obelisk, slender four-sided tapering monument, usually hewn of a single great piece of stone, terminating in a pointed or pyramidal top. Among the ancient Egyptians these monoliths were commonly of red granite from Syene and were dedicated to the sun god. They were placed in pairs before the temples, one on either side of the portal. The greatest number erected in any one place was in Heliopolis, but eventually almost every temple entrance was flanked by a pair of them. Down each of the four faces, in most cases, ran a line of deeply incised hieroglyphs and representations, setting forth the names and titles of the Pharaoh. The cap, or pyramidion, was sometimes sheathed with copper or other metal. Obelisks of colossal size were first raised in the XII dynasty. Of those still standing in Egypt, one remains at Heliopolis and two at Al Karnak, one from the time of Thutmose I and one of Queen Hatshepsut which is estimated to be 97.5 ft (29.7 m) high. Many of the historic shafts have been carried from Egypt, notably one of the reign of Ramses II from Luxor, now in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, and Cleopatra's Needles in London and New York. Others are in Rome and Florence. In the United States two familiar structures of obelisk form (though not monoliths) are the Washington and the Bunker Hill monuments.

An obelisk (from Greek ὀβελίσκος - obeliskos, diminutive of ὀβελός - obelos, "spit, nail, pointed pillar) (المسلة Al-Masalla in Arabic) is a tall, narrow, four-sided, tapering monument which ends in a pyramidal top. Ancient obelisks were made of a single piece of stone (a monolith); however, most modern obelisks are made of individual stones, and can even have interior spaces. The original form is Egyptian and all subsequent versions are derived from the original Egyptian pattern.

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

Because of the Enlightenment-era association of Egypt with mortuary arts, (and generally with great antiquity), obelisks became associated with timelessness and memorialization.

There are many smaller obelisks or similar forms to be found in European and American cemeteries, and may be from a few meters in height.

Ancient obelisks


Obelisks were prominent in 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 Greek traveler, was the first to describe the objects. Twenty-nine 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 only nine remain in Egypt.

The earliest temple obelisk still in its original position is the 20.7 m / 68 ft high 120 tons red granite Obelisk of Senusret I of the XIIth Dynasty at Al-Matariyyah part of Heliopolis.

The obelisk symbolized the sun god Amon Re, 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). 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 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 graces the square in front of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. this one is 105.6 feet tall and weighs 455 tons

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 of his grand new city Caesarea in northern Judea. This one is about 40 feet tall and weighs about 100 tons. 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 originally stood 95 feet tall weighing 380 tons its lower half reputedly also once stood in Istanbul but is now lost. It now stands 65 feet tall probably not much if any more than 200 tons.

Rome is the obelisk capital of the world. The most prominent is the 25.5 m / 83.6 ft high 331 tons 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.

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, and 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 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, 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), which itself set a new standard in communicating technical information and influenced subsequent architectural publications by its meticulous precision. 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 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 around the world. 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 tons obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

There are 29 known ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following locations:


One obelisk form is known from the early Assyrian civilization, represented by the Black Obelisk of King Shalmaneser III from the 10th century BC, now in the British Museum.


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 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. Italy agreed in a 1947 UN agreement to return the obelisk but did not affirm its agreement until 1997, after years of pressure. In 2003 the Italian government made the first steps toward its return, and in 2008 it was finally re-erected.

The largest obelisk, Great Stele at Axum, now fallen, at 33 m high and 3 by 2 meters at the base (520 tons) 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-story 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 various "stelae fields".

Ancient Roman

The Romans commissioned obelisks in an Egyptian style.


  • 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.


The "Tello Obelisk", from Chavín de Huantar, which used to be housed in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú in Lima until it was relocated to the Museo Nacional de Chavín in July 2008 is a monolith stele with obelisk-like proportions.

Notable modern obelisks

(Listed in date order)

17th century

18th century

19th century

20th century

21st century


Further reading

  • Wirsching, Armin: Obelisken transportieren und aufrichten in Aegypten und in Rom. Norderstedt: Books on Demand 2007, ISBN 978-3 8334-8513-8

External links

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