One of the two Luxor obelisks in the Place de la Concorde in Paris

An obelisk (from Greek ὀβελίσκος - obeliskos,[1] diminutive of ὀβελός - obelos, "spit, nail, pointed pillar"[2]) is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top, and is said to resemble a petrified ray of the sun-disk. A pair of obelisks usually stood in front of a pylon. Ancient obelisks were often monolithic, whereas most modern obelisks are made of several stones and can have interior spaces.

The term stele (plural: stelae) is generally used for other monumental standing inscribed sculpted stones.


Ancient obelisks


Pylon of the Temple of Luxor with the remaining Obelisc (of two) in front (the second is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris).
Obelisk of Pharaoh Senusret I, Al-Masalla area of Al-Matariyyah district in Heliopolis, Cairo

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 20.7 m / 68 ft high 120 tons[3] red granite Obelisk of Senusret I of the XIIth Dynasty at Al-Matariyyah part of Heliopolis.[4]

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).[5] 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 Independence Monument obelisk in the Maha Bandula Park in Yangon, Myanmar

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 tall and a weight of 455 tons.[6]

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 tall and weighs about 100 tons.[7] 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 tall, weighing 380 tons. Its lower half reputedly also once stood in Istanbul but is now lost. The Istanbul obelisk is 65 feet tall.[8]

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.[6] 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."[9]

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, 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),[10][11] which itself set a new standard in communicating technical information and influenced subsequent architectural publications by its meticulous precision.[12] 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 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 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.[13]

Tip of Hatshepsut's fallen obelisk, Karnak Temple Complex, Luxor, Egypt
The Obelisk of Tuthmosis III, Istanbul, Turkey

There are ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following locations:


Obelisk monuments are also known from the Assyrian civilisation, where they were erected as public monuments that commemorated the achievements of the Assyrian king.

The British Museum possesses three Assyrian obelisks:

The White Obelisk (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.


A number 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 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)[17] 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".

Ancient Roman

The Romans commissioned obelisks in an ancient Egyptian style. Examples include:


The Obelisk of Byzantine in Sultanahmet Square
  • Walled Obelisk, Hippodrome of Constantinople. Built by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959) and originally covered with gilded bronze plaques.


The obelisk stone (rock) crosses of Kerala 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.[20][unreliable source?]


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.[21]

Obelisk-erecting experiments

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.[22] 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.[23]

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." [24] 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.[25] 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.

Notable modern obelisks

(Listed in date order)

17th century

Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins in Aix-en-Provence.

18th century

19th century

The Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, Dublin

20th century

Obelisk at the Plaza Francia, Caracas, Venezuela
Monumen Nasional, Jakarta, Indonesia
Obelisk in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

21st century

See also

  • List of megalithic sites
  • Monuments


  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
  3. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/egypt/raising/cairo.html
  4. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition.
  5. ^ Patricia Blackwell Gary and Richard Talcott, "Stargazing in Ancient Egypt", Astronomy, June 2006, pp. 62-67.
  6. ^ a b http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/egypt/raising/rome.html
  7. ^ http://highskyblue.web.fc2.com/caesarea.htm
  8. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/egypt/raising/istanbul.html
  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
  13. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/egypt/raising/world.html
  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. ^ Museo del Sannio
  19. ^ Three Obelisks in Benevento
  20. ^ Obelisk Crosses of Kerala, India in Christian Art
  21. ^ Richard L. Burger, Abstract of "The Life and Writings of Julio C. Tello", University of Iowa Press, accessed 27 September 2010
  22. ^ "Dispatches", NOVA
  23. ^ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/egypt/dispatches/990827.html
  24. ^ NOVA (TV series) Secrets of Lost Empire II: "Pharaoh's Obelisks"
  25. ^ Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Ramses II: Magnificence on the Nile, New York: TIME/Life, 1993, pp. 56-57
  26. ^ 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
  27. ^ http://risk.english-heritage.org.uk/default.aspx?id=1132&rt=1&pn=93&st=a&ctype=all&crit=
  28. ^ The Obelisk ( Brightling Needle):: OS grid TQ6721 :: Geograph British Isles - photograph every grid square!
  29. ^ Captain Cook's Monument
  30. ^ The Lansdowne Monument near to Cherhill, Wiltshire, Great Britain at geograph.org.uk, accessed 18 July 2008

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading

  • Curran, Brian A., Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin Weiss. Obelisk: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-262-51270-1.
  • Wirsching, Armin. Obelisken transportieren und aufrichten in Aegypten und in Rom. Norderstedt: Books on Demand 2007 (2nd ed. 2010), ISBN 978-3 8334-8513-8
  • Chaney, Edward, "Roma Britannica and the Cultural Memory of Egypt: Lord Arundel and the Obelisk of Domitian", in Roma Britannica: Art Patronage and Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century Rome, eds. D. Marshall, K. Wolfe and S. Russell, British School at Rome, 2011, pp. 147-70.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Obelisk — der Hatschepsut in Luxor Ein Obelisk (v. lat. obeliscus, v. griech. ὀβελίσκος: Diminutivum von ὀβελός (obelos) – Spitzsäule, [Brat]spieß; Pl.: Obelisken) ist ein freistehender, hoher, sich nach oben verjüngender monolithener Steinpfeiler (Stele) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Obelisk — Sm (rechteckige Säule) per. Wortschatz exot. (16. Jh.) Entlehnung. Entlehnt aus l. obeliscus, dieses aus gr. obelískos kleiner Spieß , einem Diminutivum zu gr. obelós Obelisk, Spitzsäule, Bratspieß .    Ebenso nndl. obelisk, ne. obelisk, nfrz.… …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • Obelisk [2] — Obelisk, in der ägyptischen Baukunst ein viereckiger schlanker Steinpfeiler, nach oben verjüngt und mit einer Pyramide abgeschlossen. Paarweise vor den Tempelbauten oder in Höfen aufgestellt, dienten die Obelisken als Symbole der Beständigkeit… …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • obelisk — (n.) rectangular stone column tapering at the top, 1560s, from M.Fr. obélisque, from L. obeliscus obelisk, small spit, from Gk. obeliskos small spit, obelisk, dim. of obelos a spit, pointed pillar, needle. Related: Obeliskine …   Etymology dictionary

  • Obelisk — Ob e*lisk, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Obelisked}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Obelisking}.] To mark or designate with an obelisk. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • obelisk — [äb′ə lisk, ō′bəlisk] n. [L obeliscus < Gr obeliskos, a small spit, obelisk, dim. of obelos: see OBELUS] 1. a tall, slender, four sided stone pillar tapering toward its pyramidal top 2. DAGGER (sense 2) …   English World dictionary

  • obelisk — ob e*lisk ([o^]b [e^]*l[i^]sk), n. [L. obeliscus, Gr. obeli skos, dim. of obelo s a spit, a pointed pillar: cf. F. ob[ e]lisque.] 1. An upright, four sided pillar, gradually tapering as it rises, and terminating in a pyramid called pyramidion. It …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Obelisk — (v. gr.), hoher, vierseitiger, sich nach oben verjüngender (daher Spitzsäule) u. mit einem Pyramidion schließender, auf eine niedrige, etwas breitere Basis, als der O. selbst ist, gestellter Pfeiler, dergleichen von Mittelägypten bis nach Nubien… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Obelisk — (griech.), eine aus einem Stein bestehende hohe, schlanke, abgestutzte, vierseitige, pyramidenförmige Denksäule, die oben meist in eine ganz niedrige Pyramide endigt. Der O. ist in Ägypten heimisch und ursprünglich eine dem Sonnengott geweihte… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Obelisk [1] — Obelisk, ein Prismatoid mit gleichvielen und parallelen Kanten beider Basisflächen (s. Prismatoid). Wölffing …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Obelisk — (grch., »kleiner Spieß«), Spitzsäule, hohe, schmale, viereckige, nach oben sich verjüngende und in eine besondere Spitze (Pyramidion) auslaufende Pfeiler aus Granit, Sandstein, Gußeisen u. dgl. [Abb. 1269]; bes. im alten Ägypten paarweise vor dem …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

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