10 Amazing Facts About Ancient Obelisks

Obelisk, a tall, four-sided, tapered monolithic pillar with a pyramid-like shape at the top. This tall, inscribed structure can be found in the capitals of countries all over the world. So, where did this distinctive shape come from?

The first obelisks were built by the ancient Egyptians. They were cut from stone and put in pairs at temple entrances as sacred items representing the sun god, Ra. The form is thought to resemble a single sunray. There are numerous fascinating facts regarding the Obelisks, some of which are quite remarkable. Here are the ten most fascinating facts about Obelisks that will blow your mind.

1. They were built by the Ancient Egyptians, yet just a few remain in Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians erected obelisk pairs at the entrances to their temples. The columns, according to Gordon, were affiliated with the Egyptian sun god and may have depicted light beams. They were frequently topped with gold or electrum, a natural gold-and-silver alloy, to catch the first rays of morning light. Only eight Egyptian obelisks remain standing, yet only twenty-eight are in Egypt. The remainder are distributed over the world, either as gifts from the Egyptian government or as looted by foreign invaders.

Egypt’s Eight Great Obelisks:

There are eight magnificent Obelisks that still stand in Egypt today:

King Tuthmosis I built the Karnak temple in Thebes.
Queen Hatshepsut erected the Karnak temple in Thebes, which is the second Obelisk (fallen) Karnak temple in Thebes raised by Seti II (7m).
Ramses II built the Luxor Temple.
Luxor Museum was built by Ramses II Heliopolis was built by Senusret I Gezira Island was built by Ramses II (20.4m high / 120 tons).
Ramses II built the 16.97m-high Cairo International Airport.

2. The first calculation of the Earth’s circumference was made using an obelisk.

Around 250 BC, Eratosthenes, a Greek philosopher, used an obelisk to calculate the circumference of the Earth. He understood the obelisks in Sweet (modern-day Aswan) would throw no shadow at noon on the Summer Solstice since the sun would be directly overhead (or zero degrees up). He also understood that obelisks projected shadows in Alexandria at the same moment.

He calculated the difference in degrees between Alexandria and Sweet by measuring that shadow against the top of the Obelisk: seven degrees, 14 minutes—one-fiftieth the diameter of a circle. He used the physical distance between the two cities to calculate that the Earth’s rim was 40,000 kilometers (in modern units). This isn’t the accurate amount, even though his procedures were flawless: at the time, knowing the exact distance between Alexandria and Sweet was impossible.

Applying Eratosthenes’ formula now yields a figure that is astoundingly near to the real circumference of the Earth. Even his imprecise estimation was more precise than Christopher Columbus’ 1700-year-later figure.

3. True Obelisks Are Constructed From A Single Piece Of Stone

The ancient Egyptians designed obelisks that are “monolithic,” or built from a single piece of stone. For example, the Obelisk in the heart of Place de la Concorde is monolithic. It is 3300 years old and previously stood at the gateway of Egypt’s Temple of Thebes.

4. Aswan’s Unfinished Obelisk

The huge Unfinished Obelisk of Aswan is considered the world’s largest Obelisk erected by a man. It was supposed to be a 42-meter-tall obelisk weighing more than 1,200 tons. This Obelisk is one-third the size of any other obelisk in Ancient Egypt.

The remarkable narrative of its construction did not end there, for while extracting the block of stone from its mother bedrock, a large crack emerged, rendering the stone unsuitable. Queen Hatshepsut intended to build it beside another obelisk known now as “The Lateran Obelisk.”

The incomplete Obelisk was most likely created by chiseling holes into the rock in accordance with its marks. The base of the Obelisk is still linked to the bedrock of this Aswan granite quarry. Small balls of dolerite, a mineral harder than granite, are thought to have been used by the ancient Egyptians.

5. They Were Extremely Difficult to Construct

Nobody knows why or how obelisks were constructed. Granite is tough—a 6.5 on the Mohs scale (diamond is a 10)—and shaping it requires something even tougher. The metals available at the period were either too soft (gold, copper, bronze) or too difficult to employ for tools (iron’s melting temperature is 1,538 degrees Celsius; the Egyptians didn’t have iron smelting until 600 BC).

Gordon notes that the Egyptians most likely employed dolerite balls to create the obelisks, which would have required “an infinity of human effort.” Hundreds of laborers would have been required to pound granite into form with dolerite balls weighing up to 12 pounds each. This doesn’t even address how to transport a 100-foot, 400-ton column from the quarry to its location. While there are numerous ideas, no one knows for certain how they achieved it.

6. Archaeologists Used an Obelisk to Help Them Translate Hieroglyphics

Until the nineteenth century, hieroglyphics were untranslatable—mystical symbols with no underlying message. Jean-François Champollion, a French Egyptologist and linguist, had a different opinion and made it his life’s mission to discover them. His first breakthrough came from the Rosetta Stone, when he deduced the name “Ptolemy” from the symbols.

In 1819, “Ptolemy” was discovered written on the Philae obelisk, which had recently been returned to England. The letters “p,” “o,” and “l” on the Obelisk were also placed in strategic locations to spell the name “Cleopatra” (Queen Cleopatra IX of Ptolemy). Champollion was able to solve the cryptic code of hieroglyphics utilizing these clues and this Obelisk, translating their language and thereby unveiling the secrets of ancient Egypt.

7. The oldest surviving obelisks date back to recorded human history.

The earliest obelisks are almost impossibly old—ancient even by antiquity standards. “From the carvings on its face we read of an age anterior to most events recorded in ancient history; Troy had not fallen, Homer had not been born, Solomon’s temple had not been built; and Rome arose, conquered the world, and passed into history during the time that this austere chronicle of silent ages has braved the elements,” said Seaton Schroeder, an engineer who helped bring Cleopatra’s Needle to Central Park.

8. The Obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City is Egyptian.

The 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk that sits in the center of Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City was brought to Rome from Alexandria by Caligula in 37 AD. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V ordered that the Obelisk be relocated from its original location on the old Circus of Nero to the area in front of the basilica.

Even though it was only a 275-foot trek, transporting such a large stone thing (83 feet tall and 326 tons, to be exact) was highly dangerous, and no one knew how to do it. “What if it breaks?” everyone was worried.

A special commission issued a request for proposals to carry out this mammoth task, and hundreds of engineers went to Rome to submit their suggestions. In the end, architect Domenico Fontana triumphed over his many rivals, designing a wooden tower built around the Obelisk and linked to a system of ropes and pulleys.

9. Luxor Obelisk in the heart of Paris’ Place de la Concorde

The Luxor Obelisks are a pair of Ancient Egyptian obelisks carved during Ramesses II’s reign to stand on either side of the Luxor Temple gate. The left-hand Obelisk remains in Egypt, while the right-hand stone, which stands 75 feet tall, is currently in the center of Paris, France’s Place de la Concorde. The point of the Luxor obelisk on the Place de la Concorde displayed international time, making it the world’s largest sundial. It is also the oldest monument in Paris.

Both of the 3,000-year-old obelisks were previously located outside of Luxor Temple. The Parisian example landed in Paris on December 21, 1833, after traveling from Luxor via Alexandria and Cherbourg. Three years later, on October 25, 1836, King Louis-Phillipe transferred him to the heart of Place de la Concorde.

The Obelisk was donated to France by Muhammad Ali Pasha, ruler of Ottoman Egypt, in exchange for a French mechanical clock. Following the theft of the Obelisk, the automatic watch offered in compensation was revealed to be defective, having most likely been broken during delivery. The clock can still be found in a clock tower at Cairo Citadel, however it is no longer operational.

10. The Washington Monument is the world’s tallest obelisk.

The Washington Monument, which honors George Washington, the first president of the United States, was planned in 1832 and took decades to complete. It is the tallest structure in the District of Columbia by law, and it is double the height of any other obelisk in the world. It is one of Washington’s most distinctive memorials.

The base of the Washington Monument is a different color than the top. The project began in 1848, but money ran out one-third of the way through, leaving it incomplete for the following 25 years. Engineers then attempted to replicate the original marble, but weathering and condensation impacted the materials differently over time, resulting in a striking difference in look.

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