Cleopatra's Needle, a link to the ancient builders?

Cleopatra’s Needle, a lone, little known and ancient artifact that lurks in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, stands on an unassuming hill named “Greywacke Knoll.” While solitary in its current existence, it is really one of a pair... and one of three artifacts that collectively are called “Cleopatra’s Needles.”

As a young boy, I was quite taken with everything to do with King Tut, pyramids, mummies, and archaeology. A combination of idolizing my cinematic hero: Indiana Jones, and the relatively recent excitement surrounding the King Tut exhibit of 1979 lit a fire in my young mind. My father, a lifetime New Yorker, told me that there was a real, ancient piece of Egypt right in Central Park!

The Obelisk loomed in stark contrast to the sky, dirty and stained with acid rain, like much of New York in those days. But, that didn’t stop me from spending many hours, on many days running around the Obelisk, playing explorer, or King Tut, or even “mummies.” I’d recant my adventures with the Obelisk to my elementary school classmates back in Brooklyn, to shouts of “nah-uh”, “that’s not real,” and general disbelief of its very existence. To this day this incredible artifact and its significance is unknown to many New York residents. What’s more, is its relatively unknown adventure from Egypt to New York, and even more concealed significance to Masonry, hidden in its innermost recesses.

Cleopatra’s Needle is an ancient Egyptian Obelisk, one of two that originally flanked the temple of “On” at Heliopolis, where Moses was educated and became a High Priest. Built in 1475 BC by Pharaoh Thutmose III. The Obelisks were eventually moved during the reign of Augustus, in 12 BC to Alexandria. They were stationed at the Caesarium, a temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Mark Antony, and eventually toppled where they lie for nearly 2 millennia.

One day, while walking in New York, I randomly decided to not only visit my old friend the Needle, but also to spend a little time in the Egyptian Wing of the Met. At the time, I had only recently begun my Masonic journey, and was a recently made Fellowcraft. In a moment of extreme serendipity, there happened to be a series of presentations that day, and on that day only about Cleopatra’s Needle! I sat in the auditorium and listened to several presentations about my childhood fascination. One of which, to my extreme surprise, focused on Freemasonry and its incredible importance and impact on retrieving the artifact. As a child, I could not have known the incredible mysterious history and its relationship to my Fraternity. The odds of being in that place, at that time, on that topic were infinitesimally small. Thus began a lifelong obsession to research this incredible monument of antiquity.

In 1801, the Khedive of Egypt gifted the pair of Obelisks to both the United States and England as a sign of friendship and peace. The Obelisks stayed in Egypt for another 76 years, eroding, half buried in sand and garbage until 1877. Spurned by England’s retrieval of its half of the gift,  William H. Vanderbilt: philanthropist, tycoon and Freemason offered $100,000 to anyone that could successfully retrieve the remaining Obelisk and bring it a place of his choosing in New York City.

Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, a Lieutenant Commander of the US Navy, and also a Mason, rose to to the challenge, assembling a team of engineers, sailors and Egyptologists to retrieve the Needle (the majority of which were Masons.)

The saga of Gorringe’s epic journey from New York to Egypt (and back again) is one worthy of its own article, and is beset with trials and tribulations over rough and rugged roads, on stormy oceans, and among angry ruffians. His adventures and triumphs of engineering are the tales that inspire Hollywood franchises.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the most mysterious and somewhat controversial aspects of his journey, and how the Needle became an incredibly important part of Masonic history. Upon arrival at the site, Gorringe and his team began to excavate the Needle and made what seemed an incredible discovery. Surrounding the base of the steps of the Needle were fragments of a black and white mosaic pavement. This excited the team’s suspicion, and despite the plan to retrieve the Obelisk alone, they decided to unearth the entire pedestal.

Most of the steps of the pedestal were of grey limestone, with four exceptions. Three pieces of Syenite (granite) from the same quarry as the needle, in Aswan, Egypt, and the fourth of pure white marble. Of the three Syenite pieces, one is a perfectly polished cube. Another is hewn in the shape of a builder’s square, and the third is a rough hewn stone. However the grooves found on this stone seem intentional, and an odd choice for a pedestal foundation. The perfectly polished cube was found in the north east corner of the pedestal. Those with familiarity of our traditions as Masons are probably as intrigued? by this discovery as Gorringe and his team were nearly 150 years ago. Another brick, made of limestone was found to house a trowel, and a lead plummet (plumb) firmly cemented into the stone.

Gorringe's cross section sketch, additional annotations added

Gorringe's cross section sketch, additional annotations added

Among other oddities found placed in the foundation were clean pieces of limestone, each with markings: a chevron styled “Mason’s Mark”, a curved line that might represent a snake, three parallel lines, and a carving of one fourth of an arc of a circle. The foundation was removed in pieces, and cataloged in shape, size, placement and number so it could be dutifully reassembled.

Birdseye sketch by Gorringe, showing placement of plumb and trowel.

Birdseye sketch by Gorringe, showing placement of plumb and trowel.

The striking similarity between the forms and actual and relative positions of the pieces… and the emblems of Freemasonry, led to the appointment of a committee of Freemasons by the Grand Lodge of Egypt, to examine them; and after discussion and deliberation, the following conclusions were announced: The polished cube found in the east corresponds with the perfect Ashlar, the polished square, with the builder's square, the rough block found in the west corner the rough ashlar. The stone with the snakes, emblematic of wisdom,  the axis stone the trestle board and the marked chevron the Masters Mark. The polished white cube an emblem of purity and the eighteen pieces forming the lower step designate the word of the 18th degree.” - H. H. Gorringe

Due to the unprecedented nature of Gorringe’s discovery, and the “authentication” by the Grand Lodge of Egypt of the symbols that were apparently contained in the base of the Obelisk, the decision was made to not only retrieve the sixty nine foot, two hundred and forty ton spire, but also an additional fifty tons of stone that comprised the base and pedestal of the Needle. This lead to incredible challenges of engineering to transport the materials by steamship to New York. Without Gorringe’s incredible skill in engineering, it was unlikely they would have been successful.

Upon arrival to New York City, the needle was slowly moved through the streets of new york, on wheels, on specially constructed trestles and even on a custom built steam engine that was built for its transport. It was a spectacle for all to behold, making progress of nearly one city block per day. Having initially arrived in 1880, it took 112 days to finally arrive at its resting place on Greywacke Knoll, behind the recently built Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Egyptomania was at its peak in 1880, and the Needle was the biggest story in a city built on stories. The general public was enthralled about its arrival, but of course, none so much as the Freemasons of New York. On the day of the cornerstone laying of the Obelisk, some ten thousand Freemasons in full regalia, paraded down fifth avenue to 86th street, where Jesse B. Anthony, Grand Master of New york presided over the ceremony. In attendance were nearly 50,000 people who listened the hour long oration by the then Grand Master. After which, a battery of three times three was given by the entirety of ten thousand Masons in attendance. It’s hard to imagine the sight and sound of so many of our brethren saluting in unity.

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Cornerstone Laying

In the former ages of the world, not having the art of printing, they wrought their lessons in the shape of the monuments of stone. We cannot ignore the fact that the peculiarities of those ancient monuments, in the shape of the stone, the peculiar position, or the mystical inscriptions to be found thereon, were for a wise purpose. … They were intended to tell their story at a future day. Such a fact demonstrates that the lessons of the stone monuments erected in the land of Egypt, by inspiration undoubtedly from the Supreme Ruler, cannot be ignored. They left the traces of their work behind them, and in the temples, pyramids, monuments, and other results of their labor do we find the distinctive marks of the craft. … We find delineated there certain emblems which are to be found in common use among the operative craftsmen of the Middle Ages, and it is an evidence that these marks are definitive mementoes of a systematic labor. They are suggestive of a connection which may have existed by regular sequence between the Eastern and Western builders.”

In fine, we must ourselves debate these “discoveries,” and question their veracity. Are the artifacts found by Gorringe in fact a link from the ancient builders of Egypt to our society of Freemasonry? Or are they a collection of random objects upon which we have applied our own lens of symbolism to for our own benefit? Does it in fact point to Egyptian builders? Or was the base and pedestal added at a later date, perhaps by Roman Collegia after transport from Heliopolis to Alexandria? Is there more likelihood of a connection to the Romans than we’d prefer to admit with regard to our Mysteries? These are topics that perhaps can be debated in another installment on this topic.

What does seem to be conclusive, is that there is some likelihood that builders… whether Egyptian or Roman, did in fact place value in the tools and implements of architecture to impart wise and serious truths through the succession of the ages, to commemorate the significance of their efforts. Whether the Obelisks of Egypt, the Caesarium of Alexandria or the magnificent spires of the middle ages, building of great monuments has always been a physical, and spiritual endeavor.

The next time you are walking in Central park, take the seemingly circuitous path to the little hill called “Greywacke Knoll,” and enjoy the sublime history, and mystery of one of the oldest artifacts known in North America.



-H.H. Gorringe to William Vanderbilt