Obelisks and Their History

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1388 Words
Date:  2021-03-05

An obelisk is a four sided monument with narrow tapering ends and a top in the shape of a pyramid. Ancient Egyptians are credited with being the first to build them. To the ancient Egyptians, they were "tekhenu". However, the Greeks referred to them as obeliskos. The term obeliskos was adopted by Latin and English. The first obelisks were monolithic. The art of obelisks was popular among ancient Egyptians who had them placed at the entrance of temples in pairs. Herodotus, a Greek traveller and classical writer, is among the first people to document of the obelisks. However, knowledge of these art pieces led to their acquisition and distribution around the world. The spread of obelisks around the world led to the adoption of new meanings attached with obelisk as a symbol, the obelisk outgrew the Egyptian concept of divinity and religion to evolve into a symbol of power, influence and might in various parts of the world.

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The earliest obelisk dated goes back to the XIIth Dynasty at Al-Matariyyah, which was a section of Heliopolis. It is the red granite Obelisk of Senusret I. It was a representation of the sun god Ra. Its structure was believed to house the god. Ra, the sun god, was believed by the Egyptians as their most powerful deity. The sun was a sign and source of power. All great possibilities were associated with the sun god Ra. At certain periods, it was believed the sun gods spirit would possess the stones. At these periods, human sacrifices were offered to it. Victims of these sacrifices were slaves or prisoners of war foreigners captured alive. In the absence of these, the temple priests must have found subjects from the local population. Benbens were erected in Ras honor at On by kings in succession. Consequently, at around 1300 BC, the city was full of obelisks. Pliny. The Roman author wrote about the city where kings were in a rivalry in creating elongated blocks of stone and consecrating them to the suns divine power.

Astronomical phenomena could have also been responsible for the creation of the pyramids and obelisks. This aspect has previously not been looked into in detail by researchers. Phenomena such as sunrise and sunset were revered due to their unexplained recurrence. The pyramids may have been zodiacal light and the obelisks sun pillars. The first obelisks were known as benben stones. Their form was a rough shape and truncated at the end. However, their pyramid ion shape which was tipped off differentiated them from monumental columns of other kinds.

The Egyptian custom of obelisks had a wide influence globally. Consequently, many empires had obelisks installed at ceremonial venues. To the Ancient Egyptians, they were sacred objects. The Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions that adorn many of the obelisks were indecipherable. However, this did not detain the transport of obelisks from Egypt to empires such as Rome, Constantinople and Paris.

New obelisks and obelisk inspired buildings were made. An example is the Washington Monument. To those who adopted the obelisk custom it represented a unique type of power. The adoption of the obelisk brought with it a new interpretation of its status. New meanings and associations were attributed to them. The Egyptians took it as a symbol of the pharaohs right to rule. Moreover, it held a divine connection. The Romans considered them as a sign of the maturation of the empire. To residents of 19th century New York, the obelisk installed at Central Park was a symbol of dismissal of the empire and all it stood for, since the United States was getting powerful. In the 20th century, the readers of Freud have associated the obelisk to anatomy and physiology. It is a symbol of power or dominance.

The obelisk form had a great influence on the Romans. The result was that there are more obelisks standing in Rome than those remaining in Egypt. However, not all the Egyptian obelisks were installed at Rome. In his new city of Caesarea in Northern Judea, Herod the Great had a red granite Egyptian obelisk set up in the hippodrome. However, archaeologists found it and have taken it back to its original location.

The Eastern Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople had an obelisk shipped to his hippodrome. It withstood the battles with Crusaders and conflicts with the Seljuks and still stands in Istanbul. However, its lower half is missing despite being said to have stood in Istanbul. Rome has the largest numb of obelisks in the world currently. One well-known is the obelisk at Saint Peter's Square flanking St Peter's Basilica.

Many obelisks existed out of Egypt despite adopting the same style. The Romans had several obelisks imitating the Egyptian style. At Benevento in Italy, Arles in France and in the capital Rome. The obelisks were in the style of the Egyptians.

Ethiopians also possessed a number of obelisks. Most of which were acquired by British explorers. The Ethiopians put the obelisks up in memory of the achievements of kings. Currently, the British Museum is in possession of four Assyrian obelisks. The White Obelisk of Ashurnasirpal I was taken from Nineveh. The obelisk has inscriptions that depict the king seizing property which he transported back to Ashur. Moreover, the reliefs show military campaigns, hunting, victory celebrations and bearing tributes.

The Rassam Obelisk is named after Hormuzd Rassam, who discovered it. It was located on the citadel of Nimrud. Researchers are of the opinion it was erected by Ashurnasirpal II. It now only exists in fragments and depicts tributes being offered to the king from Syria.

In 1846, Sir Austen Henry Layard found the Black Obelisk on the citadel of Kalhu. It was erected by was erected by Shalmaneser III. It shows tributes being given by conquered rulers notably Jehu the Israelite and Sua the Gilzanean. The engravings have epigraphs alongside them. In addition, there is a version of Shalmaneser IIIs annals. The oldest recorded obelisk from Assyria is the Broken Obelisk which was reconstructed in British hands. Its discovery is again credited to Rassam at Nineveh. However, only the top has been reconstructed. It dates back to the 11th century.

Three ancient Egyptian obelisks stand erected in London, Paris, and New York City. They were erected in the nineteenth century. They are popularly referred to as Cleopatras needles. The obelisks at London and New York were a pair. On the other hand, the obelisk at Paris is one of a pair that was removed from another site where its twin remains. Despite their name (Cleopatras needles), the needles have no relation to Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. They may have been over a thousand years old when she was alive. The needles are original ancient Egyptian obelisks though.

Topics to further Write on

Axumite, Byzantine, Pre-Columbian obelisks.

Modern secular view of obelisks

Religious view of obelisks

Symbolism of obelisks removal from original locations


The obelisk originated from ancient Egypt where it was revered as a religious symbol, a tribute to the sun god. The sun god was considered as the most powerful deity in ancient Egyptian culture. Obelisks in Egypt were therefore a dedication to the sun god. Consequently, kings were in competition to build the best and this spurred the presence of obelisks in the Egyptian lands. The culture spread through visitors to the kingdom and was adopted by foreign nations such as Assyria and Rome. The adoption of the obelisks was followed by different connotations by those who adopted them. The Romans saw I obelisks a symbol of their rising dominance. The Ethiopians saw the obelisks as a symbol of their kings achievements. Consequently, with the spread of political and cultural affairs globally, the obelisk has evolved in meaning to many groups. It stands a representation of status, wealth, power or authority. The current interpretations of the symbolic nature of the obelisk are all derived from the ancient Egyptian connotations. The obelisk has therefore not strayed far from its originally conceived symbol.


Brier, Bob. The History of Ancient Egypt. Chantilly, Va: Teaching Co, 2001.

Curran, Brian A., Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin Weiss. Obelisk: A History. Cambridge, Mass: Burndy Library, 2009.

Habachi, Labib, and Charles C. Siclen. The Obelisks of Egypt: Skyscrapers of the Past. New York: Scribner, 1977.

Iversen, Erik. Obelisks in Exile. Copenhagen: Gad, 1968.


AFRICA'S CULTURAL HERITAGE." African Affairs 98 (1999): 229-239.

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