Usually thought to be mainly Egyptian, obelisks were created by many civilizations throughout the world.
Traditionally, a narrow four-sided monument with a pyramid on top, obelisks began in Egypt in the 12th century BC. Since then, obelisks have been built in Assyria, Axum, Rome, Byzantium, Kerala, Pre-Columbian Peru, Europe, North America, South America and the Middle East.
The obelisk plated a huge part in Ancient Egyptian culture as it represented the sun god Ra. However, during the reign of the Heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, the obelisk was believed to be the ray of Aten, the sun disk. They were usually placed in pairs at the entrances of temples, were a single solid piece of stone and were covered from top to bottom with hieroglyphics. The first Egyptian obelisk was created by Senusret I at Al-Matariyyah (later part of Heliopolis) It is unknown exactly how many obelisks were erected throughout Egypt, but twenty-nine have survived the passage of time. Of these only nine have remained in Egypt, and most of them were removed by the Ancient Romans. Egypt is also home to the world’s only incomplete obelisk, the “Unfinished Obelisk” was left only partially hewn from the quarry at Aswan. While no one knows who began the structure, it would have been almost a third larger than any other obelisk. Scholars believe that it was abandoned due to cracks within the bedrock, but it has given us a better understanding of how these giant monoliths were made.
The Assyrian kings used obelisks to commemorate their achievements. Only three Assyrian obelisks have survived and all of them are housed at the British Museum. The White Obelisk was found in Nineveh and was created either by Ashurnasirpal I or Ashurnasirpal II. The inscription is about the king’s seizure of goods and is accompanied by reliefs of military campaigns, victory banquets and tribute bearing. The Rassam Obelisk was found at the ancient citadel of Kalhu (now Nimrud). Only pieces have survived and depict tribute bearing to the king from Syria. The Black Obelisk was also discovered at Kalhu where it was erected by Shalmaneser III. It depicts tribute bearing and the submission of Jehu the Israelite and Sua the Gilzanean.
For the Axumite people who lived in what is now Ethiopia, obelisks served as grave markers for kings and nobles. Unlike Egyptian obelisks, Axumite obelisks are rectangular and usually covered with a carved door at the bottom and rows of windows all the way up and they don’t have a pyramid on the top. Because of this they are not classified as obelisks and are called stelae or hawilt in the local language. Only one of the Axumite royal monoliths has remained standing, King Ezana’s Stelae which can be found at the Northern Stelae Park in Axum. The largest Axumite stelae was the Great Stelae which was 33 meters high and weighed 520 tons making it one of the largest single pieces of stone ever worked anywhere in the world.
When the ancient Romans conquered Egypt, they began a love affair with Egyptian obelisks, and began bringing the giant sculptures back to their homeland. Thus, there are twice as many Egyptian obelisks in Rome than there are in Egypt. The most well known of these stands in the center of St Peter’s Square. Re-erecting it proved to be too much of a challenge for Michelangelo but Domenico Fontana managed to lift the 331 ton stone into place using a giant crane. While most of the Roman obelisks were sent to Rome itself, some were erected in cities like Caesarea and Constantinople. Aside from importing obelisks from Egypt, the Romans created seven of their obelisks in the Egyptian style, one in Arles, France, one in Munich, Germany and five in Rome.
In the Southern Indian state of Kerala, obelisks took a different form, becoming giant stone crosses often called St. Thomas Crosses or Trinitariums. They were erected in front of churches by the Syrian Christian or St. Thomas Christians who had close contact with the Egyptians and Assyrians. While being carved by Christians, the St. Thomas Cross is different from other Christian crosses in that it does not hold the effigy of Christ and generally symbolizes life instead of death. The crosses also include Indian traditions, incorporating the lotus flower below the cross which is a symbol of both India and Buddhism.
Found in Chavin de Huantar in north-central Peru, the Tello Obelisk is one of the most complex carvings from the Americas at the time. It was built in the center of the Old Temple’s sunken court and was constructed from white granite that was moved at least 18km to the temple. The Chavin people lived on a route between the Pacific coast and the Amazon basin and therefore their art contains natural elements from three ecological zones, the coast, the highlands and the tropical lowlands.
Today a love affair with obelisks continues and they are still used as symbols of power all over the world. Perhaps the most predominant modern obelisk is the Washington Monument which was completed in 1884 and is the world’s tallest true obelisk. Other modern obelisks can be found throughout Europe, North America, South America and even at sites in Asia and the Middle East. Also within the last couple hundred years, more obelisks have been moved out of Egypt, such as Cleopatra’s Needles, which were give as gifts in the late 1800s to England, France and the United States and now sit in London, Paris and New York respectively.