Obelisk Conservation

The Conservancy completed the most comprehensive conservation of the Egyptian Obelisk in its 3,500-year history, cleaning its surface with lasers and stabilizing it with adhesive products.

The Obelisk (Greek for “pointed instrument”) was created roughly 3,500 years ago in Egypt. Transported here in 1881, it now sits between the Great Lawn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is the oldest outdoor monument in New York City.

Stonecutters carved two obelisks out of granite at the quarries of Adwan and installed them outside of the Temple of the Sun in the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis to celebrate Pharaoh Thutmose III’s 30th year of reign. (The other obelisk stands on the bank of the Thames River in London.) Each one was formed from a single piece of quarried stone, to create a shaft that is 69 feet high and weighs approximately 200 tons. The obelisks rested on a granite base.

The obelisks were toppled, possibly during an invasion by Persians in 525 B.C.; for more than 500 years, they remained buried in sand until Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus discovered and transported them to Alexandria. They were erected in a temple built by Cleopatra to honor Julius Caesar, which may explain how they individually came to be known as “Cleopatra’s Needles.” The Romans added the limestone pedestal and bronze crabs still seen today.

A worker uses a laser to clean the Obelisk

The Obelisk during laser cleaning

In 1869, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, donated the Obelisk to the United States, to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. The Obelisk’s trip from Egypt to New York was a complex engineering feat. It took 112 days to move the Obelisk from the banks of the Hudson River to its home in Central Park. A huge crowd was on hand for the turning of the obelisk upright on January 22, 1881.

In 2014, the Conservancy undertook a comprehensive conservation of the monument, cleaning all of its 2,112-square-foot surface with lasers and stabilizing fragile areas with adhesive products. In addition, we enhanced the public’s understanding of the monument with related tours and programs.

The conservation project was developed by the Conservancy with assistance from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and NYC Parks. Planning for the project began in 2011 and included photographing and scanning the Obelisk to document its condition and conducting a comprehensive survey of the monument’s surface, the first in its history. Planning also included testing various methods of cleaning the Obelisk, which determined that lasers were the most sensitive to the stone and most environmentally friendly. Conservators believe that fragile areas discovered on the monument’s surface are the likely result of environmental stresses that occurred more than 1,000 years ago, as well as natural weathering.

Obelisk Before and After Restoration

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