Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt by Bob Brier - review by Edward Chaney

Edward Chaney

Migrating Monoliths

Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt


Bloomsbury 238pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

This book’s title suggests an admirable aspiration to present a fascinating subject in both a scholarly and an accessible style. Bob Brier is billed as ‘a world-famous Egyptologist’. His books include The Murder of Tutankhamen and Ancient Egyptian Magic, and he has hosted television programmes on ancient Egypt. Unmentioned in the author’s biography is his Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, published in 2013. Cleopatra’s Needles reprises and enlarges those chapters of Egyptomania that deal with the removal of Egyptian obelisks to Rome, Paris, London and New York (it adds Constantinople and might also have added Kingston Lacy in Dorset, where in 1840 William Bankes installed the toppled obelisk he had found at the Temple of Isis at Philae). Both Brier’s books are indebted to Erik Iversen’s authoritative two-volume Obelisks in Exile (1968–72), as well as Obelisk: A History, a comprehensive collection of essays published in 2009. He might also have cited Aubrey Noakes’s Cleopatra’s Needles, published prior to these in 1962.

Brier’s didactic tone, doubtless derived from many an illustrated talk, is established in his first chapter, ‘How to Quarry an Obelisk’. Its centrepiece is an informative account of the ‘unfinished obelisk’ in Aswan in Upper Egypt. We are informed that ‘Egypt is a desert with a river running

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