The Story of the Egyptian Obelisk in New York

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The ancient Egyptian obelisk in New York was transferred to Central Park in 1880, directly from Egypt. The shortest step in the journey was from Manhattan to New York, where they had a speed of one block per day! If that was the easy part when the obelisk was already in the U.S., what had happened in Egypt and on the way to Manhattan?

The photo shows the obelisk and magnolia trees in Central Park, New York City.
The Egyptian obelisk in New York traveled all the way from Egypt and was successfully erected in Central Park on a freezing January day in 1881. (Image: John A. Anderson/Shutterstock)

Moving Egyptian obelisks to other countries became trendy in the 19th century. Rome, France, and Britain each had their Egyptian gifts. New York also wanted one, and they got one in 1880 when William Vanderbilt paid Gorringe to get the obelisk. The problem was not the money; the problem was getting the obelisk out of a bankrupt and chaotic Egypt.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Receiving the Obelisk

Gorringe was a naval lieutenant. When he arrived in a bankrupt Egypt in 1880, each part of the country was run by a foreign group. That part of Alexandria was owned by an Italian, who told Gorringe he could get the obelisk at a very high price. However, the Italian had been suing the government to get the obelisk off his land, so Gorringe had to handle many problems.

The bankrupt Egypt was being run by many foreign consortiums. The post office was run by the Italians. The antiquities service was run by the French, and the streets of Alexandria were owned by the merchants. The merchants told Gorringe that he could not take the obelisk through the streets as it would ruin their sewer system. They did not care for the sewer system and wanted a big bribe, which they never got.

Despite all these, Gorringe managed to get the obelisk and its 50-ton pedestal out of Alexandria. Before that, however, he had to take the obelisk down.

Lowering the Obelisk

The obelisks were usually not held by anything but their weight and gravity. Thus, it was extremely difficult to re-erect or lower one and get it ready for transport. It needed timber, and there was not enough timber available in Egypt to lower the obelisk. So, Gorringe decided to build a scaffold around it, which could not solve the problem yet.

The Romans had built four bronze crabs around the obelisk after they chopped it from the base to pin it to the ground. Gorringe had to remove the crabs, and he eventually used hydraulic jacks to lift the obelisk up and pivot it. When it got parallel to the ground, it began crashing through the timbers until they could stop it at the last moment.

When the obelisk was down, he floated it around to the port and started the long journey.

Learn more about The Rosetta Stone, and much more.

Sailing to New York from Egypt

As Egypt was bankrupt, Gorringe bought a postal steamer called the Dessoug rather easily and rather cheaply. He rolled the obelisk inside it on cannonballs and closed the hull to begin sailing to New York. He had no legal registration for the ship or the Yugoslav crew. Egyptians could not sail with him, and the original Yugoslav crew were alcoholics.

The journey was really rough, but he managed to get to the United States, where new problems awaited him.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought.

Pulling the Obelisk to Central Park, New York

Gorringe brought the obelisk to Staten Island and finally to the East River, the east side of Manhattan. However, he did not get the obelisk off the ship there as the owners of the port wanted an exorbitant fee. Instead, he went around Manhattan and unloaded the obelisk at 96th Street. The new problem was a railroad track that ran along the Hudson at that time.

Vanderbilt, who wanted the obelisk, owned the railroad, and Gorringe had no problem with permissions and fees. However, he had only two hours to get the obelisk across the tracks, which he did. Transporting it to Central Park was perhaps the slowest part of the journey with a speed of one city block per day.

Obelisk of Hatshepsut at dawn, Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt.
Erecting the obelisk on its 50-ton pedestal was not easier than transporting it from Egypt to New York. (Image: Crush OmaPhoto/Shutterstock)

They took a steam engine and anchor chain, attached it to the obelisk, and the steam engine winched the obelisk along. They even built railroad trestles so that the obelisk could move up and down the hills like a little train being winched along.

Erecting the Obelisk in Central Park, New York

On January 22, 1881, the obelisk was finally erected in Central Park. At around two in the morning, Gorringe went to the park to check if the system of erecting the obelisk was working. When the erecting began, 9,000 masons were present at the site.

The Egyptian obelisk in New York was successfully erected, and the bronze crabs were put back in the four corners to hold it in place. The obelisk is still there where it was first erected.

Common Questions about the Story of the Egyptian Obelisk in New York

Q: Is the obelisk in Central Park, New York real?

Yes. The obelisk in New York was originally built in Egypt, and then lifted and transported by Gorringe from Egypt to the United States.

Q: How was the obelisk in Central Park, New York transported?

The obelisk in New York’s Central Park was carried to the United States on huge boats and with steam engines from Egypt.

Q: In what year was the obelisk in New York erected?

On January 22, 1881, the obelisk in New York was erected in Central Park after the long and difficult journey from Egypt to the U.S.

Keep Reading
Ancient Egypt and the History of Pyramids
Issues in the Study of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths: Of Water and Gods