Uprooted from Egypt and desanctified as a cult object glorifying the sun god, an ancient obelisk stretches skyward from a knoll in Central Park just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To help park visitors better understand this mysterious monolithic heirloom, Cecil B. DeMille, the flamboyant Hollywood showman who directed such screen epics as “Cleopatra” and “The Ten Commandments,” in 1956 donated a set of bronze plaques elucidating the obelisk’s hieroglyphic inscriptions.
The obelisk and its setting are sufficiently dramatic, but even if today’s passersby were equipped to decode the tapering granite shaft, its cartouches and hieroglyphs are increasingly illegible and the stone itself begrimed by polluted air. Chips are falling off the 3,500-year-old monument at an accelerating rate. To focus attention on its history and plight, the Metropolitan Museum has an exhibit about the obelisk just as the artifact is about to undergo its most thorough preservation since arriving in 1880 as a gift of the Egyptian government.
The Central Park Conservancy is readying a half-million-dollar project to clean and stabilize the landmark this spring. Using a boom lift, conservators photographed every inch of the obelisk in March, and tested a laser device they expect to use in coming months to remove soot from its surface.
In 2011, the deterioration of the obelisk prompted Egypt’s antiquities minister to threaten to take it back. “If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk,” Minister Zahi Hawass wrote to then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.”
Mr. Hawass subsequently lost his post in the violent upheavals gripping his nation, but his appeal helped spur conservationists to act. Three of the obelisk’s four sides show heavy erosion. “There’s no concern this thing is going to totally fall apart,” said Marie Warsh, preservation planning director for the Conservancy. Yet tiny granite pieces plummet to the ground on a regular basis. “We collect them when we see them, put them into bags and label them.”
At the Met, curators have debated whether the 69-foot-tall, 220-ton block would be better off indoors. “It’s been a topic of discussion many times,” said Diana Craig Patch, head of the museum’s Egyptian art department, who organized the current exhibition. “But there’s no room here big enough to hold it.”
George Wheeler, a Columbia University conservation specialist who has studied the obelisk for decades, says much of the damage occurred not in New York, but stems from trauma in ancient times. The obelisk, built for the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, was toppled when Persians pillaged that city in 525 B.C., and then lay on its side, covered in salty water that millennia later left it susceptible to Manhattan freeze-thaw cycles.
Its first winters in New York took a heavy toll, and loose shards of granite began to shed. When a waterproofing company coated the obelisk in wax in 1885, they peeled it like a carrot, with almost 800 pounds of chips and flakes coming off in the process.
Popularly known as Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk is one of two that guarded the temple in Heliopolis—now part of contemporary Cairo—under Pharaoh Thutmose III. Caesar Augustus later took them to Alexandria in the first century B.C., where they remained until Egyptian khedives gave one to Britain—it stands on the Thames Embankment in London—and the other to the U.S.
Obelisks have long been objects of intense fascination, coveted as urban landmarks by major powers and the rising U.S. in the second half of the 19th century. The New York Herald Tribune, casting an envious eye at obelisks in Rome, Paris, London and the city then called Constantinople, wrote prior to the obelisk’s unveiling in Central Park in 1881 that “if New York was without one, all those great sites might point the finger of scorn at us and intimate that we could never rise to any real moral grandeur until we had our obelisk.”
The exhibit, on view until June 8, documents the Egyptomania that erupted on the obelisk’s arrival in New York. Thousands of Freemasons turned out to celebrate—the exhibit includes an obelisk-tipped baton fashioned by the fraternal order from ivory, amethyst and brass. New York makers of thread and other sewing materials used the occasion to issue special advertisements, brass needle cases and mechanical pencils shaped like obelisks. Meanwhile, moving the real one into place was an arduous task—it floated up the Hudson River by boat to West 96th Street from Staten Island after arriving from the Nile Valley; it then took nearly another four months to get it to the park, rolled atop cannon balls and hauled by specially built railroad.
The exhibition recounts how obelisks became ingrained in Western consciousness ever since being dragged off to Rome by emperors who controlled Egypt after 30 B.C. Their presence helped the imperial capital lay claim to being Caput Mundi, but Roman obelisks fell into obscurity during the Middle Ages, until rediscovery by Renaissance popes who used them to proclaim the triumph of Christianity over barbarous paganism. Gian Lorenzo Bernini posed them atop pedestals and artists from Giovanni Battista Piranesi in the 18th century to Claes Oldenburg in modern times have drawn inspiration from their priapic form. Post-Egyptian variations have arisen from Buenos Aires to Washington.
Although its pyramidal tip was originally covered in gold, New York’s obelisk is now unadorned, rendering it difficult under a wintry sky to imagine how this once glittering apex signaled the solar deity’s supremacy. In Paris, where an obelisk in Place de la Concorde marks the spot where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded, the gold-leaf cap was replaced during a 1998 restoration, but New York authorities say they’re unlikely to gild theirs, although they plan to give the monument a new invisible protective coating. Even without a golden peak, the freshly stabilized obelisk will endure as a testament to the genius of a vanished civilization, an awe-inspiring tower holding its own on an island of modern skyscrapers.
Mr. Wise is the author of “Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy.”