Obelisk Istanbul Square of Horses

An obelisk (Greek obeliskos, diminutive of obelos, "needle") is a tall, thin, four-sided, tapering monument which ends in a pyramidal top. Ancient obelisks were made of a single piece of stone (a monolith). The term stele (plural: stelae) is generally used for other monumental standing inscribed sculpted stones not of classic obelisk form.

Egyptian obelisks

In 1911, Encyclopædia Britannica wrote, "The earliest temple obelisk still in position is that of Senwosri I. of the XIIth Dynasty at Heliopolis (68 ft. high)".

Obelisks were a prominent part of the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples. The word "obelisk" is of Greek rather than Egyptian origin because Herodotus, the great traveler, was the first writer to describe the objects. Twenty-seven ancient Egyptian obelisks are known to have survived, plus the Unfinished obelisk found partly hewn from its quarry at Aswan.

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.

A "sun pillar".It is hypothesized by New York University Egyptologist Patricia Blackwell Gary and Astronomy senior editor Richard Talcott that the shapes of the ancient Eygyptian 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 would have been inspired by previously overlooked astronomical phenomena connected with sunrise and sunset: the zodiacal light and Sun pillars, respectively.

The Romans were infatuated with obelisks, 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 graces the square in front of the Lateran Basilica in Rome.

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 (racetrack) of his grand new city Caesarea in northern Judea. 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, on a specially-built base, where it has weathered Crusaders and Seljuks and stands in the Hippodrome square in modern Istanbul.

Rome is the obelisk capital of the world. The most prominent is the 25.5 m 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." (James Lees-Milne, Saint Peter's (1967).)

Re-erecting the obelisk had daunted even Michelangelo, but Sixtus V was determined on erecting it directly 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. An uproar of suggested projects ensued, but 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, stunned an enormous crowd of silent onlookers. It was a famous feat of engineering, which made the reputation of Fontana, who detailed it in a book magnificently illustrated with copperplate etchings, Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano et delle Fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V (1590),[3][4] which itself set a new standard in communicating technical information and influenced subsequent architectural publications by its meticulous precision.[5] Before being re-erected the obelisk was cautiously 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 nave, he had to put the slightest kink in its axis, to line it precisely with the obelisk.

Another obelisk stands in front of the church of Trinità dei Monti, at the head of the Spanish Steps. There is a further famous obelisk in Rome, 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 managed to move it to the Boboli Gardens attached to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, and left a replica in its stead.

Several more of the original Egyptian obelisks have been shipped and re-erected all over the world. The best-known examples outside Rome are the pair of so-called 21 m Cleopatra's Needles in London and New York City and the 23 m obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

There are 26 known ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following current locations:
  • Tip of Hatshepsut's fallen obelisk, Karnak
  • The Obelisk of Tuthmosis III, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Pharaoh Tuthmosis I, Karnak Temple, Luxor - Egypt
  • Pharaoh Ramses II, Luxor Temple - Egypt
  • Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Karnak Temple, Luxor - Egypt
  • Pharaoh Sesostris I, Heliopolis, Cairo - Egypt
  • Pharaoh Ramses III, Luxor Museum - Egypt
  • plus 3 more - Egypt
  • Pharaoh Ramses II, in Place de la Concorde, Paris - France
  • Caesarea obelisk - Israel
  • 8 in Rome (see Obelisks in Rome) - Italy
  • Piazza del Duomo, Catania (Sicily) - Italy
  • Boboli Gardens (Florence) - Italy
  • Urbino - Italy
  • Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, in Square of Horses, Istanbul - Turkey
  • Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, Cleopatra's Needle, on Victoria Embankment, London - United Kingdom
  • Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in the Oriental Museum, University of Durham - United Kingdom
  • Pharaoh Ptolemy IX, Philae Obelisk, in Wimborne, Dorset - United Kingdom
  • Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, Cleopatra's Needle, in Central Park, New York - United States


One obelisk form is known from the early Assyrian civilization, represented by the Black Obelisk of King Shalmaneser III from the 9th century BC, now in the British Museum.