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Egypt or Central Park: Where Does an Ancient Obelisk Belong?

July 6, 2011



Is New York City's weather destroying a 3,500-year-old Egyptian obelisk?


That's a question the city's Department of Parks and Recreation is setting out to answer this summer as it conducts a "weathering study" of Cleopatra's Needle, which was given to the United States government by Egypt as a gift to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. The obelisk has stood in Central Park since 1881.


In January, the minister of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, wrote that the obelisk's stay in New York had worn away its hieroglyphs and that the city's acid rain was gradually destroying it. He threatened to "take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home."


But Egypt is not necessarily the safest place for precious artifacts these days. Not long after Dr. Hawass put New York City on notice, looters ransacked the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the upheaval that toppled the government. In any case, New York City's position so far has been that acid rain and other elements in New York are not having any measurable effect on the obelisk, which was built around 1500 B.C. to honor Pharaoh Thutmose III.


In the video above — shot in late winter — American researchers and academics set out the physical, legal and moral issues at play in the tussle over the obelisk, which has already endured an assault involving flaming camel dung, 500 years of lying on its side in saltwater, and a destructive 1885 scraping at the hands of New York City parks workers.


"What's at stake here is this moral issue, this question Who can take care of it better?" said Alexander Bauer, an anthropologist at Queens College who has studied the obelisk. "Who has the authority to own or control the cultural monuments of a country?"


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