Egypt, an exotic and ancient land miles away from Rome, had an empire long before the Romans existed. Yet as you walk around the city of Rome you will see obelisks everywhere. Confused? Read on to find out why the Romans were so obsessed by the Egyptian obelisk and why they brought them to Rome.
The disastrous love affair between the Roman general Marc Anthony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt ended in 31BC with the Battle of Actium. It was dubbed Rome versus the East. The winner, Octavian, would become the first Emperor of Rome -Augustus and Egypt would be governed by the Romans for the next 500 years. The Romans were fascinated by Egypt; it was exotic and so very foreign; it stood for luxury, sensuality, absolute power over the people and of course had maintained a vast empire for thousands of years. The Romans would exploit the rich lands of Egypt for everything they could get; initially this was gold, precious gems, incense, and exotic perfumes then it became the major source of grain, marble, not to mention animals for the colosseum.
When the victorious armies came back from Egypt they wanted to show the greatness of Rome over the conquered, so they transported the ultimate object of power and religion of the Egyptians – The Obelisk.
What is an Egyptian Obelisk?
Obelisks are distinct from columns, they are huge, four-sided, tapering monolithic (one-piece) shards of Aswan pink granite with a pyramid at the top. The pyramid at the top was originally covered in electrum – a silver and gold alloy; it reflected the sun. The obelisk was like a special effect; a shaft of stone capped in light heading up towards the sky. They were dedicated to the king of Egyptian gods the Sun god Ra and often placed in pairs outside the entrance to temples and tombs. Erected by the pharaohs to honour the sun god, they were symbols of the power of the pharaoh and also of the god. Over half of the obelisks we have left in Rome were taken from Heliopolis (Modern Cairo), a few from Alexandria and one from Karnak.
The History of the Obelisk in Rome
Rome has more obelisks than any other country in the world, including Egypt. We know from records that 48 obelisks were shipped from Egypt to Rome under Roman rule. Today we know of, or should I say, have found only 13 of those originally brought here. Of the 13 that survive, 8 date back to Ancient Egyptian times between 1400-600 BC and 5 were produced under Roman rule and so bear no hieroglyphic inscriptions.
In Rome the emperors used them to decorate stadiums, mausoleums and one was set up by Augustus as a huge sundial in the campus martius near the pantheon. A number of smaller obelisks were found near the pantheon behind the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. This was the Egyptian quarter of ancient Rome and had temples to the Egyptian gods. One of the small streets behind the church bears witness to this and has a huge sandaled marble foot probably belonging to a statue of one of the Gods.
When the empire fell and the city of Rome fell into disrepair, earthquakes floods and neglect meant that the obelisks were lost, and wouldn’t re-emerge until over a thousand years later.
The Largest Egyptian Obelisk in Rome
When Sixtus V was elected pope, he undertook some major town planning and built several large roads transecting the city joining major piazzas and important churches for the pilgrims. His vision was to mark these major cross-roads with obelisks which could be seen from far away. The oldest and largest Egyptian obelisk in Rome and the world stands in front of the cathedral of Rome San Giovanni in Laterano. It was originally brought to Rome in the 4th century to decorate the spina or spine of the Circus Maximus; it is over 3400 years old and soars to a height of 32 m or 90 ft. The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo was already on the spina having been placed there by Augustus in 10BC; 3200 years old and slightly shorter at 24m or 70ft tall.
Transporting an Egyptian Obelisk
Moving these enormous monoliths was no easy task, yet the ancients had cranes that could apparently lift them clean off the ground. In the 1580s when Sixtus V moved the Vatican obelisk (a Roman version of 1st century AD weighing over 320 tonnes) it was a mammoth undertaking. It would take the architect Domenico Fontana 6 months to plan and over 900 men and 75 horses to raise.
The Resurrection of the Obelisk
In the following centuries, later popes would erect more obelisks as they were uncovered and place them in piazzas and incorporate them into fountains. All of the obelisks are surmounted with noticeably Christian symbols at the top, an example of the popes reclaiming an ancient pagan religious monument.
Whilst the days of empire are long since gone, the idea of the Obelisks as a symbol of power would continue to more recent times. Later empires would ravage Egypt for those needles of power, this is evident in the Luxor obelisk in Paris, Cleopatra’s needles in London and New York.
Tourists often ask why the obelisks of Rome have not been given back, as such it seems Egypt has not requested it, perhaps they were taken so long ago it seems natural that they remain. However, a Sudanese version ‘the Axum obelisk’ was in fact given back in 2005. Not a true obelisk and a more modern requisition it was taken by Italian soldiers in during the occupation of Ethiopia in 1937. After being hit by lightning in 2002, it was restored then broken into here pieces and shipped back.