Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt

Written by Bob Brier
Review by Ann Pedtke

Between 1831 and 1881, Paris, London, and New York raced to acquire ancient Egyptian obelisks as symbols of their standing as cultured global cities. Egyptologist Bob Brier relates how each of these obelisks was obtained and transported to its destination, using creative feats of engineering sometimes verging on the insane.

Cleopatra’s Needles contains many fascinating details, but also many flaws. Brier gets his topic off to a slow start, introducing the derring-do of Victorian obelisk movers only after tedious exposition chapters on ancient engineering. Brier peppers his narrative with amateurish quips (“You tell the pharaoh.” “No, you tell the pharaoh”). And perhaps most critically, he never fully engages with the implications of foreign powers carting away ancient Egyptian artifacts. “The political and social climate has changed,” Brier states in his Postscript; “Egypt is now much more protective of her heritage” – seeming to suggest that the archaeological pillaging of the Victorian era can simply be attributed to the naiveté of developing countries. As Brier says of the hundreds of workers striving in dangerous conditions to bring an obelisk to Paris for the glorification of Napoleon: “It was a huge task, but everyone was happy to be working on something so important.”