A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Ancient Egyptians adorned their temple facades with pairs of obelisks to honor their gods and recall the great deeds of their pharaohs. With four rectangular sides covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the obelisk is designed to lead the viewer's eye toward the sky, tall and straight ending in a four-sided pyramid. The obelisk originated during Egypt's Old Kingdom (2584-2117 B.C.) as a small solid structure associated with the sun-deity Re. Pharaoh Senworset I (1974-1929 B.C.) constructed the first giant obelisk at Heliopolis during the Middle Kingdom (2066-1650 B.C). Giant Egyptian obelisks weigh hundreds of tons and are composed of solid pieces of granite quarried at Aswan in southern Egypt. Modern obelisks, big and small, are found all over the world and the U.S. from the Washington Monument, to war memorials, to the grave markers of presidents (Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln's tombs all include obelisk memorials). New York City is filled with obelisks, and a tour of them will take you all over Manhattan and beyond to view monuments, tombstones, and even an authentic Egyptian original, known as Cleopatra's Needle. But how and why did the obelisk become and remains so popular?
Foreign fascination with Egypt is as old as Egypt itself. Even before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. Greek travelers took trips up and down the Nile, leaving graffiti on monuments and transporting exotic materials home. Under the Ptolemys, Greek kings who ruled Egypt from 332-30 B.C., Greeks living in Egypt adapted some aspects of Egyptian culture, from deities to mummification. But it was the Romans who first loved obelisks. After the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., they carted off a vast number of obelisks and today, more Egyptian obelisks stand in Rome, 13 total, than in all of Egypt. After the fall of Rome, no Egyptian obelisk would leave the shores of the Nile again until the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, knowledge of Egypt was limited mainly to Biblical contexts: Egypt was the land of Moses, Saint Mark and Anthony; it had sheltered the Holy Family. The few Europeans who ventured to Egypt went on pilgrimage or were drawn there by the crusades or commerce. With the Renaissance and its classical revival Egyptian motifs became more familiar. Egyptian themes appeared in art and architecture and Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) moved and re-erected an obelisk (originally brought from Heliopolis, Egypt to Rome by the emperor Caligula) from its ancient site in the Circus of Nero to its current location, about 260 yards away, in Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican. In the mid 17th century Gian Lorenzo Bernini kept the obelisk as the centerpiece in his own redesign of St. Peter's.
In the 18th century during the Enlightenment, the obelisk began to symbolize eternity and memorialization, and it became a popular form of commemoration for victories and heroes by the Europeans. Egypt was visited by occasional outsiders during the 17th and 18th centuries who often carted home small objects like amulets, but Egyptian Revival style (including obelisks) and Egyptomania gained wide popularity thanks to Napoleon's campaign in Egypt (1798-1799) and with the publishing of Vivant Denon's Voyage dans la Basse et la Hautes Egypt (1802) and Description de l'Egypte (1809). With the invention of the steamship in the 1840s, traveling to Egypt became much faster and efficient for Europeans and Americans. Many more Westerners made the journey to Egypt's warm climate. Ever growing publications dedicated to the subject of Egypt further enticed travelers to make the trip, and at the very least inspire decoration in the Egyptian-style. In the early 1800s some Europeans, such as British consul-general Henry Salt, French consul-general Bernard Drovetti, and Italian strongman and proto-archaeologist Giovanni Battsita Belzoni collected artifacts to ship back to European institutions like the Louvre and the British Museum, which were beginning to establish their collections.
In the U.S., obelisks appeared in the late 18th century as memorials. Some early examples include the Columbus Memorial in Baltimore, which was built in 1792 to honor the 300th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World, and the Battle of Lexington obelisk in Massachusetts, designed in the 1790s to commemorate those Americans who had perished in the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Obelisks continued to increase in popularity, and during the Civil War, they became even more common as grave markers and memorials. Today, the obelisk is a common sight in cemeteries across America, standing as memorials to the deceased.
In the early 19th century, obelisks became symbolic of international diplomacy and trade relations with Egypt: the Khedives of Egypt (dynastic rulers of Egypt who began their legacy with the Ottoman Sultan's appointment of Muhammad Ali in 1805) presented three as gifts. Two, erected by Thutmose III (1479-1424 B.C.) in Heliopolis, and moved to Alexandria by Augustus, were given to Britain and the United States. The third, placed by Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.) in Luxor, was awarded to France.
Britain was awarded one of the Alexandria obelisks, known as Cleopatra's Needles, In 1819 by Egypt's leader Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), a Turkish man who was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan to oversee Egypt and Sudan, and who steered Egypt toward modernization. The obelisk waited in Alexandria until it was eventually shipped over in 1877. The crossing was hard and tragic (some six sailors perished), but the obelisk survived the trip and now sits on the banks of the Thames in City of Westminster near the Golden Jubilee Bridges. The six deceased sailors' names are on a plaque on the base of the obelisk. Muhammad Ali presented France with its Luxor obelisk in 1826. It was moved to France in 1833 where King Louis Philippe re-erected it in the Place de la Concorde where the guillotine had sat. It was meant to serve as a monument to memorialize King Louis XV and those who lost their lives during the French Revolution. The third obelisk, the other Cleopatra's Needle, was awarded to the United States in 1879 and was moved in 1880.
Obelisks are familiar forms present throughout the modern landscape. They've remained common even after the popularity of Egyptian Revival architecture waned: NYC and her boroughs are filled with obelisks, new and old. Archaeology presents a guide to NYC's obelisks to celebrate the obelisk as a form of Egyptian architecture and to better understand how and why it has found a significant place in modern design and society. The tour will take you from cemeteries to parks to street corners, exploring the city and its boroughs. New York's Obelisk, the second of Cleopatra's Needles, was the third obelisk to leave Egypt in the 1800s when it was awarded to the United States and erected in NYC, and, as it is the only authentically Egyptian obelisk in the Big Apple, it is the first stop on our tour.
The obelisk is over 4000 years old and yet it continues to thrive as an architectural form throughout contemporary landscapes from cemeteries to parks to city squares. New York presents a wide variety of obelisks from an ancient Egyptian original to memorials to modest grave markers, and today the obelisk is as much Egyptian as it is a symbol of memorialization and honor for those who have died, whether war heroes, politicians or an everyman. Obelisks were built by the Egyptians to praise their gods and commemorate their kings. The Romans collected obelisks like trophies; in the 19th century obelisks were awarded as tokens of good will to fulfill political and commercial agendas. The purpose and meaning of the obelisk have evolved since antiquity, and today instead of honoring the gods who are eternal and the pharaoh who is all-powerful, modern obelisks eternally honor the mortal dead from all levels of society.
Morgan Moroney, an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY, is a student of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Click here for this article's list of references.Share