An obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top. These were originally called "tekhenu" by the builders, the Ancient Egyptians. The Greeks who saw them used the Greek 'obeliskos' to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and then English. Ancient obelisks were often monolithic, whereas most modern obelisks are made of several stones and can have interior spaces.
Obelisks were prominent in the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples. The word "obelisk" as used in English today is of Greek rather than Egyptian origin because Herodotus, the Greek traveller, was one of the first classical writers to describe the objects. A number of ancient Egyptian obelisks are known to have survived, plus the "Unfinished Obelisk" found partly hewn from its quarry at Aswan. These obelisks are now dispersed around the world, and fewer than half of them remain in Egypt.
The earliest temple obelisk still in its original position is the 68-foot (20.7 m) 120-ton red granite Obelisk of Senusret I of the XIIth Dynasty at Al-Matariyyah part of Heliopolis.
The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra, and during the brief religious reformation of Akhenaten was said to be a petrified ray of the Aten, the sundisk. It was also thought that the god existed within the structure.
It is hypothesized by New York University Egyptologist Patricia Blackwell Gary and Astronomy senior editor Richard Talcott that the shapes of the ancient Egyptian pyramid and obelisk were derived from natural phenomena associated with the sun (the sun-god Ra being the Egyptians' greatest deity). The pyramid and obelisk might have been inspired by previously overlooked astronomical phenomena connected with sunrise and sunset: the zodiacal light and sun pillars respectively.
The Ancient Romans were strongly influenced by the obelisk form, to the extent that there are now more than twice as many obelisks standing in Rome as remain in Egypt. All fell after the Roman period except for the Vatican obelisk and were re-erected in different locations.
The tallest Egyptian obelisk is in the square in front of the Lateran Basilica in Rome at 105.6 feet (32.2 m) tall and a weight of 455 tons.
Not all the Egyptian obelisks in the Roman Empire were set up at Rome. Herod the Great imitated his Roman patrons and set up a red granite Egyptian obelisk in the hippodrome of his new city Caesarea in northern Judea. This one is about 40 feet (12 m) tall and weighs about 100 tons. It was discovered by archaeologists and has been re-erected at its former site.
In Constantinople, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius shipped an obelisk in AD 390 and had it set up in his hippodrome, where it has weathered Crusaders and Seljuks and stands in the Hippodrome square in modern Istanbul. This one stood 95 feet (29 m) tall and weighing 380 tons. Its lower half reputedly also once stood in Istanbul but is now lost. The Istanbul obelisk is 65 feet (20 m) tall.
Rome is the obelisk capital of the world. The most well-known is probably the 25 metres (82 ft), 331-ton obelisk at Saint Peter's Square in Rome. The obelisk had stood since AD 37 on its site on the wall of the Circus of Nero, flanking St Peter's Basilica:
"The elder Pliny in his Natural History refers to the obelisk's transportation from Egypt to Rome by order of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) as an outstanding event. The barge that carried it had a huge mast of fir wood which four men's arms could not encircle. One hundred and twenty bushels of lentils were needed for ballast. Having fulfilled its purpose, the gigantic vessel was no longer wanted. Therefore, filled with stones and cement, it was sunk to form the foundations of the foremost quay of the new harbour at Ostia."
Re-erecting the obelisk had daunted even Michelangelo, but Sixtus V was determined to erect it in front of St Peter's, of which the nave was yet to be built. He had a full-sized wooden mock-up erected within months of his election. Domenico Fontana, the assistant of Giacomo Della Porta in the Basilica's construction, presented the Pope with a little model crane of wood and a heavy little obelisk of lead, which Sixtus himself was able to raise by turning a little winch with his finger. Fontana was given the project.
The obelisk, half-buried in the debris of the ages, was first excavated as it stood; then it took from April 30 to May 17, 1586 to move it on rollers to the Piazza: it required nearly 1000 men, 140 carthorses, and 47 cranes. The re-erection, scheduled for September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, was watched by a large crowd. It was a famous feat of engineering, which made the reputation of Fontana, who detailed it in a book illustrated with copperplate etchings, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano et delle Fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V (1590), which itself set a new standard in communicating technical information and influenced subsequent architectural publications by its meticulous precision. Before being re-erected the obelisk was exorcised. It is said that Fontana had teams of relay horses to make his getaway if the enterprise failed. When Carlo Maderno came to build the Basilica's nave, he had to put the slightest kink in its axis, to line it precisely with the obelisk.
Three more obelisks were erected in Rome under Sixtus V: the one behind Santa Maria Maggiore (1587), the giant obelisk at the Lateran Basilica (1588), and the one at Piazza del Popolo (1589).
An obelisk stands in front of the church of Trinità dei Monti, at the head of the Spanish Steps. Another obelisk in Rome is sculpted as carried on the back of an elephant. Rome lost one of its obelisks, which had decorated the temple of Isis, where it was uncovered in the 16th century. The Medici claimed it for the Villa Medici, but in 1790 they moved it to the Boboli Gardens attached to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, and left a replica in its stead.
Several more Egyptian obelisks have been re-erected elsewhere. The best-known examples outside Rome are the pair of 21-metre 187-ton Cleopatra's Needles in London (69 ft) and New York City (70 ft) and the 75-foot (23 m) 227-ton obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Obelisk monuments are also known from the Assyrian civilization, where they were erected as public monuments that commemorated the achievements of the Assyrian king.
The British Museum possesses four Assyrian obelisks:
The White Obelisk of Ashurnasirpal I (named due to its colour), was discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853 at Nineveh. The obelisk was erected by either Ashurnasirpal I (1050-1031 BC) or Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). The obelisk bears an inscription that refers to the king’s seizure of goods, people and herds, which he carried back to the city of Ashur. The reliefs of the Obelisk depict military campaigns, hunting, victory banquets and scenes of tribute bearing.
The Rassam Obelisk, named after its discoverer Hormuzd Rassam, was found on the citadel of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu). It was erected by Ashurnasirpal II, though only survives in fragments. The surviving parts of the reliefs depict scenes of tribute bearing to the king from Syria and the west.
The Black Obelisk was discovered by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1846 on the citadel of Kalhu. The obelisk was erected by Shalmaneser III and the reliefs depict scenes of tribute bearing as well as the depiction of two subdued rulers, Jehu the Israelite and Sua the Gilzanean, giving gestures of submission to the king. The reliefs on the obelisk have accompanying epigraphs, but besides these the obelisk also possesses a longer inscription that records one of the latest versions of Shalmaneser III’s annals, covering the period from his accessional year to his 33rd regnal year.
The Broken Obelisk, that was also discovered by Rassam at Nineveh. Only the top of this monolith has been reconstructed in the British Museum. It is the oldest recorded obelisk from Assyria, dating to the 11th century BC.
A number of obelisks were carved in the ancient Axumite Kingdom of today northern Ethiopia. Together with (21 m high) King Ezana's Stele, the last erected one and the only unbroken, the most famous example of axumite obelisk is the so-called (24 m high) Obelisk of Axum. It was carved around the 4th century AD and, in the course of time, it collapsed and broke into three parts. In these conditions it was found by Italian soldiers in 1935, after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, looted and taken to Rome in 1937, where it stood in the Piazza di Porta Capena. Italy agreed in a 1947 UN agreement to return the obelisk but did not affirm its agreement until 1997, after years of pressure and various controversial settlements. In 2003 the Italian government made the first steps toward its return, and in 2008 it was finally re-erected.
The largest known obelisk, the Great Stele at Axum, now fallen, at 33 m high and 3 by 2 metres at the base (520 tons) is one of the largest single pieces of stone ever worked in human history (the largest is either at Baalbek or the Ramesseum) and probably fell during erection or soon after, destroying a large part of the massive burial chamber underneath it. The obelisks, properly termed stelae or the native hawilt or hawilti as they do not end in a pyramid, were used to mark graves and underground burial chambers. The largest of the grave markers were for royal burial chambers and were decorated with multi-storey false windows and false doors, while nobility would have smaller less decorated ones. While there are only a few large ones standing, there are hundreds of smaller ones in "stelae fields".
The Romans commissioned obelisks in an ancient Egyptian style. Examples include:
• Arles, France —the Arles Obelisk, in Place de la République, a 4th-century obelisk of Roman origin
• Benevento, Italy — Roman obelisks
• Munich — obelisk of Titus Sextius Africanus, Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, Kunstareal, 1st century AD, 5.80 m
• Rome — there are five ancient Roman obelisks in Rome.
Walled Obelisk, Hippodrome of Constantinople. Built by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959) and originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.
The prehistoric Tello Obelisk, found in 1919 at Chavín de Huantar in Peru, is a monolith stele with obelisk-like proportions. It was carved in a design of low relief with Chavín symbols, such as bands of teeth and animal heads. Long housed in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú in Lima, it was relocated to the Museo Nacional de Chavín, which opened in July 2008. The obelisk was named for the archeologist Julio C. Tello, who discovered it and was considered the "father of Peruvian archeology." He was America's first indigenous archeologist.
In late summer 1999, Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehner teamed up with a NOVA (TV series) crew to erect a 25-ton obelisk. This was the third attempt to erect a 25-ton obelisk; the first two, in 1994 and 1999, ended in failure. There were also two successful attempts to raise a two-ton obelisk and a nine-ton obelisk. Finally in Aug–Sep of 1999, after learning from their experiences, they were able to erect one successfully.
First Hopkins and Rais Abdel Aleem organized an experiment to tow a block of stone weighing about 25 tons. They prepared a path by embedding wooden rails into the ground and placing a sledge on them bearing a megalith weighing about 25 tons. Initially they used more than 100 people to try to tow it but were unable to budge it. Finally, with well over 130 people pulling at once and an additional dozen using levers to prod the sledge forward, they moved it. Over the course of a day, the workers towed it 10 to 20 feet. Despite problems with broken ropes, they proved the monument could be moved this way. Additional experiments were done in Egypt and other locations to tow megalithic stone with ancient technologies, some of which are listed here.
One experiment was to transport a small obelisk on a barge in the Nile River. The barge was built based on ancient Egyptian designs. It had to be very wide to handle the obelisk, with a 2 to 1 ratio length to width, and it was at least twice as long as the obelisk. The obelisk was about 10 feet long and no more than 5 tons. A barge big enough to transport the largest Egyptian obelisks with this ratio would have had to be close to 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The workers used ropes that were wrapped around a guide that enabled them to pull away from the river while they were towing it onto the barge. The barge was successfully launched into the Nile.
The final and successful erection event was organized by Rick Brown, Hopkins, Lehner and Gregg Mullen in a Massachusetts quarry. The preparation work was done with modern technology, but experiments have proven that with enough time and people, it could have been done with ancient technology. To begin, the obelisk was lying on a gravel and stone ramp. A pit in the middle was filled with dry sand. Previous experiments showed that wet sand would not flow as well. The ramp was secured by stone walls. Men raised the obelisk by slowly removing the sand while three crews of men pulled on ropes to control its descent into the pit. The back wall was designed to guide the obelisk into its proper place. The obelisk had to catch a turning groove which would prevent it from sliding. They used brake ropes to prevent it from going too far. Such turning grooves had been found on the ancient pedestals. Gravity did most of the work until the final 15° had to be completed by pulling the obelisk forward. They used brake ropes again to make sure it did not fall forward. On September 12 they completed the project.
This experiment has been used to explain how the obelisks may have been erected in Luxor and other locations. It seems to have been supported by a 3,000-year-old papyrus scroll in which one scribe taunts another to erect a monument for "thy lord". The scroll reads "Empty the space that has been filled with sand beneath the monument of thy Lord." To erect the obelisks at Luxor with this method would have involved using over a million cubic meters of stone, mud brick and sand for both the ramp and the platform used to lower the obelisk. The largest obelisk successfully erected in ancient times weighed 455 tons. A 520-ton stele was found in Axum, but researchers believe it was broken while attempting to erect it.