Obelisks art history definition

Obelisks Definition


Obelisks are four sided tall, slender pillars covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions and ending with a pointed pyramidal top , usually carved from a single block of stone. They were created by the Egyptians to symbolize contact between humans on earth and the gods in the heavens. A pair of obelisks bearing commemorative inscriptions often stood at the entrance to temples, particularly those dedicated to the sun god, Ra.

Their purpose was to proclaim the king’s power and successes. These obelisks captured the imagination of foreign conquerors throughout history, and many can now be found in different parts of the world.  Their origins are traced in ancient Egypt, but they "traveled" around the world, reaching cities like Istanbul, London, Paris, Rome and New York. The oldest obelisks are 4,000 years old, while the "youngest" about 2,000. 


Obelisks Definition

 Egyptian Obelisks History


Most obelisks are made of red granite carved by ancient Egyptians. They were usually placed at the entrance of temples and tombs. The largest obelisk that can still be seen in Rome is 32 m (107 ft) tall and weighs about 455 tons. Most obelisks are engraved with hieroglyphs.These monuments were raised in the honor of the Sun god Ra, as a gratification sign for his protection, victories given to the Egyptian pharaohs, but also for asking favors. 


Obelisks look like Egyptian pyramids and symbolize the sunrays descending on Earth to warm and light it. They also glorify the pharaohs as the carved hieroglyphs say about the Egyptian kings as "loved by Ra" and "handsome like Atum (the oldest Egyptian god personifying the sunset sun)". On an obelisk the warfare bravery of a pharaoh is described in this way "His power is like that of Montu (the god of war), the bull that smashes populations and destroy the rebelled ones". 


The first obelisks were constructed in the Egyptian city of Iun (Biblical On) "The City of the Pillar", probably referring to obelisks. Greeks called it Heliopolis (The City of the Sun) because it was the main Egyptian center of the sun cult. The largest still existing obelisk is found in the quarry where it was carved, near the Egyptian city of Assuan. After finding a quality stone bed, the workers leveled it and caved small galleries below for introducing beams till the block detached from the stone bed.


The monolith, weighing 1,170 tons, was heavier than any other stone block extracted by the ancient Egyptians and was to be dragged to the Nile and sent to its destination by barge. The Assuan obelisk was abandoned when workers realized it was cracked and could not be recovered. If finished, it would have been 42 m (140 ft) tall with a base of 4x4 m (13x13 ft). The way obelisks were raised is still a puzzle. In 30 BC Egypt turned into a Roman province and many Roman emperors wanted to adorn their capital with the famous monuments (18 centuries later, Napoleon did not escape this microbe).

 About 50 obelisks reached Rome. Their translation meant the building of enormous ships, especially developed for this operation. In Rome, obelisks kept on being used in the Cult of the Sun. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome was devastated. Most obelisks were destroyed. Some popes built again the obelisks found in the ruins of the ancient city. Exorcism, blessing, holly water and incense smoke accompanied the creation of the first obelisk by pope Sixtus the Fifth (1585-1590).


Two great obelisks, which stood in Egypt for 2,500 years, were brought to Rome to commemorate Julius Caesar. These became known as Cleopatra’s Needles. Ironically, in 1878 one was transported to London and placed on the Thames River embankment. New York City received the other one, and placed it in Central Park in 1881. Several obelisks were brought to ancient Rome in imperial times, and others were made by the Romans, who imitated Egyptian hieroglyphics to simulate the real thing. 

They were erected outside temples or mausoleums or along the center line of arenas built for chariot racing. When the Roman Empire came to an end, one by one the obelisks fell and were buried. It was not until the Renaissance that a renewed interest for antiquities caused them to be unearthed.  Possibly the best known obelisk in Egypt is at the Temple of Luxor in Thebe, which was raised by Ramses II. This obelisk was originally one of a pair, each 72 feet tall and 254 tons of solid red granite. 
In 1836, Napoleon removed one and it now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. One modern obelisk that may be familiar is the Washington Monument in the United States capital. Built to honor the first president of the United States, George Washington (1732–1799), this 555 foot obelisk is the tallest building in Washington, D.C.

This red granite obelisk that stands in the Atmeidan (Square of the Horses=Hippodrome) in Istanbul  was the last one to be taken from Egypt. It was one of a pair erected at Karnak temple by Thutmosis  III. Now just under 20 meters tall, the original obelisk stood over 30 meters. It once stood with its  mate to the south of the Seventh Pylon on the transverse axis at Karnak. The pyramidion is deformed and the four sides of the shaft vary in width. On each of the faces of the  pyramidion is shown a standing god holding the hand of the king and extending to him the sign of  life. 


On the top of each face of the shaft is a scene of Thutmosis III making offerings to the god  Amon-Re, and below the scene a single column of hieroglyphs. Each begins with a list of the king’s  titles. The inscription basically commemorates one of the king’s most significant military victories:  the crossing of the Euphrates River in Syria (Great Circle of Naharina). And as Thutmosis III is  referred to as “Lord of Jubilees” on the obelisk, it may have been raised in celebration of the festival.  

Obelisks and the inscriptions on them followed a regular pattern of direction and content. They  always appeared in pairs, flanking a temple doorway, usually with particular texts on the front and  back and on the sides. For example, the obelisks of Rameses II at Luxor Temple contained the  mention of the god Amen and Harakhti, symbols of the rising sun, on the eastern obelisk; and the  mention of Atum, symbol of the setting sun, on the western obelisk.

Because temples are generally  oriented east-west, obelisks would stand on the western side of a temple gateway, with one on the  north of the entrance and one on the south. A few temples, like Luxor temple, are seemingly  oriented north-south, with obelisks on the northern face, one on the east and one on the west;  however, the orientation of the temple was still considered east-west and the appropriate pattern  applied to the obelisks.

As architectural elements, the obelisks required a certain orientation of the hieroglyphs on their  surface. As you face the obelisks and the front of the temple, the front face of the obelisks, usually  bearing a dedicatory inscription, faced into the doorway with the inscription on the left one facing  right and the inscription on the right one facing left. The inscription on the side faces of the obelisk  faced toward the front of the temple. The back face inscription ran in the same direction as the one  on the front side, and thus also faced into the entrance. 

Reading Mode :
Font Size
lines height