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An obelisk (from Greek ὀβελίσκος - obeliskos, diminutive of ὀβελός - obelos, "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 (plural: stelae) is generally used for other monumental standing inscribed sculpted stones.

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 Australian towns.

In geometry, the 'euclidean class' of an obelisk volume is given as a (n-1)-tuple.

Ancient obelisks


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 Obeliskmarker" found partly hewn from its quarry at Aswanmarker. These obelisks are now dispersed around the world, and less than half of them remain in Egypt.

The 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 Heliopolismarker.

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 Universitymarker 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 Basilicamarker 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 Caesareamarker in northern Judeamarker. 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.

In Constantinoplemarker, 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 squaremarker in modern Istanbulmarker. 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 Squaremarker in Rome. The obelisk had stood since AD 37 on its site on the wall of the Circus of Neromarker, 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, and 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 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.

An obelisk stands in front of the church of Trinità dei Montimarker, at the head of the Spanish Stepsmarker. 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 Medicimarker, but in 1790 they moved it to the Boboli Gardensmarker attached to the Palazzo Pittimarker in Florencemarker, 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 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 atmarker the Place de la Concordemarker in Paris.

There are 29 ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following locations:


One 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 Museummarker.


A number of obelisks were carved in the ancient Axumite Kingdom of Ethiopiamarker. 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 Capenamarker. 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 obelisk, Great Stele at Axummarker, 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 Baalbekmarker or the Ramesseummarker) 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-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".

Ancient Roman

The Romans commissioned obelisks in an Egyptian style.


  • Walled Obeliskmarker, Hippodrome of Constantinople. Built by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959) and originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.


The obelisk stone (rock) crosses of Keralamarker form another category of obelisks. The Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians of 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.


The "Tello Obelisk", from Chavín de Huantarmarker, which used to be housed in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú in Limamarker 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 teamed up 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 listed here.

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 project.

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 Axummarker but this was believed to have been broken while attempting to erect it.

Notable modern obelisks

(Listed in date order)

17th century

18th century

19th century

The Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, Dublin

20th century

21st century

See also


  1. Obeliskos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  2. Obelos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition.
  5. Patricia Blackwell Gary and Richard Talcott, "Stargazing in Ancient Egypt", Astronomy, June 2006, pp. 62-67.
  9. James Lees-Milne, Saint Peter's (1967).
  10. 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
  11. NYPL Digital Gallery | Results
  12. Martayan Lan Rare Books
  14. Gezira islan Obelisk
  15. Fayoum Obelisk
  16. Poznań Archaeological Museum
  17. "The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World" edited by Chris scarre 1999
  18. Obelisk Crosses of Kerala, India in Christian Art
  21. NOVA Secrets of Lost Empire II: Pharaoh's Obelisks
  22. Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ramses II: Magnificence on the Nile (1993)p. 56-57
  23. Fewins, Clive, And so to the tower, via the medieval treacle mines in The Independent dated January 19, 1997, at, accessed 19 July 2008
  24. The Obelisk ( Brightling Needle):: OS grid TQ6721 :: Geograph British Isles - photograph every grid square!
  25. Captain Cook's Monument
  26. The Lansdowne Monument near to Cherhill, Wiltshire, Great Britain at, accessed 18 July 2008

Further reading

  • Curran, Brian A., Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin Weiss. Obelisk: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009
  • Wirsching, Armin. Obelisken transportieren und aufrichten in Aegypten und in Rom. Norderstedt: Books on Demand 2007, ISBN 978-3 8334-8513-8

External links

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