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One of the Hatshepsut obelisks in the temple complex of Karnak north of Luxor

An obelisk (plural obelisk ; about latin Obeliscus of Greek ὀβελίσκος obelískos , the diminutive of ὀβελός obelós , German , Spitz column [brat] pike ' ) is a free-standing high, upwardly tapered, in original Production monolithic stone pillar ( stele ), the has a pyramidal tip, the pyramidion . Egyptologists mostly use the term tehen pillar for obelisk.

Egyptian obelisk

In ancient Egypt , the obelisk , like the pyramid , represented the rays of the sun god turned into stone and was the connection between the local world and the world of the gods. Obelisks were usually placed in pairs in front of pyramids or temples.

Obelisk made of granite, which, according to his inscription, had Ramses II erected in Heliopolis . Thirteen centuries later, the more than 6 m high monolith was brought to Rome under Domitian and erected in the Temple of Isis on the Martian at the end of the 1st century . In the 16th century, Ferdinando I de 'Medici acquired the obelisk for his Villa Medici . From there, Leopold II brought the stone to the Boboli Gardens (Florence) in 1790 , crowned with a gold-plated ball.

First obelisks were erected in front of the temple of the sun god Re in Heliopolis , the ancient On . In the Old Kingdom, obelisks were initially unadorned and smooth - only the pyramid-shaped tip was gold-plated or coated with electrons and thus reflected the shine of the sun and thus the power of the sun god. Its shadow orbit was an indicator and symbol for the daily circumnavigation of the Re on the solar boat from east to west (back through the underworld at night) and was observed by humans. Its precisely determined rise and fall and the uninfluenceable course of the year made Re a symbol of the world order, guardian of law and interpersonal relationships. Re is accompanied by his daughter Maat , the goddess of good order, justice and truth. Re replaced the original god Atum and was considered the father of the Pharaoh , who therefore bore the royal title of son of Re . Therefore the obelisks as symbols of the sun god, the divine world order and the connection Re-Pharaoh became so important, so widespread and were also made bigger and bigger.

With the merging of Res with the original fertility god Amun from Thebes to form the imperial god Amun-Re , the importance and spread of the architectural symbol increased even further. In the New Kingdom, the obelisks were finally inscribed entirely with hieroglyphics. The pharaoh Hatshepsut ( 18th dynasty ) had the largest obelisks made . The one that still stands in the Amun Temple in Karnak near Luxor is 32 m high. Its tip was also covered with electrons.

The weight of a large obelisk is over 200 tons; an unfinished obelisk in Aswan is believed to be the largest at around 1,100 tons. In ancient Egypt, the drawing and erection of holy pillars was an important part of the ritual.

The obelisks, which were initially unadorned, were later given inscriptions. The arrangement of the hieroglyphic inscriptions followed fixed rules. The lines of the hieroglyphs are oriented to the right or left. The human and animal symbols of the characters on the front and back of the paired obelisks in front of the temples always looked towards the path between the two pillars to the temple entrance, the one on the side to the temple. Even today, the original orientation towards the temple can be determined for the obelisks brought to Rome, Paris or Istanbul. This arrangement of symbols is ancient, the animal figures of bull, fox or crane on the long sides of the T-shaped pillars of the oldest known temple complex in Göbekli Tepe look at the path that leads to the center of the respective complex.

An obelisk at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor

Roman emperors brought 13 obelisks from Egypt to Rome as victory trophies . Some were destroyed or disintegrated in the early Middle Ages because of their "pagan" origins.

In addition to Luxor (4) and Rome (13), there are still large ancient Egyptian obelisks in Heliopolis , Cairo , Istanbul , Paris ( Place de la Concorde ), London (St. George's Circus), New York (Central Park), and Wimborne Minster ( Kingston Lacy ), Urbino , Florence , Munich , Catania and Caesarea Maritima . The obelisks in London and New York, called " Cleopatra's Needles ", stood together in front of a temple. The Luxor Obelisk, which has been erected in Paris since 1836, is 23 meters high, weighs 258 tons and previously stood at the entrance of the Luxor Temple .


Until the end of the New Kingdom , all obelisks were made from the typical reddish Aswan granite in the granite quarries southeast of Aswan . For this one was monolith in the required size cut and i. d. Usually hewn into the rough form in the quarry. Then the shipment could take place over the Nile to the respective destination.

After the decline of ancient Egypt and the loss of their original religious significance, obelisks were also made from other materials, initially from other types of natural stone, and in modern times even from metal. Most modern obelisks are also not monoliths, but rather are made up of several parts, or they consist of masonry clad with natural stone.

Erecting procedure

Erecting the obelisk in St. Peter's Square in Rome

Erecting a large obelisk using only human strength, horses, wood and ropes was no easy undertaking even in the Renaissance . This is illustrated by a copper engraving from 1743, which shows the erection of the Vatican Obelisk on St. Peter's Square in Rome on September 10, 1586: with 907 people, 75 horses, 40 capstans and pulleys as well as 5 large levers under the direction of Domenico Fontana on behalf of the Pope Sixtus V.

The Egyptians had solved the problems of manufacture, transportation and erection with immense effort using simpler techniques. An obelisk was to be carved in one piece from the rose granite rock of Aswan . For this purpose, two accessible trenches of z. B. 32 meters in length driven into the rock, as well as two short ones at the future base and the top.

The shape was largely perfected on site in order to save weight during transport. At the bottom of the trenches, side slits were driven towards the center of the partially exposed block. How exactly the obelisk was detached from the bedrock cannot be clarified with certainty on the basis of the archaeological findings. Perhaps through wooden wedges that were doused with water so that they swelled up. Or you completely undermined the obelisk and gradually walled up the cavity with bricks to prevent it from sagging. After detachment, the block was lifted with levers and lined with wood. Then he was raised further and relined again.

Skids were attached to the block, on which it could be pulled away with the help of many hundreds of people, the large ones with well over a thousand workers. The main route was covered on a large Nile ship, from Aswan to Heliopolis the distance is 1500 km. At the place of installation, the obelisk was pulled or levered up a pile of sand on the runners, the height of which above the base of the intended location corresponded to half the length of the obelisk. The center of the obelisk was placed above the installation point. In addition, the workers had erected a sloping wall that served as a guide extending from the building site to the obelisk base. A very strong round beam lay across the center of the obelisk. Now the sand under the lower half was slowly dug away. So the lower half of the obelisk descended on its foundation and the upper half rose at the pivot point. Because of the wall, the stone could not slip away. The sand was dug up until the obelisk slid all the way down and was vertical. Then the walls, which were a mere assembly aid, the remaining sand and the runners were removed.

As Suetonius reports, the Romans brought captured obelisks to Rome with reinforced ships. Since they also continued to operate the Egyptian quarries and z. For example, hundreds of granite columns for the imperial buildings with a weight of up to 240 tons were transported from Mons Claudianus in the eastern Egyptian desert to Rome, it can be assumed that they also made use of Egyptian techniques.

Extra-Egyptian obelisks

Assyrian obelisk

"White Obelisk" from Nineveh and "Black Obelisk" from Nimrud (originals in the British Museum )
Relief representation of the submission of an Israelite king Jehu

In contrast to the Egyptian obelisks, the Assyrian steles do not have a pyramid-shaped tip, but a stepped end, the shape of which is reminiscent of a ziggurat . In addition to inscriptions that report on royal feats, they show detailed scenic depictions in flat relief .

The most famous pieces are the almost three meter high White Obelisk from Nineveh , which is assigned to Assurnasirpal I or Assurnasirpal II (883–859 BC), and the almost two meter high black obelisk of Shalmaneser III. (859–824 BC) from Nimrud . Both are made of limestone, have Akkadian inscriptions in cuneiform and rows of reliefs on all sides. On the relief rows of the older, light limestone, battle and hunting scenes, feasts and rituals are shown in eight registers.

The Rassam obelisk , named after the Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam , which has only survived in fragments, can also be attributed to Assurnasirpal II due to its inscription. A fragment called the Broken Obelisk is considered to be much older, near which a statue assigned to Aššur-bel-kala (1073–1056 BC) was found and which is thus dated to the Central Assyrian period .

The Neo-Assyrian Black Obelisk is better preserved. A total of twenty reliefs can be found on the dark limestone, arranged in five rows with four panels all around. Each volume shows scenes of tribute handover by a dominated neighbor, explained by inscriptions. The second row from the top, depicting the submission of an Israelite king (see illustration), has attracted particular historical interest.

Aksum Obelisk

The stelae erected at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD in the Ethiopian city ​​of Aksum are sometimes also called obelisks, although their ends are not pyramidal. One, the so-called Obelisk of Axum , is a 24-meter-high granite stele that - erected in front of the Italian Colonial Ministry as booty from the Abyssinian War under Mussolini in 1937 - has now stood in Rome for almost seven decades .

Classicism obelisk

Modern obelisks are mostly composed of several stones, rarely monolithic . An early example is the Rantzau obelisk made of Bückeburg sandstone, which was erected in Segeberg in 1590 in the cultural and historical epoch of German Mannerism by the royal Danish governor Heinrich Rantzau in Segeberg, next to the now dilapidated Rantzau pyramid . Together with the granite base and attached carillon, the building once measured over 16 meters.

From 1722 onwards, several hundred Saxon post mile columns were erected, with the full mile columns being designed as obelisks.

In 1775, Margrave Carl Friedrich von Baden built an obelisk in Linkenheim . Around this time, further obelisks were built in the southern German region in Karlsruhe , Würzburg and also near Wiesbaden.

In 1807, to commemorate the beginning of the land surveying by the Napoleonic geographer Jean Joseph Tranchot, an obelisk made of bluestone was erected on the Lousberg in Aachen , based on the design of Capitaine Boucher . From here, further points in the area were determined using the triangulation method, with the help of which the area could finally be mapped . The deposition of Napoleon on April 2, 1814 caused the monument to be destroyed. On May 15, 1815, however, the obelisk was rebuilt by order of the Prussian baron Karl von Müffling , who also continued the surveying work on behalf of the Kingdom of Prussia . Used as an auxiliary point for the triangulation, there is another bluestone obelisk within sight of the Lousberg obelisk in the Paulinenwäldchen near Aachen.

An artificial island was created especially for the obelisk along the De Bosset Bridge on Kefalonia in 1818.

In 1823 the obelisk on the Löwenwall was erected in Braunschweig based on a design by Peter Joseph Krahe in honor of the Brunswick dukes Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand and Friedrich Wilhelm who fell in the Napoleonic Wars .

The tallest stone structure in the shape of an obelisk, the Washington Monument in Washington, DC with its 169 m height, was completed in 1884, but is actually just a tower. In its time - up to the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 - it was the tallest building on earth and thus replaced Cologne Cathedral .

Obelisk of modernity

The state monument in Wiesbaden, dedicated to Duke Adolph in 1909, was designed by Fritz Gerth . He placed a four meter high classical bronze statue in front of a massive stone obelisk eight meters high.

The 173 m high San Jacinto Monument near Houston, opened in 1939, is hollow in the form of an octagonal column bearing the Texas star, made of concrete and clad with limestone from Texas. The Chuch'e Tower in Pyongyang , inaugurated in 1982 on the 70th birthday of Kim-Il Sung - including the 20-meter-high, bright red tower , is only three meters lower, but made of granite blocks under white stone cladding .

Ornamental obelisks

Since the Renaissance , small obelisks - mostly bricked and sometimes with spheres at the top - have been placed on portals, gables and in the corners of churches and palaces as sovereign symbols, which have been enhanced in terms of their importance but also purely optically.


  • The comic figure “ Obelix ” from the Asterix booklets is named after Obelisk , even if reference is often made to a typographic symbol with a corresponding name. Turf contributed a story about Obelix 'brother "Obelisk" for the birthday edition of Obelix and his friends .
  • The obelisk is also used as a sign by the Freemasons .

See also


  • Manfred Barthel: The grandchildren of Archimedes: a slightly different cultural history of hoists. Schlütersche Verlagsanstalt, Hanover 1995, pp. 27-28, 91-99.
  • Hans Bonnet : Obelisk. In: Lexicon of Egyptian Religious History. Nikol, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-937872-08-6 , pp. 539-542.
  • Jutta Börker-Klähn : Ancient Near Eastern picture steles and comparable rock reliefs (= Baghdad Research. Vol. 4). von Zabern, Mainz 1982.
  • Bern Dibner : Moving the Obelisk. MIT Press et al., Cambridge et al. 1950, reprinted 1970.
  • Henry H. Gorringe: Egyptian Obelisks . New York 1882.
  • Labib Habachi : The immortal obelisks of Egypt (= ancient world. Special volume. Zabern's illustrated books on archeology ). Revised and expanded new edition, von Zabern, Mainz 2000, ISBN 3-8053-2658-0 .
  • Wolfgang Helck , Eberhard Otto : Obelisk. In: Small Lexicon of Egyptology. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1999, ISBN 3-447-04027-0 , pp. 208f.
  • Erik Iversen: Obelisk in exile. Volume 1: The obelisks of Rome. Gad, Copenhagen 1968.
  • Karl Martin: Obelisks: quarrying, transporting and erecting. In: Kathryn A. Bard (Ed.): Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, London 1999, ISBN 0-415-18589-0 , pp. 587-589.
  • Susan Sorek: The Emperors' Needles. Egyptian Obelisks and Rome. Bristol Phoenix Press, Exeter 2010, ISBN 978-1-904675-30-3 (Review by Andrea Schütze, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. December 8, 2010, online ).
  • Armin Wirsching: How the obelisks were erected at the turn of the ages and in the 4th century. In: Gymnasium . Volume 113, 2006, pp. 329-358.
  • Armin Wirsching: Transporting and erecting obelisks in Egypt and Rome. Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2007 (3rd edition 2013), ISBN 978-3-8334-8513-8 .

Web links

Commons : Obelisks  - Collection of Images
Wiktionary: Obelisk  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Klaus Schmidt : You built the first temple. The enigmatic sanctuary of the Stone Age hunters; the archaeological discovery at Göbekli Tepe. Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-406-53500-3 , p. 131.
  2. Transport and placement: April 30 to September 16, 1586, s. Erik Iversen: Obelisks in exile. Volume 1: The obelisks of Rome. Gad, Copenhagen 1968.
  3. Erich Hubala : Zierobelisken. Studies on architecture of the 16th century. Dissertation, Munich 1951.