In the period between the reigns of Augustus and Theodosius I, numerous Egyptian obelisks were taken to Europe. These ancient monoliths made a lasting impression on almost any conqueror. But in ancient Rome, their significance was multifaceted, and also personified imperial power.
When the Romans took over Alexandria in 30 BC, they were impressed by the grandeur of the Egyptian monuments. And the self-proclaimed emperor Augustus, without thinking twice, established his rule, instantly appropriating an outstanding symbol of power - the Egyptian obelisks.
Obelisk, 88-89 AD e., Rome."
The first two obelisks in Rome were erected in the most prominent places. One was placed in the Augustus Solarium in the city of Mars. He served as the gnomon of a giant sundial. Around its base, zodiac signs were installed, denoting the months of the year. And it was positioned so that its shadow would illuminate Augustus's birthday, the autumnal equinox.
This meant that Augustus, at the helm of the new Roman Empire, appropriated thousands of years of Egyptian history. Any visitor who looked at the obelisk in the city of Mars understood that the notorious relay race was passed from one great civilization to another.
The obelisk's usefulness as a horologist was also important. As Grant Parker, an associate professor of classics, noted, "the authority to measure time can be an indicator of government power." This meant that a new Roman era had begun.
Karnak, Colossi, 1870."
Another obelisk, now located in Piazza del Popolo, was originally erected in the center of the Circus Maximus of Ancient Rome. This stadium was the city's premier venue for public games and chariot races. Six others were transported to Rome by later emperors, and five were built there.
The tallest of these currently stands in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. This is one of two obelisks that Constantine the Great wanted to take out of Egypt before his death. He did what Augustus did not dare to do for fear of sacrilege: Constantine ordered to tear the world's tallest obelisk from its consecrated place in the center of the temple of the sun and take it to Alexandria.
Roman temple complex with Egyptian obelisks, Jean-Claude Golvin."
As the audience changed, so did the meaning of the object. Ancient Rome of the 4th century AD, rapidly Christianizing under the house of Constantine, no longer viewed Egyptian monuments with the superstitions of Caesar Augustus.
If Egyptian obelisks as a whole represented the power and appropriation of heritage by the Romans, the question remains of what their original creators intended. Pliny the Elder says in his notes that a certain king Mesfres ordered the first of these monoliths in the early dynastic period of Egypt. Symbolically, he worshiped the sun god. However, its function was to divide the day in two with its shadow.
Erection of the Obelisk of Constantine in Rome, Jean-Claude Golvin."
Later pharaohs erected obelisks, possibly due to devotion to the gods and worldly ambitions in equal measure. A sense of prestige was associated with them. Part of this prestige came from the actual movement of the monoliths. Egyptian obelisks have always been carved from a single stone, which made their transportation especially difficult. They were mainly mined in the vicinity of Aswan and often consisted of pink granite or sandstone.
Queen Hatshepsut commissioned two particularly large obelisks during her reign.In her own display of power, she demonstrated them along the Nile before setting up at Karnak. This notion that the gigantic effort required to transport the Egyptian obelisks lent them a heightened sense of prestige and wonder was also a factor in ancient Rome. Perhaps even more so, since now they were sent not only down the Nile, but also across the sea.
Circus Maximus at the time of Constance II, Jean-Claude Golvin."
The labor required to load the Egyptian obelisk onto a riverboat at Aswan and transport it to another Egyptian city was enormous. But this venture was an easy job compared to what the Romans had to face. The obelisks had to be lowered, submerged, transported from the Nile across the Mediterranean to the Tiber, and then re-installed in place in Rome - all without destroying or damaging the stone.
The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes naval vessels that were custom made for this task: they were hitherto unknown in size and had to be driven by three hundred rowers each. These ships arrived at the port of Alexandria to receive the monoliths after being lifted up the Nile in small boats. From there they crossed the sea.
Detail of the sun god Ra, featuring a falcon head supporting the sun disc."
Upon reaching a safe place in the port of Ostia, other ships specially built for sailing the Tiber received monoliths. And it is not at all surprising that such a thing plunged into awe the crowd of provincial spectators. Even after the successful delivery and erection of the obelisks, the ships that transported them were treated with almost equal admiration.
Caligula had one ship that took part in the transportation of his Egyptian obelisk, which today is the central part of the Vatican and was exhibited for some time in the Gulf of Naples. Unfortunately, he was the victim of one of the many notorious fires that devastated Italian cities during that period.
Unfinished obelisk, Aswan, Egypt."
Each Egyptian obelisk rests on a base. And while they are certainly less fun to watch, the bases often have a more interesting history. Sometimes they are as simple as an inscription detailing the process of transporting an Aegean monument in Latin. This was the case with the original foundation of the Lateran Obelisk of Constance, which is still in the ruins of the Circus Maximus.
In other cases, they were written in such a way that their meaning was deliberately indistinguishable. The Egyptian obelisk that currently stands in Piazza Navona is an example of this. It was commissioned by Domitian for production in Egypt, who gave a clear indication that the shaft and base should be inscribed with Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs on the staff proclaim the Roman emperor "the living image of Ra".
Caligula's ship in port, Jean-Claude Golvin."
Since few Romans were familiar with the epigraphy of Middle Egypt, it is clear that Domitian did not want this to be understood. But, rather, having appropriated the ancient writing of Egypt, he doubled the power of Rome over it. And in no uncertain terms, these monoliths anointed Ancient Rome as the legacy of Egypt.
It is also worth noting that Domitian could easily have obtained an obelisk of a similar work carved in Italy - in fact, other emperors had it. His direct commissioning of works in Egypt is proof that the value of the facility has been increased by transportation from that country.
Piazza Navona, Gaspard van Vittel, 1699."
It took more than two years and two and a half million dollars to deliver the monolith to Paris. The French barge Le Luxor sailed from Alexandria to Toulon in 1832 after being trapped in Egypt for a year, waiting for the Nile to flood.She then sailed from Toulon across the Strait of Gibraltar and up the Atlantic, finally mooring at Cherbourg.
In the next century, the Egyptian government announced the presence of two Alexandrian obelisks, on condition that those to whom they were addressed received them. One went to the British. Another was offered to the Americans. When William Henry "Billy" Vanderbilt heard of this opportunity, he jumped at it. He promised any amount of money to get the remaining obelisk back to New York. In his letters, in which the deal was negotiated, William was very Roman about the acquisition of the monolith: he said something in the sense that if Paris and London had one each, New York would also need one. Nearly two millennia later, the possession of the Egyptian obelisk was still considered the great legitimizer of empires.
The proposal was accepted. The obelisk went to North America on a long and rather bizarre journey, as detailed in the New York Times. It was erected in Central Park in January 1881. Today it stands behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is known by its nickname "Cleopatra's Needle." This is the last Egyptian obelisk to ever live in permanent exile from its homeland.
Cleopatra's Needle, which was eventually moved to New York, was stationed in Alexandria, Francis Frith, circa 1870."
It is probably for the best that the Arab Republic of Egypt has finally put an end to what Ancient Rome began. No Egyptian monuments, obelisks or anything else found on Egyptian soil can henceforth leave the Egyptian land.