Send Cleopatra’s obelisk back, Britain is told
▶ Egyptian archaeologist wants UK to restore treasure ‘hidden’ in London
One of Egypt’s most celebrated archaeologists is calling for London to return the Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk on the banks of the Thames if the city will not restore the monument.
Zawi Hawass, a former minister of state for antiquities, told
The National the 21-metre obelisk should be the centrepiece of a binational celebration next year to ensure the public is more aware of its history.
Cleopatra’s Needle is one of two obelisks given to the UK and US by the Khedive Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1819.
Its American twin is in New York’s Central Park but the London version stands in an unloved part of the Victoria embankment.
Next year will be the 200th anniversary of the Khedive’s gifts.
It was given to commemorate Lord Nelson and Sir Ralph Abercrombie’s victories over the French in the battles of the Nile and Alexandria during the Napoleonic Wars.
Although it was officially granted to the UK in 1819, it took another 59 years to start to transport the 224-tonne stone from Alexandria to the UK.
During the journey it was almost lost in a storm at sea but was eventually placed in its position in September 1878.
The obelisk was originally made for Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460BC.
It was restored in 2005 but since then, Dr Hawass says, it has been forgotten.
“I don’t believe, as an archaeologist, that any squares in Egypt or outside of Egypt should have pharaonic statues or obelisks, it’s bad,” he told The National.
“The location should be in a temple or museum, not in a square.
“But if it is in a square, it should be treated nicely. I went to see it yesterday and I was ashamed.”
Dr Hawass would also like the government to come up with a site management programme to allow the obelisk to be seen by the public and to celebrate the bicentenary.
“If they don’t care, they should return it,” he said.
But Dr Hawass considered returning the obelisk a last option because he believed the English people deserved to have it.
“The English, they care about the pharaohs, they care about ancient Egypt,” he said.
“I can see that from my lectures and the emails I receive. I am excavating now in the Valley of the Kings and I see many English tourists and I see the love in their hearts.”
Dr Hawass has not spoken to UK officials about the obelisk but says he is submitting a report on the issue to the Minister of Antiquities in Egypt, asking him to write to the London mayor’s office with his suggestions.
Yehia Segini, who is part of a group trying to preserve Alexandria’s colonial-era heritage, is another campaigning for a commemoration of the bicentenary of the gift.
Mr Segini is raising funds to build a replica of Cleopatra’s needle to be placed where the original once stood in Alexandria, and a celebration at both monuments to commemorate the gift.
“The common people need a more visible and tangible way by which they can start to think of the West as a friend rather than foe,” Dr Segini wrote in a letter to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, requesting his backing for the project in August.
“Symbolic acts may be more valuable now than ever.”
This is not the first time Dr Hawass has criticised the way Egyptian artefacts have been displayed in the UK.
When the British Museum displayed footballer Mo Salah’s boots alongside pharaonic artefacts, Dr Hawass said: “If the British Museum wanted to honour Salah, it should have built a museum for him or put the shoe in a special room”.
He said that the decision to place the boots next to the antiquities was “completely inappropriate”.
Next year will be the 200th anniversary of the gift by Khedive Muhammad Ali Pasha
From top, Egyptian archaeologist and former minister of antiquities Zawi Hawass near the Giza Pyramids last year; Cleopatra’s Needle is encased for its sea journey from Egypt to London in 1877; and the obelisk next to the river Thames in London