, the 3,500-year-old obelisk that resides next to the Met in Central Park, and which Hawass now accuses the Parks Department of failing to properly maintain.

Despite its moniker, the obelisk was not built under the famous Egyptian queen’s reign, but by her predecessor of a century and a half, Thutmose III, around 1450 B.C. Its provenance is not in question — the Egyptian Khedive (or viceroy) first suggested giving it as a gift to New York City in 1869 in honor of the completion of the Suez Canal and the resulting trade relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. The gift became official in 1877, after William Vanderbilt promised the tens of thousands of dollars necessary for transporting the obelisk, and it was erected near the newly-established museum in 1881. But Hawass claims that the city has allowed the monument’s hieroglyphics to deteriorate, LiveScience reported.

Cleopatra-needle_150_max200w

An illustration of the obelisk as it stood in Alexandria, Egypt.

“I have a duty to protect all Egyptian monuments whether they are inside or outside of Egypt,” the antiquities chief stated in a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the president of the Central Park Conservancy (it’s also posted on Hawass’s blog). “If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.” Hawass does not make any recommendations in his letter for better preservation of the ancient artifact.
Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities for the Parks Department, told local blog DNAinfo that in the 1980s a Met study found that the granite of the obelisk was “largely inert and that damage to its inscriptions on two sides, as well as the base of the monument, occurred at identifiable moments in the distant past, prior to the 20th century.” In a statement, Kuhn also stated that parks officials “have been working in recent years with the Metropolitan Museum and the Central Park Conservancy to further analyze the condition of the obelisk and monitor its condition. There is no evidence at this point of any significant ongoing erosion.”

An entry on Central Park in the U.S. Geological Survey, however, has a dramatically different assessment. “Photographs taken near the time the obelisk was erected in the park show that the inscriptions were still quite legible,” it states. “The stone had lain in the Egyptian desert for nearly 3,000 years but undergone little weathering. In a little more than a century in the climate of New York City, pollution and acid rain have heavily pitted its surfaces.”

Famous for turning antiquities issues into charged political stand-offs regarding Egyptian patrimony, Hawass has a wish list of artifacts that he would like to see repatriated to his country, including the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Meanwhile, although 11 officials have been sentenced to jail time for negligence, the theft of a Vincent van Gogh painting valued at over $50 million from Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum in August remains unsolved.



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