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Obelisks in Ancient Egypt

Obelisks in Ancient Egypt

Giza may have its pyramids and its sphinx; however, its obelisks are one of the most enduring and most widely travelled icons of ancient Egyptian civilisation. The ancient Egyptians developed the monumental design during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c. 2613 BCE) following their architectural evolution, which produced their mud-brick mastaba tomb designs and prior to commencing construction of the Pharaoh Djoser’s (c. 2670 BCE) Step Pyramid in Saqqarara.

An obelisk is a four-sided, solid stone pillar tapering to a point at it’s top, which forms a pyramidion. The obelisk is erected on a large base and usually commemorates a major event, an important persona or to honour the Egyptian gods.

Facts About Obelisks In Ancient Egypt

  • Ancient Egyptian obelisks were quarried from a single stone monolith using only simple technologies
  • Obelisks were erected without using machines in a process Egyptologists have struggled to replicate today
  • Ancient Egyptians carved more obelisks than any other society and many survive to this day, a tribute to ancient Egyptian engineering
  • Transporting an obelisk from its quarry site to its destination took about seven months, an impressive achievement given the size of the monolith and the primitive technology existing at the time.
  • Egyptians occasionally exported an obelisk to another country as payment for a debt.

What’s In A Name?

The word “obelisk” translates from the Greek for “spit.” A split in Greek terminology describes a long pointed piece of wood used for cooking, after Herodotus the Greek historian first write about them. The Egyptians referred to them as tekhenu, which translated as “to pierce” as in “to pierce the sky“.

Early forms of obelisks have not survived to come down to us through history. We only know of them from later inscriptions. However, they seem to have comparatively diminutive at around been only about 3 metres (ten feet) tall. At the height of their importance in Egyptian culture, they towered over 30 metres (100 feet) into the sky.

While many cultures around the world employed the obelisk form, from the Assyrian to the Mesoamericans, only ancient Egypt worked in monolithic stone and then almost always from a single piece of red granite. Each obelisk was first carved then transported to its final location before being raised onto its base.

The Deep Symbolism Obelisks Held For Ancient Egyptians

The ancient Egyptian obelisks represented their concept of benben, a primordial mound the god Atum stood on at the creation of the world. Hence, obelisks were connected with the benu bird, the Egyptian inspiration for the Greek phoenix.  Ancient Egyptians linked the benu bird with light and life and with Ra.

While retaining its link to the benu bird, from the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE) onwards, the obelisk was increasingly associated with Ra and sun worship. Reflecting the ancient Egyptian belief in balance and harmony, obelisks were always raised in pairs. Two obelisks in the heavens above mirrored the two obelisks on earth or so the ancient Egyptians believed.

The duo of obelisks was erected to honour a great king or queen’s achievements and also served to honour the gods or, more usually, a single god. During the New Kingdom period, obelisks were thought to be inhabited by the spirit of the god it was raised to honour in much the same way a god or goddess was thought to actually inhabit his or her temple.

The New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmose III (1458-1425 BCE) introduced a ceremony to ritually sanctify offerings to obelisks in the same way offerings were made at temples. These ceremonies continued through to the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE). New Kingdom pharaohs erected more obelisks than any other dynasty in the belief they would live on through these monuments as long as offerings continued following their death.

Obelisks, then, represented the earthly manifestation of the deity. Moreover, they also symbolised the immortal vitality of the pharaoh as he walked the earth continuing the ancient Egyptian concept of balance and harmony through duality.

Regardless of which pharaoh or deity they commemorated, each obelisk was raised and painstakingly positioned so that the very first and last light of each day would touch their peaks to honour Ra, the sun god. The sun god was thought to enter after a perilous journey during the night where he navigated his barge through the underworld to avoid destruction by Apophis the great serpent. Ancient Egyptians performed sacred rites to weaken and deflect Apophis so keeping their sun god safe.

Through these ceremonies, the ancient Egyptians participated in the epic cycle of day and night. Obelisks served to honour the sun god as he ascended from night each morning, before crossing the sky, only to disappear back into darkness at sunset.

On a more pragmatic level, the obelisk acted as an enormous sundial tracking Ra’s daily journey across the sky through the movement of its monumental shadow unless the sun happened to be directly overhead.

Quarrying, Carving And Transportation

The largest ancient obelisk ever quarried but never raised is the massive “unfinished obelisk” attributed to the pharaoh Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE). It can be found resting where it was abandoned at its Aswan quarry.

This site was frequently used for quarrying stone for monuments. Karnak is believed to be the unfinished obelisk’s destination. Hatshepsut had already raised the Lateran Obelisk there and Egyptians believed a pair represented ma’at balance and harmony. Today, it resides in Rome where Constanttius II had it moved sometime during the 4th century CE. The unfinished obelisk measures 42 metres (137 feet) long and is approximately 1,200 tons in weight. Work on this massive monument was abandoned when it cracked while being carved and it remains, in situ, just as it was left thousands of years ago. Ancient tool marks and measurement indications remain clearly visible on the obelisk, providing Egyptologists with insight into how these obelisks were quarried.

Workers carved an obelisk out of Aswan’s granite bedrock using only chisels and wooden wedges. Their tools were copper and stone. Diorite, a volcanic rock was used to loosen the stone once holes had been drilled into it. It remains unknown just how long it took Egyptian workers to quarry and shape an obelisk. However, records indicate the entire process, from quarrying through to transport to eventually raising the monument in place, took around seven months.

While Egyptologists and archaeologists know how these monuments were quarried carved and transported, thanks to surviving inscriptions, official records and drawings, even today no one knows how they were raised into place on their base.

Modern Fates

These towering obelisks were also the favourite loot for conquerors and government-to-government gifts. Today only eight ancient Egyptian obelisks remain in Egypt itself while obelisks can be found as far afield as England, France, Israel, Italy, Poland, Turkey and the United States.

Reflecting On The Past

Aside from being a monumental engineering achievement, obelisks represented a rich vein of symbolism and religious belief for ancient Egyptians.

Header image courtesy: Ad Meskens [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons