The ancient Egyptians hardly knew how influential they would be when they put up obelisks. Pyramids are, of course, more impressive, but if you build a pyramid, it is going to stay where you put it no matter what. Obelisks may weigh hundreds of tons, but they are still to some extent portable, and they have been exported, to various world capitals for various reasons.
In “Obelisk: A History” (The MIT Press), historians Brian A. Curran, Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long and Benjamin Weiss tell about the origins of the obelisks, their travels, and what different societies at different times have made of them. It is a comprehensive survey, with many fine illustrations, indicating the universal appeal of these objects. The appeal is also shown by people building new ones, like the Washington Monument, or using obelisks on a mantelpiece for interior design, or using them as part of a New Age healing process. While this book touches on those new uses, it is mostly a fascinating review of the original Egyptian obelisks, mysterious objects that have retained their power over the centuries.
The classic obelisk is made out of one single stone. It has four sides tapering up to a cap of a pyramid (such a cap is called a pyramidion). The Egyptians used obelisks frankly to show power. Any ruler who could cause such massive objects to be carved out of stone, moved from the quarry and set upright (usually at the entrances of temples) was someone formidable.
The task of cutting an obelisk, usually from granite, was extraordinarily arduous. Iron was not available to the quarrymen, at least through most of the years that obelisks were being carved and erected, and bronze and copper tools could not carve granite. We know from an obelisk that never entered the final stages of being freed from its surrounding rock that workers used stone tools, especially balls made of dolerite, a hard mineral from Egypt”s southern desert. They used these to cut trenches in the rock at the sides of the future obelisk. “Rather than being cut or chiseled, the trenches were literally bashed out of the rock.”
The trenches were big enough to admit a man, because eventually men would have to get in for the difficult task of bashing away the rock from underneath. Sometimes inscribing the obelisk with hieroglyphs was done at the quarry.
Carving the obelisk out was just the start of the labor, for it had to be transported to the temple at which it would be displayed. There are pictures from tombs and temples showing how the Egyptians did this, but details of the process are still mysterious. It took levers, ropes and rollers, and lots of muscle; a document from the reign of Ramses IV, circa 1150 BCE, lists 8,362 men as being involved in the haul of one stone, not counting the 900 who died in some way during the process.
Plenty of these obelisks wound up in Rome. When my wife and I visited years ago, we were impressed with how many there were, and took some offense that each of them had been capped with a cross, an addition which detracted from the austere beauty of the big stones, as well as being a bit of architectural gloating. We did not realize that this is a game that has gone on long before Christianity.
The pharaohs themselves were swiping obelisk credit one from another. Since manufacturing an obelisk could take decades, it might be finished by a successor of the pharaoh who had originated it and had expected his name to be proclaimed all over it. The successor might have the original name chipped off with his own name substituted. Emperor Augustus installed Cornelius Gallus as prefect of Egypt after Cleopatra and Marc Antony were defeated, and Gallus added an inscription in bronze letters to the obelisk that eventually wound up in St. Peter”s Square. Gallus killed himself after being charged with corruption, and the letters were removed; it was only after a close inspection of the stone in 1959 that the hole pattern allowed the inscription to be reconstructed. This stone was “improved” by Pope Innocent XIII in 1723, who decorated it with bronze festoons and eagles (the eagle being the symbol of his family). When the new decoration was done, people mocked what the authors call “the shamelessness of ”tagging” the obelisk with so much bronze pontifical graffiti,” but the decorations are still there.
Rome got the major portion of Egyptian obelisks, with different Caesars taking claim for them. That the stones came from pagan sources eventually became a worry for some, so part of the ceremony of installing an obelisk was to exorcise the stone.
The one in St. Peter”s had a bishop solemnly climb a ladder, sprinkle it with holy water, and speak a modified baptismal proclamation to it “… that you may be an exorcised stone.” The obelisk had been erected in the Vatican Circus around 37 CE by Emperor Nero, but its move in 1586 (and its baptism) were necessitated by the new layout of St. Peter”s.
The move was a huge engineering feat, a long-running street drama that throngs appreciated. The engineers could not use any hints from their Egyptian or Roman predecessors, for the ways the ancients had moved the obelisks were long since forgotten (similar to how the language carved upon the stones had been forgotten). Domenico Fontana was the engineer of the move, which required, among other things, lowering the stone by the use of 40 capstans, each with three or four horses, and all exquisitely coordinated by trumpet blasts and bells.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, it was not until Napoleon that another obelisk left Egypt. By that time, obelisks had lost some of their mystery, as the inscriptions had been decoded. The stones did not have a profound message, and were not any sort of introduction to magical arts. Obelisk inscriptions are actually rather dull, as they were “imposing pharaonic calling cards — but not much more.” They still stood for power, and still were sought for export, although, as the first sentence of the book”s introduction says, “An obelisk seems an awkward souvenir of a trip to Egypt.”
By the 1870s when London and New York were contemplating setting up separated twin obelisks, “Cleopatra”s Needles” (they weren”t Cleopatra”s) from Heliopolis, the engineering task of moving the needles was still huge, but the tools had changed. In the 18th century, the engineers were still using the wood, rope and iron which would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians. By the 19th century, there were steam engines, steel cable and hydraulic jacks.
In London, the needle produced an outpouring of Christian sentiment, since it was claimed that Moses himself and the toiling Israelites must have looked upon the monument. The needle in New York produced, unsurprisingly, a round of advertising, like the picture of Cleopatra improbably inserting a thread into her enormous needle, and hawking Imperial Diamond sewing needles. There was also the Grand Obelisk March, the Obelisk Waltz, and the Obelisk Polka.
The authors in respective chapters have covered the engineering of moving the obelisks at different times, as well as the role obelisks have played in Egyptology, nationalism, magic and crankery. There is some repetition within the chapters, excusable in such a broad overview from different authors, but the big book with its many illustrations, is not a heavy academic tome. It is a clear meditation on the symbolic power of architecture, and the fact and fancy that through the centuries people have made of these imposing and intriguing objects.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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