Nearly every empire worthy of the name—from ancient Rome to the United States—has sought an Egyptian obelisk to place in the center of a ceremonial space. Obelisks—giant standing stones, invented in Ancient Egypt as sacred objects—serve no practical purpose. For much of their history their inscriptions, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, were completely inscrutable. Yet over the centuries dozens of obelisks have made the voyage from Egypt to Rome, Constantinople, and Florence; to Paris, London, and New York. New obelisks and even obelisk-shaped buildings rose as well—the Washington Monument being a noted example. Obelisks, everyone seems to sense, connote some very special sort of power. This beautifully illustrated book traces the fate and many meanings of obelisks across nearly forty centuries—what they meant to the Egyptians, and how other cultures have borrowed, interpreted, understood, and misunderstood them through the years.
In each culture obelisks have taken on new meanings and associations. To the Egyptians, the obelisk was the symbol of a pharaoh’s right to rule and connection to the divine. In ancient Rome, obelisks were the embodiment of Rome's coming of age as an empire. To nineteenth-century New Yorkers, the obelisk in Central Park stood for their country’s rejection of the trappings of empire just as it was itself beginning to acquire imperial power. And to a twentieth-century reader of Freud, the obelisk had anatomical and psychological connotations.
The history of obelisks is a story of technical achievement, imperial conquest, Christian piety and triumphalism, egotism, scholarly brilliance, political hubris, bigoted nationalism, democratic self-assurance, Modernist austerity, and Hollywood kitsch—in short, the story of Western civilization.
Publications of the Burndy Library
About the Authors
Brian A. Curran is Associate Professor of Art History at the Pennsylvania State University.
Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.
Pamela O. Long is an independent historian who has published widely in medieval and Renaissance history of science and technology.
Benjamin Weiss is Manager of Adult Learning Resources at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"A fascinating account of the way a bizarre Egyptian luxury object became an essential symbol (of many and shifting meanings) for a bewildering variety of places, religions, cultures, and governmental systems, from the Rome of the Caesars to the National Mall in Washington. An erudite and witty tour by four expert guides, with illustrations as delightful as the story they have to tell, a story that leaves obelisks, like all great enigmas, with their aura of mystery intact."
Ingrid D. Rowland, University of Notre Dame and author of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic
"This long awaited, stunningly illustrated book offers a new vision for obelisk studies, demonstrating how the reception and impact of these monuments on Western cultural memory is just as fascinating as the stories of how these great stones were made, found, and then transported from their original homeland. Building on the unrivaled work of Iversen, the authors focus on the 'lives' of obelisks in modern European history. The result of a truly collaborative writing effort, the book brings obelisk studies firmly into the realm of contemporary scholarship in the humanities."
Stephanie Moser, Professor of Archaeology, University of Southampton
"Obelisks have managed to retain their relevance over more than four millennia. Originally created as ancient Egyptian shafts of 'frozen' sunlight, they morphed into symbols of status and power, piety and paganism, as they journeyed to faraway lands. Their story, so ably recounted in this book, mirrors the evolution of human cultures and ideologies from antiquity to the present day."
—Peter Der Manuelian, Giza Archives Project Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston