The Ancient Egyptians created and designed the first obelisks in the world, but other cultures have since adapted these sky piercing monoliths to fit their own ambitions of power and cultural symbolism. Obelisks exist in several places throughout the world such as in Turkey, London, Cairo, Luxor, and even in the United States. In all of these places, obelisks were erected for religious, celebrative, and/or decorative purposes.
The Egyptian obelisks were built to symbolize a contact between earth and heaven; man and God. This is why obelisks stand so tall and taper to the top. The obelisks were originally part of the cult of the sun god Ra. The hieroglyphics usually mentioned the Pharaohs of that period and their accomplishments. Often the Pharaoh’s names are surrounded by an oval cartouche, and the spellings of names are always changing because nothing in ancient Egyptian is ever spelled quite the same.
During the second half of the 1st century BC, Egypt fell to Rome and became part of the Roman Empire. After many conquests of Egypt by Rome, emperors brought back several of the Egyptian obelisks as symbolism of their triumph and of their power. Romans placed special structures on top of all of the obelisks, usually in bronze, which was unique to Romans. Egyptians made of an alloy of silver and gold and placed in onto the pyramidium in order to reflect the sun rays.
Later, Romans created obelisks in an attempt to emulate the Egyptian obelisks. These Romans tried to imitate hieroglyphs – much of which were done incorrectly. Romans liked to place these obelisks into the circuses and outside of temples or mausoleums for decorative purposes.
When Rome fell, obelisks did as well. Many were lost until Pope Sixtus V devised a plan to re-erect the monoliths and use them as special landmarks across the city to guide the pilgrims through Rome in the late 16th century. Main, straight streets were designed with obelisks linking the large basilicas together. The original plan was designed to see each obelisk from one to another in straight lines, but now you cannot because of the change of building structures and relocation of some of the obelisks over the years.
Map of Obelisks in Everyday Roma
Pope Pius VI in the late 18th century gained an interest in obelisks as well, and he erected several more obelisks, including three popular obelisks: at Quirinal, Trinita dei Monti, and the Montecitori.
Later in the 20th century, Mussolini tried to recreate the ancient Roman grandeur by erecting some of his own obelisks, including the Axum obelisk he had stolen from Ethiopia during the fascist period in 1937. Treaties were signed with the United Nations twice to return the obelisk to its rightful home in Ethiopia, in 1947 and 1997 but Rome was stubborn and the obelisk was not actually returned until 2002.
An interesting rumor spread when the obelisk was in Nero’s Circus that Julius Cesar’s ashes were stored in the bronze globe that sat on top of the obelisk. However, during the move from the Circus to St. Peter’s Square, workers inspected the globe and found that it was cast as a single unit and could not have contained the ashes. While examining the bronze globe, they discovered bullets and bullet holes, leading them to believe it had probably been used as target practice during the sack of Rome. The globe now remains in the Capitoline Museum. The rumor arose because of an inscription at the base of the obelisk. This inscription is now barely legible only during certain times of day when the sun hits the shadows right, and it contains an ancient dedication to Caesar. On top of the obelisk now sits a bronze spire that contains symbols of Pope Sixtus V’s family (the Chigi) of three hills and a star. On top of his symbols rests a Christian cross. Pope Innocent XIII added his own symbol, the crowned eagle, to the base later on.
The Esquiline obelisk is located in the Piazza dell’Esquilino near the Basilica of St. Mary Maggiore, where it has stood since 1587. It was erected by Sixtus V in 1587 in hopes that it would be a part of Sixtus’ plan to connect to obelisks at other locations, which did not work out as he had hoped. The obelisk originally stood outside the Mausoleum of Augustus with a twin obelisk.
The Lateran, or Lateranense, Obelisk is the largest, best preserved obelisk in Rome. Erected in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V, it’s the tallest Egyptian obelisk in the world and the last to be brought back from Egypt. It reaches 32.15 meters (105.6 feet) and weighs over 230 tons, all of which is red granite.
The Lateran Obelisk was originally created by Pharoah Tutmosi in the 15th century BC and was taken from the temple of Amun in Karnak by Constantine the Great who moved the obelisk to Alexandria, a northern Egyptian city that had had grown immensely in importance. Many Roman Emperors had been interested in this obelisk, but it’s massive size led to problems in transportation. In 357AD, the giant obelisk was finally transported to Rome by way of a special ship ordered by Emperor Constant I, the son and successor of Constantine, and was placed in the center of the Circus Maximus.
The monolith was struck by lightning once and later broke into three pieces and was lost in the muddy field of the ruined Circus Maximus until Pope Sixtus V order an excavation in the 16th century. This excavation was in thanks to the original discovery of the fragments by botanist and geologist Michele Mercati. Sixtus had Fontana, the same man who erected the Vaticano Obelisk, erect the monolith in its current position. On top of the obelisk rests bronze lions, stars, mountains, and a Christian cross. The base has inscriptions that mention the history of the obelisk, Constantine, and the process of its movement from Egypt to Rome by a ship with 300 rowers. The hieroglyphs mention Egyptian Pharoahs Totmes III and Totmes IV.
The Flaminian Obelisk, aka Flaminio, was erected in the Piazza del Popolo in 1589 by Pope Sixtus V and is the second oldest obelisk in Rome. It stands at 24 meters tall and was originally erected at the Sun Temple at Heliopolis by Pharoah Ramses II along with his father Seti I, who carved inscriptions on the monolith in 1300 BC. One inscription reads “the one who fills Heliopolis with obelisks that their rays may illuminate the Temple of Ra"(NOVA). Other inscriptions on the obelisk mention the sun gods Re-Horakhty, Amun, and Khepri. Augustus brought this obelisk back from Egypt to celebrate his triumph in 10AD and placed it in the Campus Martius. When the Byzantines and the Goths invaded Rome, the obelisk fell and was lost until rediscovered in 1587. Bronze mountains and stars and a cross also rest atop this obelisk to represent Pope Sixtus V. Legend has it that this obelisk has a twin that stood with it at the Sun Temple, but no trace of this obelisk has been found. There has been, however, a discovery of an obelisk in the ocean by Qaitbay Fort that mentions Pharaoh Seti I – they are still unsure as to whether it is the twin of the Flaminian or not.
The Agonalis Obelisk was erected in Piazza Navona in 1651 by Pope Innocence in an attempt to follow Sixtus’ example. This obelisk is not originally Egyptian and was created in Rome sometime during the 1st century in the era of Diocletian as a copy of the Egyptian monoliths. Therefore, it is not surprising that the hieroglyphs are incorrect. Originally it was in the Circus Maximus, but it fell and broke into many pieces. Pope Innocence followed the example that Pope Sixtus V set and fixed the obelisk and placed it on top of Bernini’s famous Four Rivers statue.
The Minerveo Obelisk was erected in the middle of the Piazza della Minerva in 1667 by Pope Alexander VII. Made entirely of red granite, it is one of the smallest obelisks in Rome standing at barely five and a half meters. This obelisk is actually part of a twin pair that dates back to the 6th century BC. It was taken from the Egyptian town of Sais where it had originally stood outside the Temple of Isis with its twin. It fell and was found again in 1655, fixed, and placed here 22 years later.
Acting as a base to this obelisk up is a statue of an elephant designed by Bernini and executed by Ercole Ferrata. This was the last work that Pope Alexander VII commissioned to Bernini and his assistants. Bernini actually studied an elephant to get a realistic appearance. He succeeded; the statue is almost life size. The inscription, dictated by the Pope and in Latin, states “He who sees the carved symbols on the obelisk of wise Egypt borne by the elephant, the strongest of animals, will understand that it is indeed a robust min which sustains a solid wisdom”(InfoRoma). The rear end of the elephant faces the Dominican Monastery, and rumors have arisen that Pope Alexander VII had the elephant placed that way deliberately.
On top of the obelisk is the insignia of the pope and the Christian cross. This obelisk is an important example of propaganda placed by the church because the symbol of Christianity sits on top of the symbol of the papacy which sits on top of a Pagan monolith which sits on top of a baroque statue. Interpretation of this is that the church triumphs over all. The pope uses his symbols as a type of propaganda as well to show his power and his closeness to God and Christ. On the elephants forehead, the words “zeal and industry” can be read in Latin.
The Macuteo Obelisk is just over 6 meters tall and was erected by Pope Clement XI in 1711 in the Piazza della Rotunda, just outside of the Pantheon. The fountain the monolith rests on was designed by Giacomo della Porta in the 16th Century and was not originally designed to hold an obelisk. It originally stood outside the Temple of the Sun God in Heliopolis, Egypt, and was brought to Rome to decorate the Temple of Isis. The hieroglyphs mention Ramses II, who reigned in the 13th century BC.
The Quirinal Obelisk, located in the Piazza del Quirinale and erected in 1786 by Pope Pius VI, is a near-twin of the Esquiline Obelisk that sits outside of St. Maria Maggiore. This obelisk contains no hieroglyphics and the origin is not known for sure, but it once stood outside the Mausoleum of Augustus with its near-twin that is a few centimeters different in height. The obelisk fell during the Middle Ages and was forgotten until 1781 when workers, who had been reconstructing houses for a maternity hospital, hit red granite. The obelisk was in four pieces and Pope Pius VI had it fixed and commissioned architect Giovanni Antinori to re-erect the obelisk on a fountain outside Palazzo Quirinale, in between two giant equestrian statues. Antinori erected several of Pius’ obelisks and was well respected. This obelisk used to be on the Italian 500 lira coin.
The Sallustiano Obelisk is located directly in front of the Spanish Steps in the Trinita dei Monti, where it has stood since 1789. It was formerly located in the Sallustiano Gardens and was actually built in Rome, not in Egypt. The hieroglyphs on this obelisk are very incorrect and were carved mainly as a decorative and exotic design. The symbols are probably wrong because the workers tried to copy inscriptions from another obelisk that was lying on its side.
The Solare Obelisk (aka Solar Obelisk, aka Obelisk of Monecitorio, aka Campense obelisk) was erected in the Piazza di Monecitori in 1792 in front of Italy’s parliament building by Pope Pius VI. It stands at 21.79 meters (72 feet) and weighs 230 tons. Originally from early 7th century Egypt in Heliopolis near Cairo, the obelisk was erected by Pharoah Psammetichus II, the third king of the 26th dynasty of Egypt. The obelisk was made especially for the sun god Ra, as can be read in the hieroglyphics. The inscriptions are quite eroded, but the remaining ones say something similar to "The Golden Horus, 'beautifying the Two Lands,' beloved of Atum, lord of Heliopolis; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferibre, beloved of Re-Harakhti; the son of his own body, who seizes the White Crown and who unites the Double Crown, Psammetikos, beloved of the Souls of Heliopolis"(NOVA).
Augustus brought it to Rome to commemorate his victory and placed it in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) to act as the gnomon (the needle) for a giant sundial called the horologium, designed by Marcus Agrippa, that showed both time of day and the days of the calendar. Bronze markers and notches representing days, months, and years were set into the travertine marble that stretched to 160 meters long to complete the sundial. On the emperor’s birthday, September 23, sunlight sent a shadow into the center of the Alter of Peace.
The Solare Obelisk fell around the 11th century and was found in 1748 in five separate pieces and was fixed and moved to its current location by Pope Pius VI, who place a pierced globe on top. At noon, a sunbeam can be seen going through the bronze globe placed at the top and casts shadows of dates on the ground.
The Matteiano Obelisk was part of the noble Mattei family collection and was erected in the gardens of their villa on the Celian Hill in 1582 and was moved in 1820 to Villa Celimontana. Rumor has it that a workman crushed his hand during the erection in the gardens and Ciriaco Mattei took care of him and his family for the rest of their lives, a kind act not often practiced by such a powerful family. The obelisk originally was erected in Heliopolis and the inscriptions date back to Ramses II in the 13th century BC.
The Pinciano Obelisk, aka Barberinus Obelisk, aka Lunar Obelisk of Antonius, was erected on the Pincian Hill in 1822 by Pope Pius VII. It was originally brought to Rome by Emperor Hadrian and placed east of the Aurelean Wall. It stands at nearly ten meters tall and the hieroglyphs were most likely carved in Rome. The inscriptions say that the obelisk marks the spot where Antonius was buried, but that is mostly speculation. In 1633, the Barberini family removed the obelisk from its location and placed it in their palace. Princess Cornelia Barberini gave the obelisk to Pope Clement XIV and it remained in the Vatican until Pope Pius VI erected it where it now stands.
The Dogali Obelisk is different than the other obelisks in Rome for one main reason: it represents fallen soldiers instead of the triumph of the church. Found near the church St. Sopra Minerva in 1883, it was fixed and later erected near the Baths of Diocletian in 1924. The pedestal the monolith rests on is dedicated to the many Italian soldiers that died in the battle of Dogali in Ethiopia in 1887 and their names are inscribed in the marble.
Obelisks in Rome are much more than just giant sky skewers, they depict a long history of battle and triumph and above all, they show the importance of propagandized power among Rome and the church. Though they are ancient in creation, many obelisks still remain, standing tall, reminding us to stop and look up every once in awhile.
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