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Obelisks in ancient Egypt

The obelisk enacts the same formula as the pyramid - maximum height for minimum base - but in different material, leading to different scale and architectural setting.

Obelisks were categorised by the ancient Egyptians themselves according to their scale; txn wr 'great obelisk' or txn aA 'major obelisk' was the term for the giant monoliths for which Egypt is famous, distinct from the smaller obelisks found at lesser shrines and at tomb-chapels, and on miniature scale as amulets.

UC 14634: the inscription on the obelisk-shaped back-pillar of a basalt statue records that the owner, an official of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty king Nekau, was responsible r irt txnw wrw 'for making great obelisks'.

The giant monolith

The surviving giant monolithic obelisks range in height from 9 to 32 metres.

The tip of the obelisk might be covered in shining metal - gold or the gold-silver alloy electrum; this would catch the first ray of the sun just before dawn, dramatising the illuminating and life-giving power of the creator. These effects are specified in the inscriptions of New Kingdom obelisks, which also make clear the intimate relation of king and sun-god (see the pages on kingship on this website).

Most often, pairs of giant monoliths of red granite from Aswan were erected in front of the massive double towers of a temple gateway. As a symbol of the sun, the creator-god of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, the giant obelisks marked the temple as a zone of sun worship. Therefore obelisks are not found in front of every temple, but only in temples associated with the sun-god.:

Augustus and the early Roman Emperors used the obelisk for their own new imperial cult: Augustus had obelisks moved from Iunu/Heliopolis to Alexandria, and an obelisk set up at the centre of a vast sundial, aligned with his own tomb where there was also an obelisk; the whole complex presents a remarkable fusion of Pharaonic and Roman architectural and engineering design, for the new solar rulers of the Mediterranean world. The Roman Emperors commissioned the first obelisks since the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. The Vatican Obelisk now in the square in front of St Peter's in Rome bears no hieroglyphic inscription, and the date of its creation is unknown; it may have been commissioned by Augustus for Alexandria, before being moved and set up in the stadium known as the Circus Vaticanus under the emperor Caligula (AD 37-41). The latest ancient inscription on an obelisk is on the smallest of the giant obelisks, at 9.25 metres; this was set up under the emperor Hadrian at the temple of his lover Antinous in Rome (after the death of Antinous in AD 130). The imperial Roman fascination for obelisks resulted in the erection of a dozen large and small examples in the city; these played a large part in stimulating interest in Egypt from the Renaissance onwards.


Smaller obelisks

Besides the several dozen outsize obelisks, there are numerous smaller obelisks, below 7 metres in height. Two categories may be distinguished:

UC 16319 (click on the image for a larger picture)

From the Late Period, the obelisk shape is used for the back pillar of non-royal statues and statuettes of deities, and as back-pillar or separate backdrop for bronze images of deities, or as containers for mummified animals or birds such as UC 52203 (perhaps Twenty-fifth or Twenty-sixth Dynasty).




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