The Ancient Egyptian Obelisks of Rome

Jan 19, 2022 0 comments

When the Romans were not busy moving earth to build colossal amphitheaters and aqueducts, they were busy moving obelisks. The city of Rome has thirteen obelisks—the most in any city—out of which eight belonged to ancient Egyptian dynasties. The others were carved in Egypt at the request of the wealthy Romans, or made in Rome as copies of ancient Egyptian originals. They were transported across the Mediterranean Sea on huge vessels; the transportation itself was such a commendable feat that one of the ships that carried these granite monuments was placed on display after the successful delivery. As noted by Pliny the elder:

But the most difficult enterprise of all was the carriage of these obelisks by sea to Rome, in vessels that excited the greatest admiration. Indeed, the late Emperor Augustus consecrated the one that brought over the first obelisk, as a lasting memorial of this marvelous undertaking, in the docks at Puteoli; but it was destroyed by fire. As to the one in which, by order of the Emperor Caligula, the other obelisk had been transported to Rome, after having been preserved for some years and looked upon as the most wonderful construction ever beheld upon the seas, it was brought to Ostia, by order of the late Emperor Claudius; and towers of Puteolan earth being first erected upon it, it was sunk for the construction of the harbor he was making there.

Erecting an obelisk on Peter's Square in Rome.

Lateran Obelisk

The largest standing ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world and the heaviest to be transported is the Lateran Obelisk standing in the square across from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran and the San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital. It is 32 meters tall (45 meters with base) and originally weighed 413 tons, but after collapsing and being re-erected 4 meters shorter, now weighs around 300 tons.

The obelisk was created around 1400 BC by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC) for himself and another for his father, but neither were completed before his death. Thutmose III's grandson, Thutmose IV (1400–1390 BC) finished the obelisks and had them erected near the great temple of Amun in Karnak. The obelisk was brought to Alexandria over the Nile on a ship in the early 4th century by Constantius II, where it remained for a few decades. Constantius II then had the Lateran obelisk shipped to Rome where it remained standing until after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. It eventually broke or were taken down. Pieces of the broken obelisk remained buried in mud for the next thousand years until they were dug up in 1587 and restored. Due to missing pieces, the new obelisk was 4 meters shorter than the original. The obelisk was topped with a cross and the pedestal was decorated with inscriptions explaining its Egyptian history and its travels to Alexandria and Rome, mentioning the baptism of Constantine the Great.

Lateran Obelisk. Photo: Steve Collis/Flickr

Vaticano Obelisk

The Vaticano obelisk originally stood in Alexandria where it was erected on Augustus' orders around 30–28 BC. It was brought to Rome by Caligula in the year 40 for the spina of the Vatican Circus. It was relocated to its current site, St. Peter's Square, in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. At 25.5 meters, it is the second tallest obelisk in Rome.

Vaticano Obelisk. Photo: Cristiano Cani/Flickr

Flaminio Obelisk

The Flaminio Obelisk was originally quarried by the Nineteenth Dynasty Pharaoh Sety I, intending to erect in the Temple of Re in Heliopolis. After his death, Sety's son and successor Ramesses II completed its inscriptions and set it up in Heliopolis. It was brought to Rome in 10 BC by the command of Augustus and placed on the spina of the Circus Maximus. The obelisk was discovered in 1587, broken into three pieces, together with the Lateran Obelisk. It was erected in the Piazza del Popolo by Domenico Fontana in 1589, at the command of Pope Sixtus V.

Flaminio Obelisk. Photo: Rodney/Flickr

Obelisk of Montecitorio

The Obelisk of Montecitorio, also known as Solare, was erected in Heliopolis during the reign of Psammetichus II (595–589 BC). It was brought to Rome in 10 BC by Augustus along with the Flaminio Obelisk, and was erected as the gnomon of the Solarium Augusti, his giant sundial in the Campus Martius. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, probably because of fire, earthquake or war, the obelisk collapsed and then, progressively, became buried. It was excavated and restored by Pope Pius VI between 1789 and 1792.

Obelisk of Montecitorio. Photo: YJ Zhao/Flickr 

Macuteo Obelisk

The Macuteo obelisk was originally one of a pair at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis, the other being the now much shorter Matteiano. It was moved to the Temple of Isis near Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and later erected in Piazza Macuta in the 14th century.

Macuteo Obelisk. Photo: Percy/Flickr

Elephant and Obelisk

The Elephant and Obelisk, depicting an elephant carrying an obelisk, was originally erected by Pharaoh Apries of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt, about 580 BC, in his capital Sais. It was brought to Rome in the first century AD for the temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis that was located there. It now stands adjacent to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The ornamental elephant base was designed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Elephant and Obelisk. Photo: Paul Williams/Flickr

Dogali Obelisk

The Dogali obelisk was originally one of a pair from Heliopolis, the other now in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. It was moved to the Temple of Isis in Rome, probably in the 1st century. It was re-erected in 1883 to commemorate the Battle of Dogali.

Dogali Obelisk. Photo: Jamie Heath/Flickr

Matteiano Obelisk

The Matteiano obelisk was originally one of a pair at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis, the other being the Macuteo which retains much more of its original height. It was moved to the Temple of Isis near Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and re-erected east of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline in the 14th century. It was moved to Villa Celimontana after Michelangelo redesigned the square in the late 16th century. At 2.6 meters, it is the smallest obelisk in Rome.

Matteiano Obelisk. Photo: Tristantech/Flickr


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