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Egyptian Obelisks in Rome & Beyond

Did you know there are more ancient Egyptian obelisks standing in Rome than there are anywhere else in the world, including all of Egypt? Besides a handful in Egypt, there are also obelisks in Arles, Istanbul, Paris, London and New York. In Rome there are 13 of them standing in prominent positions and piazzas around the city. Following a trip to Rome, during which I became quite intrigued by these ancient objects, I decided to research the histories of these obelisks around the world to found out more about why they have ended up where they are. To my delight, I found someone had beaten me to it. 

Circus Maximus Rome At Dawn
Rome’s circus maximus, or chariot-racing stadium. The earliest chariot races took place very early in the Republican era. Today it is a public park – with a lone tree standing roughly where an obelisk from Egypt once stood.

What is an Obelisk?

The first pylon of the Temple of Luxor, showing a single standing obelisk.
Once a pair of obelisks stood at the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt. Today only one remains, the other is on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Egyptian Obelisks in Rome

Piazza Della Minerva Rome
The Minerveo Obelisk in the Piazza della Minerva, the elephant, sculpted by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the obelisk’s pedestal giving the impression the animal is carrying the object. You can see the base of the red granite obelisk on the elephant’s back.

How Many Egyptian Obelisks Are In Rome?

The Emperors’ Needles by Susan Sorek

Ancient Obelisks in Rome

Flaminio Obelisk

At the centre of Piazza del Popolo stands one of the first Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome by Augustus to mark the 20th anniversary of his conquest of Egypt in 10 BC. Made of Aswan granite, the obelisk was made for Seti I before 1300 BC, but only three sides bear his inscriptions. Ramses II had the fourth side inscribed. In Rome the Flaminio obelisk was erected at the eastern end of the spina at the Circus Maximus. During excavations in 1587 the obelisk was found and then moved to the Piazza del Popolo under instruction from Pope Sixtus V. The Egyptian style lions and basins were added in 1823 by the Italian architect Guiseppe Valadier.

Minerveo Obelisk

In a small piazza behind the Pantheon is the smallest obelisk in Rome – only 5.5 m high. This is one of a pair (the other is in Urbino, Italy) made for Hophra and erected at the Temple of Saïs in Lower Egypt during his reign (586 – 570 BC). There is very little information about how they got to Rome and where they were erected. It is possible this pair were placed at the entrance to Augustus’ mausoleum. They were discovered during excavations in 1665, in the remains of what was the Temple of Isis, but initially interpreted as a Greek temple of Minerva. The base was created by Bernini, and the obelisk re-erected in 1667.

Navona Obelisk

In front of the Baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, on one of the most picturesque piazzas of Rome, stands the Navona Obelisk. Although it is made of Egyptian granite the obelisk was commissioned by Emperor Domitian and the hieroglyphs were carved by Roman stonecutters. Some of the images represent Domitian as a Pharoah, the only obelisk in Rome to depict an emperor as a pharaoh. Domitian has the obelisk erected at the
Temple of Isis and Serapis, it was then moved by Maxentius to a circus named for him. Although admired by Romans and visitors alike today for its position in a Bernini fountain, its re-erection in the piazza in 1648 was controversial because of the costs.

Rotunda Obelisk

In front of the Pantheon is the 16th century Fontana del Pantheon. The centre-piece of the fountain is an obelisk, added in 1711. The obelisk was built for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis. This is the first of two obelisks the Roman Emperor Domitian had brought to Rome to decorate his newly completed Iseum Campense, a shrine to the Egyptian god Isis that stood to the southeast of the Pantheon.

Sallustiano Obelisk

In the Piazza della Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps is an obelisk that was commissioned by a Roman emperor, possible Hadrian. Because the hieroglyphs are the same as those on the Flaminio Obelisk, and much poorer in workmanship, it is thought this is a 3rd century AD replica of that obelisk. The name comes from its first position in the Gardens of Sallust. The obelisk was almost certainly toppled by the Goths lead be Alaric when they entered Rome at the Salarian Gate in 410 AD. Before being erected in its current position in 1789, there was an attempt to take it to Paris to stand in front of the Notre Dame cathedral.

Vatican Obelisk

Of the 13 Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome, the Vatican Obelisk is the only ancient obelisk in Rome to have remained standing since Roman times. It was the largest non-inscribed obelisk to leave Egypt, at 25.5 m high and weighing an estimated 326 tonnes. It was Gaius Caligula who had the obelisk bought to Rome in 37 AD. The obelisk was originally erected in gardens Caligula had inherited from his mother, and then on the central spina of a circus, where it stood until 1585 when it was re-erected in its present position the centre of St Peter’s Square in the Vatican.

Ancient Obelisks in Other Cities Around the World

Arles Obelisk

An uninscribed obelisk made of red granite and brought to France from Egypt by Constantine I. Arles was one of Constantine’s favourite cities, and here he built baths and an impressive amphitheatre – so well preserved it is still in use today. The obelisk was placed on the spina of the circus – the remains of which can still be seen near the archaeology museum. In late antiquity the obelisk fell and broke in two. Rediscovered in 1389, it was later re-erected in the centre of the Place de la République by Louis XIV.

Boboli Gardens

The Boboli Gardens, directly behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, are one of the first formal Italian Gardens. Laid out in the 16th century, the private gardens of the Medici Family served as inspiration for many Royal Courts of Europe. The primary axis of the garden is centred on the rear of the palace, which begins with a landscaped amphitheatre, rising up Boboli Hill from which there are spectacular views of Florence. The gardens have many statues of many styles and periods. The Egyptian Ramesside Boboli Obelisk was relocated here in 1790 from the Villa Medici in Rome.

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Situated on the northern embankment of the Thames River in London is one of a pair of ancient obelisks that were erected in 1475 at the Egyptian city of Heliopolis by Thutmose III. The other now stands in Central Park, New York. In 12 BC the pair were moved from Heliopolis (Cairo) to Alexandria by Cleopatra. Sometime after 1200 AD when both were noted as still standing, the obelisk that was taken to London toppled. Suggestions are this was in 1303 when an earthquake off Crete brought down the Alexandria Lighthouse. The obelisk was erected in London in September 1878.

Cleopatra's Needle, New York City

Standing in New York’s Central Park is one of a pair of ancient obelisks that were originally erected in in 1475 at the Egyptian city of Heliopolis by Thutmose III. The other now stands on the banks of the Thames River, London. The obelisk was offered as a gift to the US at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Since being in New York the surface of the obelisk have weathered significantly and some of the hieroglyphic inscriptions are barely visible. Thutmose had the first set of inscriptions added, and 200 years Rameses II added to these in commemoration of his military victories.

Luxor Obelisk, Place de la Concorde

At the bottom of the Champs Elysées and set in the centre of one of the most well known traffic circles in the world stands an Egyptian obelisk from the Luxor Temple. The so-called Luxor Obelisk is made of red granite, measures 22.5 metres in height and weighs an estimated 227 tonnes. This obelisk and its pair, that still stands in front of the first pylon of the temple in Luxor, were the largest obelisks to have been erected by Ramses II; others were set up at temples in Heliopolis and Tanis. The obelisk arrived in France on 10 May 1833. And on 25 October the obelisk was raised watched on by King Louis-Philippe I and an eager crowd.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

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