The History of Egyptian Obelisks

The obelisk is popularly thought to represent a ray of light from the sun; while this interpretation is not accurate, it is safe to say that they have fired the imaginations of observers ever since. Most of the surviving obelisks were carried into exile in foreign capitals; twelve can be found in Rome alone. Modern architects and urban planners have also been quick to appropriate the image of the obelisk for contemporary use, from streetside decoration in cities like Chicago to national landmarks like the Washington Monument.

To the Egyptians, the tekhen (as they called the obelisk) was an important symbol of the solar cult of Ra. This cult began as a local religion in the city of Heliopolis, which is now underneath northern Cairo. This cult rose to national prominence during the Third Dynasty, and never fully relinquished its dominance until the advent of Christianity. Heliopolis is part of the Delta, and so it is unsurprising that its creation myth began with the premise that the world was a vast swamp. At the command of Ra, the first dry land emerged from this swamp in the form of the Primordial Mound. This was the first step in the establishment of order, or Ma’at, out of the chaos that reigned in the time before creation. This single mass of land rising from the waters is one of the profound images that echo throughout Egyptian art and architecture, but its most important manifestation was the Benben stone of Heliopolis.

Little remains of the great Temple of Ra-Atum at Heliopolis, but from all that we have been able to determine, this temple was always different in marked ways from those of other gods elsewhere in the kingdom. Most importantly of these differences, the central mysteries of Ra played out, not in the closed interior space where a statue of the god was kept, but in an open space where a massive pillar of stone, the Benben, stood open to the sky. The exact shape of the Benben is not known, as neither physical remains nor artistic representations have yet been found, but judging from the sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty, which appear to have been imitations of the Temple of Ra-Atum on a smaller scale, the Benben is likely to have been a stocky variation of the obelisk. Heliopolitan tradition held that the Benben was indeed the original piece of dry land that was drawn up from the waters, and which was therefore the first stretch of land upon which Ra bestowed his blessings.

The pyramids were modeled on the Benben. Before the pyramids, kings were buried in mastabas, which grew out of the concept of a palace for the deceased. As the solar tradition of Heliopolis took hold nationally in the Third Dynasty, the mastaba acquired easily the interpretation of being a representation of the Primordial Mound. Theologically, by burying the dead in a tomb that reflected the origin of life, it was another way of ensuring the renewal of life. The Step Pyramid was originally just an extension of the mastaba concept by adding additional layers, but in the Fourth Dynasty, the pyramids took on the classic shape, notably surmounted by a one-piece pyramid in miniature called the pyramidion. The same shape is at the peak of the obelisk, suggesting that the pyramid builders were emulating the same source: the Benben.

The first known obelisks of any form were the comparatively squat structures at the heart of the sun-temples built by the pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty. In these obelisks we likely see the reflection of the original Benben. By the Sixth Dynasty, however, the first obelisks of classical proportion were erected at the Temple of Ra-Atum at Heliopolis. A fragment has been found, inscribed with the name of the pharaoh Teti; Pepi II is credited with the raising of a pair of obelisks, but the remains have not been found. Subsequently, obelisks were generally commissioned in pairs.

It is not known whether tall and slender shape of the obelisk had a particular meaning in its own right, or it was massive only for the sake of being massive. From the perspective of monumental architecture, the obelisk is an efficient design, affording great height with a comparatively small investment at the base. Perhaps the advantage in height was enough; after all, the obelisk represented the land that the sun god raised above the water, so the higher it rose, and the closer it drew to Ra himself, the better.

And draw closer they did. Obelisks made in the Middle Kingdom for Heliopolis and early in the New Kingdom for Thebes are known to have stood over 65 feet in height. Then Hatshepsut raised a pair of obelisks at Karnak that rose almost 100 feet. Thutmose III built a number of massive obelisks, and at least one set outdid that of his stepmother with 105 feet, although they were only completed under Thutmose IV. The Ramessids, above all Seti I and Ramesses II, built giants that were only marginally more modest, some for the Luxor temple but more for the new capital of Piramesse in the north.

Not all obelisks could extend to such great heights. Obelisks had to be cut in a single piece, and then transported from a desert quarry to the metropolitan site. The great builders wanted to have numerous obelisks, so many more of a comparatively small scale were also built. Then the practice ended entirely with the fall of the New Kingdom, until the Romans had a few built for their own use.

Because of their long and slender shape, obelisks had to be constructed of hard stone, such as granite. One of the key sources of granite suitable for obelisk creation was at Aswan in Lower Nubia. The workers would alternately heat and cool the stone until it broke up into sections, and then they would cut away the excess from those sections that seemed suitable. It was not always a successful venture; at least one broken obelisks remains in place. The effort involved was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was done largely with stone tools. Moreover, as work progressed, the workers needed to support the cleared sections sufficiently to prevent breakage. Then, when the obelisk was complete, it had to be dragged to the Nile, where it would be placed on a huge boat. This boat, incidentally, waited in dry dock, and only when the obelisk was in place was water let in to allow the boat to float. So heavy were the largest obelisks that as many as nine other boats were needed to pull the barge to its destination.

To the modern eye, an undamaged obelisk seems beautiful and finely finished enough with its smooth surface and elegant inscription, but this is not as the obelisk would have looked in ancient times. They were also fitted with accents of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, to reflect back the light of the sun. In some cases, the pyramidion was encased in electrum; in the case of Hatshepsut’s obelisks, the entire length was said to be accented with electrum. Seen beneath the clear sky of Egypt when the sun had risen high enough to shine directly upon the obelisks, they must have seemed indeed to be the manifestation of Ra’s power on earth.


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