1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Obelisk
OBELISK (Gr. ὀβελίσκος, diminutive of ὀβελός, a spit), a form of monumental pillar; and also the term for a bibliographical reference-mark in the form of a dagger. The typical Egyptian obelisk is an upright monolith of nearly square section, generally 10 diameters in height, the sides slightly convex, tapering upwards very gradually and evenly, and terminated by a pyramidion whose faces are inclined at an angle of 60°. Obelisks were usually raised on pedestals of cubical form resting on one or two steps, and were set up in pairs in front of the entrance of temples. Small obelisks have been found in tombs of the age of the Old Kingdom. The earliest temple obelisk still in position is that of Senwosri I. of the XIIth Dynasty at Heliopolis (68 ft. high). A pair of Rameses II. (77 and 75 ft. high respectively) stood at Luxor until one of them was taken to Paris in 1831. Single ones of Tethmosis I. and Hatshepsut (109 ft. high) still stand at Karnak and remains of others exist there and elsewhere in Egypt. Colossal granite obelisks were erected by only a few kings, Senwosri I. in the Middle Kingdom and Tethmosis I., Hatshepsut, Tethmosis III. and Rameses II. of the Empire. Smaller obelisks were made in the Saite period. The Romans admired them, and the emperors carried off some from their original sites and caused others to be made in imitation (e.g. that for Antinous at Benevento): twelve are at Rome, one in Constantinople; two, originally set up by Tethmosis III. at Heliopolis, were taken by Augustus to adorn the Caesareum at Alexandria: one of these, “Cleopatra's Needle,” was removed in 1877 to London, the other in 1879 to New York. Such obelisks were probably more than mere embellishments of the temples. The pyramidions were sheathed in bright metal, catching and reflecting the sun's rays as if they were thrones of the sunlight. They were dedicated to solar deities, and were especially numerous at Heliopolis, where there was probably a single one sacred to the sun of immemorial antiquity. The principal part of the sun-temple at Abusir built by Neuserré of the Vth Dynasty appears to have been in the shape of a stumpy obelisk on a vast scale, only the base now remains, but hieroglyphic pictures indicate this form. The hieroglyph of some other early sun temples shows a disk on the pyramidion . The material employed for the great obelisks was a pink granite from the quarries of Syene, and in these quarries there still remains, partially detached, an example 70 to 80 ft. long. The largest obelisk known is that in the piazza of St John Lateran at Rome; this had been set up by Tethmosis III. at Heliopolis in the 15th century B.C., was brought over from Egypt by Constantine the Great and erected in the Circus Maximus, being ultimately re-erected in 1552 by Pope Sixtus V. It was 105 ft. 9 in. high, including the pyramidion, and its sides measured 9 ft. 10 in. and 9 ft. 8 in. respectively. On the base of the magnificent obelisk of Hatshepsut at Karnak, 97 ft. 6 in. high, there is an inscription stating that it and its fellow were made within the short space of seven months. In consequence of the breaking away of the lower part of “Cleopatra’s Needles” when removed to Alexandria and re-erected, the Roman engineers supported the angles on bronze crabs, one of which with three reproductions now supports the angles of the obelisk on the Thames Embankment.
There was another form of obelisk, also tapering, but more squat than the usual type, with two of the sides narrow and terminating in a rounded top. One such of Senwosri I., covered with sculpture and inscriptions, lies at Ebgīg in the Fayum. Stelae, inscribed with the names of the kings, occurred in pairs in the royal tombs of the 1st Dynasty at Abydos, and pairs of small obelisks are said to have been found in private tombs of the IVth Dynasty. The origin of the obelisk may be sought in sacred upright stones set up in honour of gods and dead, like the menhirs, and the Semitic Massebahs and bethels.
In Abyssinia, at Axum and elsewhere, there is a marvellous series of obelisk-like monuments, probably sepulchral. They range from rude menhirs a few feet high to elaborately sculptured monoliths of 100 ft. The loftiest of those still standing at Axum is about 60 ft. high, 8 ft. 7 in. wide, and about 18 in. thick, and is terminated by a rounded apex united by a necking to the shaft. The back of the obelisk is plain, but the front and sides are subdivided into storeys by a series of bands and plates, each storey having panels sunk into it which seem to represent windows with mullions and transom. These architectural decorations are derived from a style of building found by the recent German expedition extant in an ancient church; courses of stone here alternate in the walls (both inside and out) with beams of wood held by circular clamps. In front of the best preserved obelisk is a raised altar with holes sunk in it apparently to receive the blood of the sacrifice to the ancestors. Most of these must date before the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the 6th century.
See G. Maspero, L’Archéologie égyptienne (new ed., Paris, 1907), p. 105; H. H. Gorringe, Egyptian Obelisks (New York, 1882; London, 1885, &c.); F. W. von Bissing and L. Borchardt, Das Re-Heiligtum des Königs Ne-woser-Re (Berlin, 1905); on the ancient method of raising obelisks, L. Borchardt, “Zur Baugeschichte des Amonstempel von Karnak,” in Sethe’s Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Aegyptens, v. 15. For the Abyssinian obelisks see especially E. Littmann and D. Krencker, Vorbericht der deutschen Aksum Expedition (Berlin, 1906). (F. Ll. G.)