(from Greek ὀβελίσκος
, diminutive of ὀβελός
, "spit, nail, pointed pillar") is a tall, narrow,
four-sided, tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at
the top. Ancient obelisks were often monolithic
whereas most modern obelisks are made of
several stones, and can even have interior spaces.
The term stele
) is generally used for other monumental standing
Because of the Enlightenment-era association of Egypt with mortuary
arts, (and generally with great antiquity), obelisks became
associated with timelessness and memorialization.There are many
smaller obelisks or similar forms to be found in European, Asian,
and American cemeteries or as World War I memorials in many rural
In geometry, the 'euclidean class' of an obelisk volume is given as
Obelisks were prominent in the architecture of the ancient Egypt
, 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. Twenty-nine 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 less than
half of them remain in Egypt.
earliest temple obelisk still in its original
position is the 20.7 m / 68 ft high 120 tons 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
said to be a petrified ray of the Aten
sundisk. It was also thought that the god existed within the
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).
and obelisk might have been
inspired by previously overlooked astronomical phenomena connected
: the zodiacal
and sun pillars
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
tallest Egyptian obelisk is in the square in front of the Lateran
Basilica in Rome.
this one is 105.6 feet tall and weighs 455 tons
Not all the Egyptian obelisks re-erected 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 grand new city Caesarea in northern
This one is about 40 feet tall and weighs
about 100 tons. It was discovered by archaeologists and has been
re-erected at its former site.
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 tall, weighing 380
tons. Its lower half reputedly also once stood in Istanbul but is
now lost. The Istanbul obelisk is 65 feet tall.
Rome is the obelisk capital of the world. The most prominent is
the 25.5 m/83.6 ft high 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
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, and had a full-sized wooden mock-up erected within months of
his election. Domenico Fontana
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 had 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, 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.
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
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.
best-known examples outside Rome are the pair of 21 m/68 ft
Cleopatra's Needles in London(69
feet 187 tons) and New York City(70 feet 193 tons) and the 23 m/75
ft 227 ton obelisk
at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
There are 29 ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following
- Egypt – 9
- Pharaoh Tuthmosis
- Pharaoh Ramses II,
- Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Karnak Temple,
- Pharaoh Senusret
I, Al-Masalla area of Al-Matariyyah district in Heliopolis, Cairo
- Pharaoh Ramses III, Luxor Museum
- Pharaoh Ramses II, Gezira Island, Cairo, 20.4 m
- Pharaoh Ramses II, Cairo
International Airport, 16.97 m
- Pharaoh Seti II, Karnak Temple, Luxor,
- Pharaoh Senusret
I, Faiyum (ancient
site of Crocodilopolis),
- France – 1
- Israel – 1
– 11 (includes the only one located in the Vatican City)
- Poland – 1
- Ramses II, Poznań Archaeological Museum,
Poznań (on loan
from Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin)
- Turkey – 1
- United Kingdom – 4
- Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, "Cleopatra's Needle", on Victoria
- Pharaoh Amenhotep
II, in the Oriental Museum, University of Durham
- Pharaoh Ptolemy
IX, Philae Obelisk, at Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne Minster, Dorset
- Pharaoh Nectanebo
- United States – 1
obelisk form is known from the Assyrian
civilization, represented by the Black
Obelisk of King Shalmaneser III
from the 10th century BC, now in the British Museum.
of obelisks were carved in the ancient Axumite Kingdom of 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
. It was carved around the 4th century AD and, in the
course of time, it collapsed and broke into three parts.
conditions it was found by Italian soldiers in 1935, after the
War, looted and taken to Rome in 1937, where it stood in the
Piazza di Porta
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.
largest obelisk, Great Stele at Axum, now
fallen, at 33 m high and 3 by 2 meters 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
The obelisks, properly termed stelae
or the native hawilt
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-story 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 Egyptian style.
- Walled Obelisk, Hippodrome of Constantinople. Built by
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus
(905–959) and originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.
obelisk stone (rock) crosses of Kerala form
another category of obelisks.
The Syrian Christians or
St. Thomas Christians
Malabar on the west coast of India had close contacts with the
Egyptian and Assyrian worlds, the original habitat of obelisks. The
"Ray of the Sun" and Horus concepts are to be found in the idea of
Christ and in the orientation of the churches East-West. The use of
the cylinder and socket method is found in both structures.
"Tello Obelisk", from Chavín de Huantar, which used to be housed in the Museo Nacional de
Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú in Lima until it
was relocated to the Museo Nacional de Chavín in July 2008, is a
monolith stele with obelisk-like proportions.
Obelisk erecting experiments
Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehner
with a NOVA
crew to erect a 25-ton
obelisk in late summer of 1999. This was the third attempt to erect
a 25-ton obelisk; the first two ended in failure. There were also
two successful attempts to raise a two-ton obelisk and a nine-ton
obelisk. In 1994 and again in the spring of 1999 Roger Hopkins,
Mark Whitby and Mark Lehner
teamed up to
attempt to erect a 25-ton obelisk but were unable to complete the
job. Finally in Aug–Sep of 1999 after learning from their
experience they were able to erect one successfully.
First Roger 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 with a megalith weighing about 25 tons on it. Initially they
tried to tow it with over 100 people but were unable to budge it,
presumably because they weren't all pulling together. Finally with
well over 130 people pulling at once when Roger Hopkins yelled
"Allah Akbar" and an additional dozen using levers to prod it
forward they managed to move it a little at a time. Over the course
of a day they were able to tow it 10 to 20 feet. They had several
problems with broken ropes. Presumably if they had more people
pulling together they would have been able to move it at a faster
pace. This was adequate to prove that it could be moved this way.
Additional experiments were done in Egypt and other locations to
tow megalithic stone with ancienttechnologies, some of which are
An experiment was also done to transport a small obelisk on a barge
in the Nile River. This was done on a barge built based on ancient
Egyptian designs. The barge 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 to be close to
200 feet long and 100 feet wide. They 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. This would require a launch where the water
was deep enough to handle the weight.
The final and successful attempt was organized by Rick Brown, Roger
Hopkins, Mark 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. The obelisk
raising operation began with the obelisk lying on a gravel and
stone ramp. There was a sand pit in the middle which was filled
with dry sand. Previous experiments showed that wet sand wouldn't
flow as well. The ramp was secured by stone walls and the obelisk
was raised by slowly removing the sand while three crews of men
pulled on ropes to control the descent. 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. These turning
grooves were found on the ancient pedestals. Gravity did most of
the work until the final 15° had to be completed by pulling
theobelisk forward. They used brake ropes again to make sure it
didn't fall forward. On September 12 they completed the
This theory 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 where 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 was 455 tons. There was also a 520-ton stelae in Axum but this
was believed to have been broken while attempting to erect
Notable modern obelisks
(Listed in date order
- St Luke Old Street , London, spire by Nicholas Hawksmoor circa
obelisk, one hundred feet, built 1742-1745 as an aid to
- Stowe School, Buckinghamshire –
General Wolfe's Obelisk, 1754
- Kagul Obelisk in Tsarskoe
Obelisk in Gatchina, 1775
- Villa Medici, Rome – a 19th century copy of the Egyptian obelisk
moved to the Boboli Gardens in Florence in 1790.
- Rumyantsev Obelisk in St Petersburg, 1799
at Slottsbacken, Stockholm, erected 1800
The Wellington Monument in Phoenix
- Nelson memorial, Springfield Park, Liverpool, circa 1805.
- "Brightling Needle", Brightling, East
Sussex (65 ft), circa 1815.
- Patriots' Grave, Old Burying
Ground, Arlington, Massachusetts (1818).
- Captain Cook's Monument, Easby Moor,
Ayton, North Yorkshire,
1827 (15.5m, 51ft).
of Groton Heights Monument (Fort
Griswold), Groton, Connecticut, 1830, (41.15m, 135ft) dedicated to the defense of
Groton and New London, and the lives lost during Benedict Arnold's
attack on New London.
- Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown, Massachusetts – built between 1827 and 1843.
- Villa Torlonia, Rome – two
obelisks erected 1842.
- Reggio Emilia obelisk, commemorates marriage of Francis V, Duke of Modena to
princess Adelgunde of Bavaria, built 1842.
- Rutherford's Monument near Anwoth, Scotland erected in 1842 as a memorial to Samuel Rutherford.
Political Martyrs monument, Edinburgh, erected 1844 as a memorial to the "Scottish
Martyrs to Liberty".
- Lansdowne Monument, near the Cherhill
White Horse, Wiltshire, 1845, 38 metres, erected by the 3rd Marquess
of Lansdowne to commemorate Sir
- Newcastle, New South Wales – "The Obelisk", built 1850.
- Wellington Monument, Wellington,
Somerset, completed 1854, (53.34m, 175ft).
- Stoodley Pike, Todmorden, West Yorkshire, built 1856.
- Obelisk of Fontenoy,
- Wellington Monument, 1861, (62m, 205ft), Phoenix Park, Dublin,
- Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield, Illinois, 1865, (35.66m, 117ft).
- Brigadier-General John
Nicholson's monument on top of the Margalla Pass aka
"Nicholson's Defile" on the GT Road to Peshawar, about 40 km
from Islamabad Pakistan. 1868. Picture here
- Captain Cook Obelisk, Kurnell, New
South Wales, 1870.
Veteran's Memorial Obelisk in Harrisburg, PA, completed 1876, (33.52m, 110ft).
Washington Monument in Washington DC, USA, measuring 555 feet 5.5 inches (169.29 m) in
height, is the world's tallest true obelisk; completed in
Battlefield monument in Rome, NY, dedicated in 1884 as a memorial to the
Revolutionary War battle in 1777.
Battle Monument in Bennington, Vermont, 1889.
- Dalhousie Obelisk, in Raffles Place,
William Dudley Chipley
Memorial, in the Plaza Ferdinand VII, Pensacola, Florida, 1901.
Floyd Monument, on US Highway 75, Sioux City, Iowa, 1901.
- Joseph Smith Birthplace
Memorial, South Royalton, Vermont, 1905.
- McKinley Monument, Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York, 1907, (96 ft / 29 m).
Veterans' Monument obelisk, constructed primarily from river rock
collected from the nearby Doe River in
downtown Elizabethton, Tennessee and with two short American Civil War field cannon,
dedicated in 1904 to Union and Confederate veterans from Carter
Chalmette Monument, in Chalmette, Louisiana, commemorating the Battle of New Orleans, 1908.
- In 1908, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that
allowed for the building of a monument for those killed under the
command of Arthur St. Clair and Anthony Wayne in Fort Recovery, OH.
The monument was built in 1912 and dedicated on 1 July 1913. The
obelisk stands at 101', 4" tall. It weighs approximately 800 tons
and cost $23,700 to build.
- The National Women's
Monument in Bloemfontein, South Africa, It was erected in
War Memorial in London Square, Southport, Lancashire, England, designed by Grayson and Barnish,
1923. It is flanked by two colonnades each supported by
Doric columns, all constructed of Portland stone.
Davis Monument at Jefferson
Davis State Historic Site in Fairview,
Kentucky, (351 ft / 107 m) tall, mostly concrete,
Tower, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, modeled after the Washington Monument, 1929.
- Obelisk of
Montevideo, Uruguay, 1930.
- High Point Monument, Montague, New Jersey. A (220 ft /67 m) obelisk on top of New
Jersey's highest point, above sea level, 1930.
- Foro Italico, Rome (on Lungotevere Maresciallo Diaz), erected to
honour Benito Mussolini,
- Obelisk of Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1936.
- San Jacinto Monument in Deer Park, Texas commemorating the Texan army's victory at the
San Jacinto and thus gained independence over Mexico,
- Trylon and
Perisphere, 1939 New York
World's Fair, Flushing,
York; not a true obelisk, but an art deco variant, (700
ft / 213 m), 1939.
Francia obelisk in Caracas, Venezuela, 1944.
- Obelisk of São Paulo, Brazil, 1954.
- Abolition Park in Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1956.
- Trujillo Obelisk, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1960, (137 ft / 42 m).
Obelisk on One Tree Hill in Auckland, New
- Obelisk of La
- Demidov Column in
Barnaul, Siberia, Russia.
- Victory Obelisk in Moscow
small obelisk stands at Trinity site, the location of the first atomic bomb explosion.
- Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical center of North America (Mexico,
USA and Canada).
- Pirulito da Praça Sete in Belo
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., an obelisk stands in front of the Luxor Hotel, a pyramid-shaped hotel along The
obelisk stands in front of radio talk show host Clint Ferro's
boyhood home, Endicott, New York, 1975.
large obelisk with the world's largest apple
on top stands at Cornelia, Georgia. It was erected in 1925.
- Obeliskos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A
Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
- Obelos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A
Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
- Patricia Blackwell Gary and Richard Talcott, "Stargazing in
Ancient Egypt", Astronomy, June 2006, pp.
Lees-Milne, Saint Peter's (1967).
- Biblioteca Nacional Digital - Della trasportatione
dell'obelisco Vaticano et delle fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa
Sisto V, fatte dal caualier Domenico Fontana architetto di Sua
Santita, In Roma, 1590
- NYPL Digital Gallery | Results
- Martayan Lan Rare Books
- Gezira islan Obelisk
- Fayoum Obelisk
- Poznań Archaeological Museum
- "The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World" edited by Chris
- Obelisk Crosses of Kerala, India in Christian Art
- NOVA Secrets of Lost Empire II: Pharaoh's
- Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ramses II: Magnificence on
the Nile (1993)p. 56-57
- Fewins, Clive, And so to the tower, via the medieval treacle
mines in The Independent dated January 19, 1997,
at findarticles.com, accessed 19 July 2008
- The Obelisk ( Brightling Needle):: OS grid TQ6721 ::
Geograph British Isles - photograph every grid square!
- Captain Cook's Monument
- The Lansdowne Monument near to Cherhill, Wiltshire, Great
Britain at geograph.org.uk, accessed 18 July 2008
- Curran, Brian A., Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin
Weiss. Obelisk: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
- Wirsching, Armin. Obelisken transportieren und aufrichten
in Aegypten und in Rom. Norderstedt: Books on Demand 2007,
ISBN 978-3 8334-8513-8