The Ancient Egyptians

Adam Ashcroft

The Lateran Obelisk
The immense size of this single piece of granite, is still awesome today and is the tallest surviving ancient Egyptian obelisk anywhere in the world today.
There are 27 outside, standing Egyptian obelisks in the world today. Only 6 still reside in Egypt.

An obelisk is a single, quadrangular, monolithic stone which is wider at the bottom and tapers gently inwards and upwards as it reaches its
pyramidion summit. Sometimes the pyramidion was covered with a gold and silver alloy called electrum. The electrum cap emulated the glare
of the Sun as it emitted its rays to the earth. The sides generally contain embellished inscriptions of hieroglyphs. The inscriptions were usually
dedications to the Sun god or commemorations of a life of a king or queen. They were normally made in pairs to sit outside the entrances
and pylons of temples. It is believed that the Ancient Egyptians associated obelisks with the rays of the sun that cascaded downwards to the earth
and increased in width, creating a pyramid or obelisk image - the Egyptians thus associated the obelisk with the worship of the solar cult.
The earliest known obelisk to date, was discovered in Abusir, and dates to the Old Kingdom reign of Niuserre [c.2449-2417 BC].
The squat obelisks of the 5th Century Sun temples were no more than 10 feet tall - these were called ben-ben. The obelisks were
called tekhenu by the Egyptians and their modern name comes from the Greeks who called them 'little spits' which were items used for roasting
meat over a fire. The ancient mythology of Egypt tells us that the obelisks were meant to come in pairs and that there were two in heaven and
two on earth in every age. This was related to their belief in the concept of ma'at - harmony and truth.

The Roman Emperors were so impressed with these monuments, that they had 13 obelisks transported to Rome. In addition to the two more famous Cleopatra's Needles in London and New York, ancient Egyptian obelisks also reside in Paris and Florence as well as Rome. One of these is the largest standing obelisk in the world today - The Lateran Obelisk.

The Lateran Obelisk

The so called 'Lateran' Obelisk, today sits in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Italy. The monument was originally commissioned by Tuthmosis III, but he died before its completion. It remained unfinished for 35 years until Tuthmosis III's grandson, Tuthmosis IV, finally completed the work and erected the obelisk in the Temple of Karnak. On the obelisk, Tuthmosis IV restored the original inscription of Tuthmosis III and added the details of the deed of restoring the obelisk as well as his piety to his grandfather. It was the only single obelisk ever erected at Karnak. Obelisks were normally erected in pairs and the only evidence for what may have been the second half of a pair for the Lateran Obelisk, can be found at the Northern Quarry in Aswan. The 'Unfinished' obelisk may well have been the its missing companion. Its size would have made it an ideal pair and only because of fissures in the stonework, did the obelisk remain unfinished. Because failures were not mentioned in the annals of the Pharaohs, there is no evidence of whom commissioned the obelisk - therefore we may never know if this is indeed, the Laterans missing sister.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine I [AD 306/323-337] ordered the Lateran obelisk to be removed and taken to his new capital at Constantinople. Constantine died before the obelisk ever left Egypt and his son and successor Constantius II [337-361 AD] had the obelisk transported to Rome. Constantius had it erected in the central reservation [spina] of the Circo Massimo in 357 AD. At the time, the Circo Massimo was the Grand Stadium of Ancient Rome. Sometime before the 16th Century, the obelisk was felled and lost. We do not know how or why this happened for sure, but an earthquake is the obvious reason. During the 16th Century, the Pope Sixtus V, ordered a search for the obelisk and it was found in 1587, 23 feet beneath the now former Circo Massimo. It was broken in 3 pieces. It was raised on 3rd August 1588 at its present place before the Church of St John Lateran at the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. Before it was erected, the Pope had a Christian cross attached to its apex and this area became the centre of medieval Catholicism.

Tuthmosis III built extensively at Karnak as well as ordering several obelisks to be erected and it is not known exactly where the Lateran Obelisk was originally placed. The most probable place was at the far eastern side of the Karnak complex at a temple called the 'Temple of the Hearing Ear', where a building of halls and colonnades were dominated by a base for a single obelisk. It was called Hearing Ear because it was where the Ancient Egyptians presented their prayers to the god Amun.

The height of the Lateran Obelisk is 32.18 meters or 105.6 feet. It was originally 36 meters, but part of it was cut off from the base when it was moved from the Circo Massimo in 1587. The sides at the base of the obelisk is nine feet square and at the top, the sides of the base of the pyramidion measures six feet two inches square. If you include the base of the obelisk, it measures 42 meters in height. The weight of the obelisk is estimated at 455 tons.

The obelisk was carved out of red granite, probably from the Northern Quarry site of Aswan. We can make this assumption because many of the obelisks with the similar red granite, were hewn from the same site. Even what was supposed to be the largest obelisk ever attempted, was being hewn there - it could even have been intended for a companion to the Lateran Obelisk. It has been assumed that Tuthmosis III died before the Lateran Obelisk was completed so work was not finished. However, it is my belief that when the 'Unfinished' obelisk was found to be faulty, work stopped on the nearly completed Lateran Obelisk and that was the reason that it laid on its side on the south-side of Karnak, for 35 years before Tuthmosis IV continued its erection. Tuthmosis erected the Lateran Obelisk in the solar court of Karnak and it emulated the single, smaller and more squat ben-ben stone of Heliopolis.

The era of Tuthmosis III was one of great wealth and power, so the pharaoh would have had no problem amassing the manpower to carve out such massive monuments. With the use of copper tools to hew the single massive rock out of the Aswan granite, it still would have taken many men, many months or even years to free the stone. During the early part of the 20th Century, the then Chief Inspector of Egypt's Antiquities Department, Engelbach, estimated that only one hundred and thirty men could have worked on a stone of that size at one time. Each using a pair of scallops, they would have been working in an area not that much larger than a four foot square. Apart from the standard copper chisels, they would also have been using cantaloupe-sized pounders, made out of diorite.

Egyptologist, Mark Lehner gives us an insight into the hard labour used by the Ancient Egyptians. "At Hamada Rashwan's quarry, I got a nasty taste of their job - minus the cramped space and the pressure to succeed. Cupping a greenish-black diorite ball in my hands, I brought it down with a crack onto a block of granite. Over and over, I bounced it on the same spot, until I thought I'd scrape the skin off my palms. After ten minutes, my wrists hurt from trying to guide the 12 pound rock in at an angle - the better to break the granite - and stabs of pain began shooting up my arms." Mark Lehner recalled that after once pounding for several hours, he could barely type on a computer. ["All I wanted to do was smash the keys" he said.] "I did it for only 20 minutes, and all I had to show for it was a baby's palmful of granite dust and the granite's surface looked no different than when I'd started."

It would then have to be raised out of quarry by the use of man-made ropes - how this was achieved is not exactly known to us but from my calculations, I estimate that it would have taken anywhere from five to ten thousand men just to raise the massive 455 ton block from the quarry. This would have taken a vast amount of organisation. Funds from the state for food and drink as payment for the workers, would also needed to have been made available. Again, not out of reach for Tuthmosis III's wealthy Egypt, but still would have required excellent organisation. The copper tools that were used would have had to be constantly replaced as copper is a soft metal and working on granite would have quickly taken its toll. Therefore, there would have been the organisation of the import or mining and transport of the metal and then the shaping of the copper into tools. After the raising and moving of the stone, it would then have been transported on a specially constructed barge, on the Nile, to its destination at Karnak. When the stone was laid in the workshop, work began on finishing and smoothing the four faces of the obelisk. One can only imagine the hundreds of men that were continuously pounding and chipping away as well as rubbing with a mixture of stone, cloth, water and sand to achieve the desired results. After the stone was finally smoothed, artists and scribes were employed to write on the inscriptions that were eventually going to be the hieroglyphic reliefs. This was also quite an achievement as the writing had to be done sideways because the stone was laid on its side. .After this, the sculptors were employed to incise and carve.

The Lateran Obelisk is in fantastically good condition in view of the fact that it was felled and broken into 3 pieces by an earthquake, in the 16th Century. The straight edges of the obelisk are intact. Its original podium base is not known and just under four meters is missing from the base of the obelisk itself, due to the moving and replacement of the monument. Depending on light, the colour of the monument is brown-rose with a tint of grey. The pyramidion was possibly layered in gold or gold and silver alloy called electrum to emulate the glare of the suns rays upon the earth. On the top of the pyramidion, a Christian cross is still set in place. Pope Sixtus V wanted his entire heraldry symbols on the top. As well as the three mountains and the star, he also wanted the lions holding the pears! The hieroglyphs are still well incised into the granite and are quite clearly visible from a distance. They are still very easily readable [if you can read hieroglyphs that is!]. It is easily one of the best preserved ancient Egyptian obelisks in the world today. The monument is a striking feature of the Piazza di San Giovanni and is a big tourist attraction in Rome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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