Sunday, June 23, 2013

Egyptian Obelisks by H. H. Gorringe

Egyptian Obelisks by H. H. Gorringe was published in 1882 and reprinted in the beginning of the 21st century.

The original version of the book was a stately version published in folio format, ca. 25 x 35 cm, but the size of the modern reprint has been reduced by more than 50 percent, which means that the letters are rather small.

The original version is available as an e-book on the internet. You can read it online or download it to your computer. The advantage of the digital version is that you can adjust the zoom to the size you prefer. The disadvantage is that is it a bit difficult to jump from one place to another. With a real book it is easy to flip through the pages.

Henry H. Gorringe (1841-1885) was a Lieutenant-Commander of the US Navy. In 1879 a formidable task was given to him: go to Alexandria in Egypt, take down the ancient Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, transport it to New York, and re-erect it in Central Park.

It was taken down in 1879; transported to New York in 1880; and re-erected in Central Park in 1881. In the following year Gorringe published an account of the project. His book includes some chapters about other Egyptian obelisks (written by his friend and assistant Seaton Schroeder, 1849-1922), and therefore it has the title Egyptian Obelisks.

At the end of the book there is an index. Several works are cited in footnotes, but there is no bibliography. The text (187 pages) is illustrated by 45 plates with black-and-white drawings or photos (inserted as extra pages), which brings the total number of pages to 232.

The book is dedicated to the famous American businessman William H. Vanderbilt (1821-1885), who paid the bill for the whole project, slightly more than 100,000 US dollars.

Gorringe has written an interesting account of how the ancient Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle came to New York. His account is written from a personal point of view, but still very objective. He almost never mentions his personal feelings, but there are two exceptions:

(1) When the Dessoug left Alexandria with the obelisk safely on board, on 12 June 1880, Gorringe was happy that the first parts of the project had been completed; on page 29 he writes:
“To Lieutenant Schroeder and myself the open sea, with the comparative rest and relief it brought, was acceptable and enjoyable beyond expression.”
(2) When the obelisk was swung from a horizontal to a vertical position and placed on its pedestal in Central Park, on 22 January 1881, Gorringe was happy that the project had been completed; on page 47 he writes:
“It was to me an inexpressible relief to feel that my work was complete, and that no accident or incident had happened that would make my countrymen regret that I had been intrusted [sic!] with the work of removing and re-erecting in their metropolis one of the most famous monuments of the Old World and the most ancient and interesting relic of the past on the American Continent.”
There a few minor flaws in this book:

(1) Some of the names and dates used by Gorringe are not used by modern scholars. Here are two examples:

** Usortesen I (page 68) is now known as Senusret I

** Hatasou (page 121) is now known as Hatshepsut

(2) Gorringe believes the two obelisks known as Cleopatra’s Needles were moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria and re-erected by the Romans in 23 or 22 BC, but the American scholar A. C. Merriam showed in a study (published in 1883) that this happened ca. ten years later, in 13 or 12 BC: The Greek and Latin inscriptions on the Obelisk-Crab in the Metropolitan Museum.

(3) There is a misprint on page 27 where Gorringe says: “On June 1, 1881…” The year is wrong. It should be 1880.

These are all minor points, and therefore I will not complain about them.

Gorringe was on leave from the US Navy while he was working on the project, but he never returned. Having completed the task and his book about it, he left the Navy and entered the world of private business as a shipbuilder. With this he did not have much luck, and sadly his life was cut short by a freak accident. He died in 1885.

His friend Seaton Schroeder was also on leave from the US Navy. He participated in the project for one year, but once the obelisk was safely landed in New York, he returned to the Navy, where he had a long and distinguished career: he was Commander-in-Chief of the US Atlantic Fleet 1909-1911.

His memoirs – A Half Century of Naval Service – appeared in 1922, the year in which he died. Chapter six of this volume is devoted to the removal of the obelisk from Alexandria to New York (pp. 133-150).

Towards the end of this chapter Schroeder says there is a mistake in Egyptian Obelisks. A passage from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (book XVII, chapter 4) about the erection of an obelisk in Rome in AD 357 has been mistranslated. Here is the faulty translation (page 158):

“… the great stone … was … gradually raised into the empty air, … many thousands of men turning it round and round like a millstone, till it was at last placed in the middle of the square.”
The obelisk will not be raised by turning it round and round, Schroeder says. He suggests that the ancient historian refers to capstans, which are in fact depicted on the pedestal of the obelisk in Constantinople (today Istanbul) which was erected by Theodosius in AD 390 (as shown in the illustration on page 159).

If you are interested in the history of the ancient world, in particular engineering and technology, I am sure you will appreciate this old book.

PS. For more information about this topic see The New York Obelisk: Cleopatra's Needle by Charles Edward Moldenke (1891); The New York Obelisk by Martina D'Alton (1993); and Obelisk: A History by four US scholars (2009)

* * *
Henry H. Gorringe,
Egyptian Obelisks,
Published by the author, New York, 1882, 
Forgotten Books, 2012, 232 pages
* * * 

Alexandria November 1879:
the obelisk is encased in order to protect it when it is taken down.
Notice the American flag flying from the top.

Alexandria 1879: Gorringe made this drawing while he prepared to lower the obelisk

Alexandria December 1879: the obelisk is in a horizontal position.
It will be lowered to the ground, step by step.
The American flag is hoisted again.

Alexandria May 1880: embarking the obelisk.
Sliding the obelisk on cannonballs into the hold of the Dessoug.

New York harbour July 1880:
the Dessoug has arrived in New York.
Visitors come aboard to study the obelisk while it is still inside the belly of the ship.

New York, Staten Island, July 1880:
disembarking the obelisk

New York, Manhattan Island, September 1880:
the obelisk crossing the Hudson River Railroad
en route to Central Park.

New York Central Park, January 1881:
the obelisk is placed over the pedestal

New York Central Park, 22 January 1881:
swinging the obelisk into position above the pedestal.

Reliefs on the pedestal of the obelisk in Constantinople (today Istanbul)
which was raised by Theodosius in AD 390.

This illustration brings together the reliefs of the north and south sides of the pedestal.
The lower register shows the relief of the south side.
It shows the circus after the erection of the obelisk.
The two upper registers, the north side, show how the obelisk was erected.

Henry H. Gorringe, 1841-1885,
Lieutenant-Commander of the US Navy.

Gorringe giving a lecture after the successful completion of the project

The Greek inscription carved on the outside of the claw of the obelisk-crab.
The Latin inscription is on the other side of the claw.

The Egyptian obelisk in New York Central Park.
This picture was taken in 1993.

* * *


  1. Dear Mr Retboll

    My name is Kyriakos Savvopoulos. Im a researcher in the faculty of classics, Oxford Univeristy. I would like to explore the possibility of obtaining any of the first 6 photos of this post -Cleopatra's Neeldes- for a scholarly article of mine related to the history of Alexandrian archaeology. My email is
    All the best
    Dr. Kyriakos Savvopoulos
    Oxford Univeristy

    1. Dear Mr Savvopoulos,

      Thank you for your message. The illustrations on my post about Gorringe are taken from his book first published in 1882. I think there is no copyright on a picture that is so old. I am happy to help you. If you use them, please credit your source. Perhaps I can send them to your email address. Is this a good idea?

      All the best,

      Torben Retboll