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Obelisk

From Academic Kids

For the obelisk punctuation mark, see dagger (typography).
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The Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris

An obelisk 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 stela (plural stelae) is generally used for other monumental standing inscribed sculpted stones not of classic obelisk form.

Contents

Ancient obelisks

Assyria

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

Egyptian obelisks

"Cleopatra's Needle" on the banks of the  in
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"Cleopatra's Needle" on the banks of the River Thames in London

Obelisks were a prominent part of the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples. Twenty seven ancient Egyptian obelisks are known to have survived, plus one incomplete obelisk found partly hewed 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.

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.

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 Palestine. It was discovered by archaeologists and has been re-erected at its former site.

In Constantinople, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius shipped an obelisk in 390 CE 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 must be the 25.5 m obelisk at Saint Peter's Square in Rome, The obelisk had stood since A.D. 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 engravings, Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano et delle Fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V (1590), which iteslf set a new standard in communicating technical information and influenced subsequent architectural publications by its meticulous precision [1] (http://www.martayanlan.com/cgi-bin/display.cgi/Books/5/28/25/606). 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 27 known ancient Egyptian obelisks in the current following locations:

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Tip of Hatshepsut's fallen obelisk, Karnak

The Romans also carved their own obelisks in an Egyptian style, and there are five known ancient Roman obelisks located in Rome.

Axumite obelisks

A number of obelisks were carved in the ancient Axumite Kingdom of Ethiopia. The most notable example – the 24 m high Obelisk of Axum carved in or around the 4th century AD – was looted by the Italians after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and taken to Rome in 1937 where it stood in the Piazza di Porta Capena. In 2003 the Italian government agreed to return it, and as of 2005 it is in transit to Axum.

Other ancient obelisks

Modern obelisks

Miscellaneous

  • The name of the comic book figure Obélix (from the Asterix strips) is derived from the word obelisk, but originates more directly from use of the word as an alternative the typographical punctuation symbol 'dagger', in the same way that the name of Asterix is derived from asterisk.

See also

External links

de:Obelisk da:Obelisk es:Obelisco fr:Obélisque he:אובליסק lb:Obelisk nl:Obelisk pl:Obelisk

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