Cleopatra’s Needle: Imperial Artefact17 minute read

Cleopatra’s Needle stands on the north bank of the Thames, set amongst some of the most famous landmarks in the London skyline, and opposite the epicentre of British culture that is the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre. A monument that predates London itself (The Times, 1978), it was shipped from Egypt, where the ancient obelisk was originally made, to the capital in the 1870s by imperial ‘vandals’ (E.A.P., 1924). It now sits at the Adelphi steps along the Embankment as a place where tourists and residents can come and view the spectacle of London. The Needle is a significant imperial artefact, and should be discussed as such, because it represents Western political and cultural dominance, something that is as relevant now as it was when the obelisk was erected in a city that was considered the heart of the British Empire. Gifted by the Egyptians to thank the UK for Nelson’s triumph in a battle along the Nile in the early 1800s, it was brought to London sixty years later when it was finally decided that the capital ‘needed’ (Evans, 2005) an obelisk to help cement its’ status as a politically and economically significant world city. Now, at a time when the government is looking to increase its’ soft power through the expansion of the World Service to areas such as North Korea, while the Queen remains the figurehead of the Commonwealth, and the military is involved in bombing campaigns abroad, contemporary politics is still, to some extent, interested in Britain’s imperial past and the obelisk remains in place. Although the meaning is contested, this essay considers contemporary politics to refer to a globalised London post-1980. Culture, however, seems far harder to define because humans interpret it in a multitude of ways, and as a concept it has no ontology (Mitchell, 2000). While considered ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams 1983 cited in Oakes & Price 2008:15), this essay defines cultural implications as the political influences, cultural effects, and products, for society, or an individual, following an interaction, whether active or passive, with, in this instance, Cleopatra’s Needle.

Focusing specifically on how politics influences culture, this essay will prove that the examination of Cleopatra’s Needle highlights how the contemporary politics of London, as it moves from an imperial context to a globalised one, influences the culture of the individual, and of the wider society. In doing so, this will support critiques from the likes of Gilbert and Driver (1998, p.13) who argue that in an urban context we should no longer think of ‘empire as a process of diffusion, extension, or expansion; imperialism is instead…shaping the identity of the colonisers as much as the colonised’. This is a direct challenge to the likes of Gupta and Ferguson (1992, p.19) who argue that the “public sphere” is ‘therefore hardly “public” with respect to control over the representations that are circulated in it’. Firstly, this essay will situate the argument and explain why it is important to examine the cultural implications in contemporary politics. The next three key paragraphs will then examine each cultural implication in detail: firstly, the transmission of the ideals of power by placing the obelisk in the public sphere, secondly, the implications for putting it in a central London location and maximising its’ utility as a usable space to engage with, and finally, the question of whether embedding an object from another culture makes us more enlightened, or more arrogant, as a result of being exposed to it. The essay will conclude by making a progressive case for how we should view the obelisk today.

Raising the Obelisk, 1878 Wikimedia Commons
Raising the Obelisk, 1878 Wikimedia Commons

However, before examining Cleopatra’s Needle specifically, it is important to explain how politics can influence culture, and why the cultural implications need to be studied in an imperial context here. While it may be difficult to prove that culture exists, or establish its’ place in society, this is because we are not considering culture from a formal perspective. Instead, the focus here has shifted onto ideas about representation, intentionality, and values, so while the obelisk may be a physical representation of the culture, we also need to consider the ‘signs and significations’ (Harvey, 1989) that are joined to this. From here we can then think about which cultures, within a London context, are represented, and which are not, although this then leads us to question whether it is intentional that some cultures feature more heavily than others. For the likes of Massey (1994), this creates inequalities through the “power-geometry of time-space compression”, which need to be recognised but this does not fully address how culture itself is manifested. As an appropriate example, Mitchell’s argument of “simulacrum” suggests that ‘reality itself is a representation of nothing more than other representations behind which there are never any “real” things’ (2000, p.68). These two arguments are opposed; it is not possible to suggest that London, as a global centre of different flows, creates an imbalance of power, while also arguing that the reality of this is a social construct supported by nothing real and tangible. This is because the latter overlooks what the former is trying to highlight: that different cultures can be undermined within one geographic region, and that a lack of hegemony leads to challenges, most notably inequality in power distribution. However, what is important to note is the way in which both arguments highlight the very challenge of trying to define culture, or identify whose culture is under threat because of the complicated layers of culture and meaning involved. For example, we could argue that Britain, in this example, is a coloniser, while Egypt was the colonised until it became independent, as is highlighted below. But this idea is contested when we ask what happens when British people begin to feel colonised in their own country through political oppression or when people from ex-colonies arrive in this country and live amongst the colonisers. Furthermore, it is also important throughout this essay to examine the obelisk, and its’ implications, through a cultural geographical lens because of the opposing cultures in both Egypt and Britain; it is because the countries are separated, not just physically but also to some extent in terms of values, that we must recognise and respect these differences. In addition to this, we must also consider the differences in political context for each country, especially as Egypt could broadly be described, officially until 1956, as the colonised while Britain was the coloniser. Ultimately, ‘place can be a political project’ (Massey, 2004, p.17) and it is important to recognise this as we begin to identify the cultural implications moving forward.

The first, and most important, cultural implication argues that by placing Cleopatra’s Needle in the public sphere, the government of the time transmitted their ideals of power, and with this they wanted to advocate the idea of London as an imperial heartland which should be celebrated. In turn, this is supported by arguments of “affective atmospheres” (Stephens, 2015) which is evident in the popular appeal of the obelisk at the time of its introduction, and even to this day as it continues to be commoditised, celebrated, and visited. At the time of the Needle’s arrival, in the 1870s, London’s great public spaces were being shaped by the people who used them and it was the “performance” of these which helped to define and dictate what the city would become (Driver and Gilbert, 1998). However, the driving force behind the decision to bring the Needle to the capital was the political significance of having a cultural artefact which could rival the likes of New York and Paris; two cities which later went on to erect their own obelisks after London. This is supported by certain nationalistic political arguments which suggest that the nation is merely a fabrication led by certain actors in society, in this instance those who wanted London to symbolise imperial power. For example, Anderson (2006) suggests that “nationality” is a type of “cultural artefact” and the nation is merely an imagined community, while Gellner (1964, p.169) adds that ‘nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist’. When applied to the example of Cleopatra’s Needle, it could be argued, these two critiques are arguing that the government’s decision to display an imperial artefact does not culturally embed the importance of the nation and allow people to internalise this belief. Instead, those who visit the Needle, or recognise it in the London skyline, are helping to create a “cultural style” (Ferguson, 1990) which is merely a surface level acceptance of a country’s practices or artefacts instead of taking an existential leap of faith and internalising ideas or principles. For the individual today, the obelisk still transmits the same ideals of power: it still shows that it is acceptable to remove what is more an imperial treasure than artefact from its’ native country in order that your metropolis may become more remarkable, more “cultured”. We are instead reminded that the “public sphere” no longer exists as that because of the power those in authority have to influence which ideals of culture are represented there (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992), almost as if the ideals of culture and power are interlinked. When the powerful begin to influence the city with symbols and artefacts, they not only argue for the ideals of power that these represent, for example the ideal of cultural imperialism, or Western dominance, but they also inadvertently create ideals of culture as a result because they carefully select which kinds of culture support their politics. While the likes of Meath (1921) may argue that imperialism is evident in the suburbs as much as the cities, and is made manifest amongst ordinary people, not just the politicians with the most power, this misses the point that it is still the politicians, and not the people, who have the ability to control the city as Whitehall’s imperialistic ‘influence was to be found throughout the urban experience’ (Driver and Gilbert, 1998, p.12). The likes of Stephens (2015, p.13) would argue that ‘there is no single sovereign figure that we can identify and hold responsible for an atmosphere’ but this essay argues that the cause of huge crowds gathering to witness the Needle arriving (Daily News, 1878), and it’s continued popularity today, is the acceptance by society that it is an object that should not be moved, or altered, however little we may challenge our own thoughts.

The first cultural implication leads to a new question that considers themes of city planning, and the symbolism of objects in the public realm: what does it mean for a contemporary society to continue to use and engage with an imperial artefact? Therefore, the argument for the second cultural implication proposes that politics influences culture by trying to create new norms and practices for society which give acceptance to less popular concepts. In this instance, by making the Needle “interactive”, allowing users to sit near it, walk on to its’ pier to view the Thames, or touch it, the space becomes not something that is out of bounds nor contested but instead accepted, appreciated, and well-used. Additionally, the Needle’s pier provides a view of some of the best cultural landmarks on the Thames and, as Heathcote (2015) suggests, the street furniture around the obelisk should also be considered. Describing benches as ‘the symbol of the democratic city’, he notes how the seats around Cleopatra’s Needle are some of the most extraordinary examples of imperial street furniture, highlighting the need at the time to make the imperial artefact more desirable and accessible to the people of London. Today, that is still the case and during my visits to the site I met tourists and Londoners alike who felt like the space was not closed off to them, and that it belonged in the public realm because it was so easy to interact with. The logic, or ideology, behind the placement of the benches, as well as the large sphinxes guarding the obelisk was to celebrate London’s position as one of the most important imperial cities on the planet while planners wanted to ‘define a unique style’ (Driver & Gilbert, 2000, p.13). However, as Massey argues, this ‘persistence of a geographical imaginary…focuses on the near rather than the far’ (2004, p.10). It is because it only considers the individuals in the city, and not the people entering, that it results in the reinforcing of cultural differences amongst the population with some either positively or negatively affected by the ‘official and popular cultures that promoted and understood the metropolis as the centre of the world’ (Driver and Gilbert, 2000, p.31). However, another problem arrives with the use of the word ‘people’; different societal groups will have different responses to what, for some, may be a celebration of London’s stature, while for others it may be a reminder of the imperial history. As Gilroy (2003) reminds us, it became involved in the slave trade and was a place of transition for some, not a home. However, not only is it possible to breakdown a population into different classifications but it is also important to consider the intersectionality of these groups as well. While it may be argued that ‘we are all “national” when we vote, watch the six o’clock news, [or] observe (while barely noticing) the repeated iconographies of landscape’ (Eley, 1996, p. 29), this does not examine how varied peoples’ experiences can be. It may be argued that nationalism helps to link those in power with their citizens (Anderson, 1986) but we cannot be sure that politics influences individual or societal culture in such a way that it produces the same responses, beliefs or behaviours from everyone and this is because of the unique differences between peoples which the decision to maintain the Needle in its’ current location does not respect.

While the first two implications have looked at the challenges arising from how society interacts with the imperial artefact, the final paragraph needs to consider the ethical, and cultural, questions that arise from importing an object from a different culture. The debate centralises on whether this makes individuals more enlightened and aware of different worldviews, or more inclined to support Western imperialism. The ways in which the government can embed imperial artefacts from other cultures forces us to question the legacy of these actions. Despite public outcries at recent UK military intervention overseas, including in Iraq and Syria, the idea of the country retaining a significant imperial treasure from Egypt, and placing it firmly at the heart of the city, does not provoke the same anger or hostility. During my time at the monument, I spoke to a female student who was looking at the Needle from a deeper historical perspective. While looking at the obelisk we could identify the incorrect information on the plaques, and noted how the sphinxes are turned inwards when ancient Egyptians would have faced those outwards to the river for protection. Without challenging, or at least acknowledging, the failure of contemporary politics to recognise these wrongs, in this globalised, post-colonial world, we can’t fully appreciate what Massey (1994) calls a “politics of mobility and access” because we still deny some groups credence, notably here the people who formed the obelisk in the first place, due to an imbalance of power. What we should allow, culturally, is for people to ‘pause in the “real and immediate” to contemplate the past and its consequences’ (Freud cited in Cherry, 2006). This is something we cannot do unless we establish the facts of the past first. It is difficult to find a solution which appeases everyone in society because there are some elements of society that are still celebrated. Therefore, perhaps it is possible that British society, and British culture, is not wholly “post-colonial” (Cherry, 2006) and, instead, elements of what has gone before remain important in the present (Derrida, 1994). To some extent, Cleopatra’s Needle highlights how those in power can fail to provide the truth, thus wrongly influencing culture, but it is not impossible for citizens to reject this narrative.

Thus, it has shown how the contemporary politics of London, within a post-imperial context, can still influence culture for both the individual and society. While it should be recognised that this relationship exists, it should also be seen as symbiotic. Throughout the three implications discussed, this paper has examined how an imperial artefact, Cleopatra’s Needle, not only influences the culture of London, but also has the potential to influence the culture of politics. This is because the obelisk raises not just practical but ethical concerns about how those in power treat outside cultures today. Three key implications were considered; the first, and most important one, suggested that the positioning of the Needle in the public sphere imposes on people a sense of the ideals of power. From this, the second implication discussed how different types of people might then approach or engage with such an object, and how the positioning of it places it in a powerful position to influence citizens. The final implication then queried whether London should continue to keep imperial artefacts in its own space, away from those whose culture it originated from. However, one further thing has emerged in this paper: the call for a progressive sense of place referring specifically to this example. The narrow focus of cultural imperialism is concerning because while this paper accepts that such objects were not produced here, they have come to symbolise a part of British history, whatever our politics. We can never erase the fact that we once controlled Egypt, and we cannot know how all Egyptians now living in London feel when they see something that came from their heartland, now resting in their homeland. But London needs to debate with itself and find a way to remember, although not celebrate, why Cleopatra’s Needle still stands tall on Embankment, older than the city itself.


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