Obelisk: A History

James Stevens Curl on an exploration of obelisks, and what these far-from-static monuments signify

March 12, 2009

This is a useful gathering together of material relating to that Ancient Egyptian invention, the obelisk, an instantly memorable tall object, square on plan, with tapering sides (often inscribed with hieroglyphs) and a pyramidion on top, made of one piece of granite, and set in pairs on either side of entrances to temples.

These impressive creations, which required major efforts to quarry and extract the stone of which they were made, let alone to shape and carve them, did not stay put even in Egypt, and were often moved as political power shifted. With the coming of the Ptolemies and, later, the Romans, obelisks were often treated as single monuments, with new inscriptions, and when Augustus became master of Egypt he began to remove some of them from Egypt and re-erect them in Rome, partly as a demonstration of his power (here the phallic aspects are not ignored), and partly because of the liking for things Egyptian that gripped the Empire. One only has to see the vast numbers of objects in the Egyptianising style, made in Europe and now in various collections, to realise how universal was that Antique Egyptomania.

Curiously, however, hieroglyphs ceased to be understood in Europe, and by the dawn of the 5th century few could read the inscriptions on what Erik Iversen has aptly called Obelisks in Exile (1968). This would be the case until after the French expeditions at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, when scholars began to reveal the glories of Ancient Egypt to the West, culminating in the deciphering of hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion.

The visitor to Rome cannot miss the vast obelisks that stand in various city spaces, not least before St Peter's Basilica. Many had fallen or been toppled, and were set up again under the aegis of the Popes from Renaissance times. Although their inscriptions could not be read, they were recognised as important survivals from Antiquity, so were part of that legacy from a Classical past that became valued, yet by then they had acquired their own mythology. The ball on top of the obelisk re-erected in 1586 in the centre of the elliptical piazza before St Peter's was said to contain the calcined remains of Julius Caesar, but, perhaps even more importantly, the monument was perceived as a silent witness to the martyrdom of Christians, as it once stood in the Circus Gai et Neronis, and was called Pyramis Beati Petri because it was associated with the crucifixion of St Peter himself. So all these ancient obelisks that had found their way to Rome were "Christianised" by acquiring crosses on top, and were given new meanings on new sites as they were appropriated by the Church.

This book lists some of the "wandering obelisks" that stand far from their original sites, and deals with many aspects of the topic. The bibliography is fairly comprehensive, and does not ignore the remarkable speculations of the 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who actually recorded hieroglyphs: amazingly, most draughtsmen of the time treated them with cavalier disregard for accuracy. Nevertheless, Kircher's speculations led nowhere, although his suggestion that Ancient Egyptian might be linked to Coptic was eventually shown to contain more than a grain of truth.

The present review is really of an uncorrected proof copy in which the murky reproduction of the many illustrations leaves much to be desired. However, given the European obsession with obelisks, this little book adequately covers the subject.

Obelisk: A History

By Brian A. Curran, Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long and Benjamin Weiss

The MIT Press, 384pp, £18.95

ISBN 97802625101

Published 17 April 2009

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