a tall, narrow, four-sided single shaft of stone surmounted by a small pyramid (or pyramidion); the sides of the obelisk taper slightly as they rise. The modern term derives from Greek obeliskos, meaning “little spit”—a reference to its shape. The primary ancient Egyptian term was thn; often written in the dual, thn.wy, since obelisks mostly occurred in pairs. The pyramidion on top was referred to as bnbnt.

Stone obelisks occur in two architectural contexts in ancient Egypt: in temples and before tomb-chapels (although offering loaves in the shape of obelisks are also known). In both contexts, the religious meaning of the obelisk is related to solar cults—in particular that of the sun god Re at Heliopolis—who dates back to the beginning of pharaonic history. He had as his fetish a pyramidion (called bn or bnbn), which was found in his temple. At the same time, the pyramidion was also related to the bnw-bird, or phoenix, who also dwelt upon the great bnbn at Heliopolis.

During the fifth dynasty, two sun temples were raised at Abusir by the pharaohs Userkaf and Newoserre Any. These temples had as their focal points very large obelisk-like structures that were built of separate blocks and sheathed in white limestone. The proportions of these primitive obelisks differed from those of the later, true obelisk. Contemporary with the sun temples, there began the practice of putting pairs of small obelisks at the entrance to private tombs. These funerary obelisks were usually inscribed on one side only with the name and titles of the tomb owners. The practice of using funerary obelisks continued sporadically through most of pharaonic times.

The story of true obelisks used in temples is more complex. The oldest known true obelisk survives from Heliopolis; it bears the name of Teti, the first king of the sixth dynasty, Old Kingdom. There are references to other sixth dynasty obelisks but none is known. A text within the pyramid of Pepy I refers to the “obelisks of Re,” and an inscription from Aswan made by Sabni, a local governor under Pepy II, refers to the safe delivery of two large obelisks to Heliopolis. No obelisks were made during the First Intermediate Period. The production of obelisks was resumed during the Middle Kingdom, when Sesostris I raised a pair at Heliopolis—one of which still stands, more than 20 meters (62 feet) high. He may also have sponsored the single obelisk dedicated to Horus that was later usurped by Ramesses II (and found at Tanis). Sesostris I was also responsible for a tall obelisk-like stela raised at Abgig in the Faiyum. No other great Middle Kingdom pharaohs raised any obelisks, and only a few minor ones are known from the Second Intermediate Period.

The great age of obelisks began during the New Kingdom, in the eighteenth dynasty, when Thutmose I raised a pair at Karnak. His successors Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotpe II, Thutmose IV, Amenhotpe III, Amenhotpe IV/Akhenaten, and Horemheb all continued those efforts, primarily at Karnak and Heliopolis, but in other places as well. The practice of raising obelisks continued into the nineteenth dynasty under Ramesses I, Sety I, Ramesses II, Merenptah, and Sety II. A single small obelisk of Ramesses IV is known from the twentieth dynasty. During the later pharaonic periods, again the production of obelisks became sporadic. The Kushite king Atlanersa (c.650 BCE) raised an obelisk in Nubia, although he held no power in Egypt proper. During the twenty-sixth and thirtieth dynasties, obelisks were again made for Psamtik II, Apries, Amasis, and Nektanebo II. Obelisks are also known from the reigns of Ptolemy III and Ptolemy IX, and production was resumed during the early Roman occupation of Egypt. A number of uninscribed obelisks quarried in Egypt, but destined for Rome are attributed to Augustus, and another is dated to the emperor Domitian. The last obelisk with an original hieroglyphic inscription seems to be dated to the emperor Hadrian, about 130 CE. It was raised, probably, in Antinoöpolis for the cult of the emperor's dead friend Antinous, who drowned in the Nile.

Although obelisks were made from a variety of stones—quartzite, sandstone, calcite (Egyptian alabaster), and schist—the most common material used was granite, generally of a reddish hue. The granite came from quarries at Aswan. The Lateran obelisk of Thutmose III is the tallest known, at just over 32 meters (97 feet) in height, and the New Kingdom obelisks are between 20 and 30 meters (62 and 92 feet). An unfinished obelisk in the Aswan quarry was intended to be over 40 meters (122 feet) high. Owing


Obelisk. Pink granite obelisk at Heliopolis, twelfth dynasty. This obelsisk is from the reign of Senwosret. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

to flaws in the stone, it was left finished, but its present state tells much about the quarrying process. After selecting a likely piece of stone in the quarry, the surface was leveled, using alternating heat and cold. The outline of the obelisk was marked, and side trenches were dug down using dolerite pounders. Once the sides were detached, the pounders were again used to break the obelisk free from the quarry floor. (Chisels and wooden wedges were not generally used to remove stones in pharaonic times.) According to an inscription of Hatshepsut at Karnak, the quarrying of a large obelisk could be completed in a mere seven months. The rough obelisk would be levered out of the quarry, perhaps fixed to a sled and set upon rollers, then dragged to the river bank. The obelisk was placed on a barge—how is not known—to be towed on the river to the site where it would be erected. A scene in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri shows a barge with a pair of her obelisks being towed by a fleet of nine towboats.

Evidence from two obelisks in Rome (the Lateran and Popolo obelisks) suggests that three sides of an obelisk were dressed and decorated while it lay on the ground, while the forth side was decorated only after the obelisk was erected. The smooth surface of the granite was achieved by pounding with diorite balls. The hieroglyphs and figures were cut into the stone using emery powder, perhaps in conjunction with copper or bronze tools, but the emery was the primary agent. On occasion, gold plating could be affixed to the upper parts of the obelisk. In some cases, a separate pyramidion was attached at the top.

Most obelisks were raised in pairs at the entrance to a temple, on either side of a primary axis. Their decoration reflects such positioning. Several single obelisks are known, but their existence may merely reflect the inability of successfully extracting or raising a pair. There is much debate as to how obelisks were actually erected. The difficulty lies in their great weight and slender form. It seems reasonable that some system was used that included an artificial hill of sand on which the obelisk could be raised and set onto its base. The base had a groove to catch and position the edge of the obelisk. Having an edge resting on the base, the obelisk would then have been pulled upright by many workers pulling on ropes affixed around the obelisk's girth.

In Egypt, obelisks are found at sites where they were first erected or where they were transported, either by the Egyptians or by the Greeks or Romans. A pair of sandstone obelisks was found in the solar chapel in front of the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, and a variety of granite obelisks of different dates were found at Elephantine and Philae. Most of the obelisks in Upper Egypt were raised at Karnak (seven pairs plus a single one) and Luxor (one pair), in conjunction with the solar aspect of the god Amun-Re The major center of obelisks in Lower Egypt was the great temple of the sun god at Heliopolis. Only the single Middle Kingdom obelisk of Sesostris I still stands at the site, but there is literary evidence concerning its mate, and fragments of other obelisks have been discovered there. A number of the obelisks from Heliopolis had been moved to other sites, primarily the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, where five such obelisks can be attested. In Ramesses II's city of Piramesse, there were a large number of obelisks, some original and some usurped. Many were also transported to the Delta city of Tanis in late pharaonic times.

During the Roman and early Byzantine periods, many of Egypt's ancient obelisks were moved abroad and new obelisks were also made for export. Written accounts of these moves survive, as does some of the physical evidence of their removal from Karnak. At least fifteen obelisks were transferred to Rome, although only thirteen now remain there. In size, these obelisks range in height from less than 3 meters to more than 32 meters (10 feet to 100 feet). Of the thirteen still in Rome, as many as five were brought there uninscribed. Sometime toward the end of the fourth century CE, under Emperor Theodosius, an obelisk of Thutmose III from Karnak was transferred to Constantinople (now Istanbul), to adorn the center of the Great Hippodrome; a part of it stands there to this day. Remains of the scaffolding used to remove it are visible at Karnak.

In the nineteenth century, three of Egypt's remaining obelisks were taken abroad to Paris, London, and New York. The Paris obelisk was first raised by Ramesses II in front of the western tower of the Pylon of the Great Temple at Luxor. In 1830, after much diplomatic maneuvering, the obelisk was presented to France by Mohammed Ali, then ruler of Egypt. With great difficulty, the obelisk was taken down, shipped, and re-erected, this time in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The obelisks sent to London and New York were originally made for Thutmose III, for the temple of the sun at Heliopolis. They were transferred to Alexandria, under Augustus, to stand before the temple of the deified Julius Caesar. Ironically, they are referred to as “Cleopatra's Needles,” although they were not brought to Alexandria until twenty years after that queen's death. In 1301 CE, the obelisk now in London fell, while the other remained standing until its removal to New York. After a sea voyage that involved the loss (and subsequent recovery) of the barge holding the London obelisk in the Bay of Biscay, it was set up along the Thames River in late 1878. By comparison, the transport of the New York obelisk was uneventful, and it was re-erected in New York's Central Park in early 1881.

Renaissance Europeans and, in particular, the inhabitants of Rome rediscovered the obelisk as an architectural form. The ancient obelisks of Rome were set up in plazas—often with fountains—throughout the city. At the same time, new obelisks of various sizes were also made to commemorate events or people. Small obelisks continued as a decorative motive in European art and are sold to this day. With the reopening of Egypt by the Napoleonic Expedition of 1798, Europe and the newly formed United States experienced an Egyptian revival. Many buildings were constructed in the Egyptian fashion, and obelisks continued to be used as an appropriate funerary or civic monument. The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is in the form an obelisk, although it is constructed, not made from a single stone in the Egyptian fashion.


  • Arnold, Dieter. Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. New York, 1991. Up-to-date study on building with stone in ancient Egypt.
  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the City of Rome. Princeton, 1987. A useful discussion of the problems of the last Egyptian obelisk.
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis. Cleopatra's Needles and Other Egyptian Obelisks. London, 1926. A somewhat dated but readily available account of the obelisks and their removal from Egypt.
  • Carrott, Richard G. The Egyptian Revival: Its Sources, Monuments, and Meaning, 1808–1858. Berkeley, 1978. A general discussion of Egyptianized monuments, especially with relation to American monuments.
  • Clarke, Somers, and R. Engelbach. Ancient Egyptian Masonry: The Building Craft. London, 1930. The first thorough study of Egyptian stoneworking.
  • Curl, James Stevens. The Egyptian Revival. London, 1982. A study of Egyptianizing trends, mainly from the European perspective.
  • Dibner, Bern. Moving the Obelisks. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. A detailed account of the erection of the Vatican obelisk.
  • Engelbach, Reginald. The Aswan Obelisk. Cairo, 1922. A detailed study of the unfinished obelisk at Aswan.
  • Engelbach, Reginald. The Problem of Obelisks. New York, 1923. The first major technical study of obelisks manufacture; still unsurpassed.
  • Gorringe, Henry H. Egyptian Obelisks. New York, 1882. A detailed account of the transport of the Central Park obelisk to New York.
  • Habachi, Labib. The Obelisks of Egypt: Skyscrapers of the Past. New York, 1977. A study of obelisks; designed for the lay reader, but with material useful to the specialist.
  • Hayward, R. Cleopatra's Needles. Buxton, 1978. A discussion of the London obelisk.
  • Iversen, Erik. Obelisks in Exile. 2 vols. Copenhagen, 1968–1972. The most important and best documented work on the removal of obelisks from Egypt; includes Rome, New York, London, and Paris.
  • Iversen, Erik. The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition. Princeton, 1993. A general study on Egyptianizing trends in Europe.
  • Thompson, Peter. The Magic of Obelisks. New York, 1981. Discusses much of the lore of obelisks, including a brief account of their removal; also discusses arcane topics modernly connected to obelisks.

Charles C. Van Siclen