Inside the Collection

Cleopatra’s Needle or ‘Thornton’s Scent Bottle’

Bathurst Street from George Street', photo by Kerry and Co, Sydney, 1890-1900
Bathurst Street from George Street’, photo by Kerry and Co, Sydney, 1890-1900

This photograph was taken from George Street, Sydney and looks up Bathurst Street. At the very end, where it joins Elizabeth Street and Hyde Park, the single most obvious feature of the photograph can still be seen today.

This is the obelisk was erected in 1857 and unveiled by Mayor George Thornton. This architectural feature is a clear indication of the Victorian craze culture for all things Egyptian post the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822, even in far off Australia.

Bathurst Street from George Street (detail)
The Obelisk, Bathurst Street from George Street (detail)

This obelisk was a copy of the two Cleopatra’s Needle’s erected in London and New York. But the reference to Cleopatra was really incorrect for while both of needles were a matching pair and were shipped at great expense from Egypt they were actually made long before Cleopatra was born. In fact it was the Romans who had sent them to Alexandria, where they were set up outside Cleopatra’s palace after her death. There they remained for the following 15 centuries accounting for the understandable confusion about their name.

The Sydney obelisk is a copy of one of those Egyptian relics and not an original artifact. None-the-less it stands an impressive 22 meters high and is topped with a filigreed bronze pyramid.

In another amusing twist to this story, the Obelisk was originally a sewer vent, which once discovered by the public was nicknamed “Thornton’s Scent Bottle”. The original design, luckily never actually put in action, included a fireplace in the base to ignite the gases as the escaped. But rest assured we no longer need to worry about smelling any ‘foul odours’ around the needle as it ceased to be an operational vent many years ago.

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