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The Obelisks of Heliopolis

The mighty stone monuments of ancient Egypt known as obelisks, a word derived from the Greek obeliskos, meaning “skewer” or “spit,” were known in Egyptian as tekhenu, which means “to pierce.” These monolithic, four-sided, pyramid-topped pillars rose high into the Egyptian sky, symbols of the sun god, Ra, and of sun worship, as well as of the power of the pharaoh and his relationship to the gods. As the center of the worship of Ra, Heliopolis at one time boasted dozens of obelisks, only one of which remains in its original position. However, not all of Heliopolis’ obelisks have been lost. At least seven were taken from Egypt and raised in metropolitan centers across the world. One goal of the Heliopolis Project, a joint Egyptian-German excavation, is to determine where the obelisks originally stood in the sacred city and how they functioned as part of its religious rituals. To read a full article on the archaeology of Heliopolis, go to “Egypt's Eternal City.”  

  • Macuteo Obelisk, Rome: This obelisk was erected by Ramesses II outside the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis. It was moved to Rome in antiquity and placed in front of the Pantheon. In the 1700s it was placed atop a fountain designed by sculptor Filippo Barigioni.
  • Flaminio Obelisk, Rome: Begun by Seti I and completed by his son Ramesses II, this obelisk was one of the first brought to Rome by the emperor Augustus in 10 B.C. and now stands at the center of the Piazza del Popolo.
  • Montecitorio Obelisk, Rome: The pharaoh Psamtik II put this obelisk up in Heliopolis around 595 B.C. It was moved to Rome by the emperor Augustus after he conquered Egypt in 31 B.C. It was once thought to have been part of a giant sundial, but this theory is now in question.
  • Dogali Obelisk, Rome: Another of Ramesses II’s obelisks, originally set up in a minor temple in the precinct of Ra, this monument was moved to Rome in antiquity and later reused as part of a memorial to Italian soldiers killed in the 1887 invasion of Ethiopia. It is now outside Rome’s main train station.
  • Boboli Obelisk, Florence: Like several other obelisks, this one was moved to Rome to decorate the Temple of Isis, an Egyptian goddess adopted into the Roman pantheon. It was taken to Florence by the Medici family in 1790, and now stands behind the Pitti Palace museum.
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, London: Dedicated by Thuthmosis III nearly 1,500 years before Cleopatra’s reign, this obelisk was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in the first century B.C., and then to London in 1878.
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, New York: The other half of Thuthmosis III’s gift to the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis was offered to the United States as a thank-you for help with the opening of the Suez Canal. It was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1881, just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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