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For the obelisk punctuation mark, see dagger (typography).

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

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.


Ancient obelisks

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

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 Byzantium, 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 25.5m obelisk at St. Peter's Square in Rome, the re-erection of which, by Domenico Fontana , was a famous feat of 17th century engineering, that Fontana detailed in a book illustrated with engravings. 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 21m Cleopatra's Needles in London and New York and the 23m obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

There are 27 known ancient Egyptian obelisks in the following locations:

  • Egypt - 8
  • France - 2
  • Israel - 1
  • Italy - 11
  • Turkey - 1
  • United Kingdom - 3
  • United States - 1

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 24m 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 1935 where it stood in the Piazza di Porta Capena. In 2003 the Italian government agreed to return it, and as of 2004 it is in transit to Axum.

Modern obelisks

  • Villa Medici, Rome -- a 19th century copy of the Egyptian obelisk moved to the Boboli Gardens in Florence in 1790.
  • Villa Torlonia, Rome - 2 obelisks erected 1842.
  • Foro Italico, Rome (on Lungotevere Marasciallo Diaz) - obelisk erected in 1932 to honour Mussolini.


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.

External links

  • Obelisk of the World

Last updated: 02-05-2005 07:25:52
Last updated: 02-26-2005 20:25:43