1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Ancient Egyptian Architecture: Obelisks

(Part 15)

Ancient Egyptian Architecture (cont.)


The obelisks of Egypt are generally huge monoliths of red granite or syenite. Their use originated no doubt, in the custom of setting up stones to commemorate particular events. The Egyptians embellished these stones, first, by working them to a fine face, and afterwards by covering them with carvings. They stand frequently in pairs before the propylon of the temples, as Karnak and Phial. After the conquest of Egypt the emperors transported many of these monuments to Rome. At the time the celebrated Regioniaries (accounts of each of the wards or Regiones of Rome) were written, there were six great obelisk, and forty-two small ones at Rome. Of these twelve only are now left, varying in height from over 100 feet to 8 1/2 feet. The first, which now stands close to the church of St John Lateran, is 148 Roman palms in height, or little over 108 English feet, is about 8 feet square at the base, and weighs, as is estimated, nearly 450 tons. It is covered with hieroglyphics, from which we gather it was erected in honour of Thothmes IV. It stood originally before the temple of Amen Ra, and was brought over by Caligula. Each obelisk diminished equally towards the tops -- that near the Lateran, .253 part of the base; that at St Peter’s, .261; two at Thebes, .3; and the one near S. Maria Maggiore, .307, nearly one-third. The diminution from the base may therefore be estimated roughly at from one quarter to one third. The Barberini obelisk is about 7 3/4 times as high as the diameter of the base; Cleopatra’s needle, 8 1/2; the one at St Peter’s 9 times, at Luxor 10 times, at the Lateran 11 times; while two at Thebes, one in the Piazza Navona at Rome, have an altitude of no less than 12 times the diameter of the base.

The obelisk have no entasis or swell from the top to bottom like a column, but in almost all cases there is a slight convexity on the horizontal section of each face. The one in the Place de la Concorde at Paris has the peculiarity of being convex on one side, and slightly concave on another.

In all ancient examples, the small pyramid which covers the obelisk is at least 1 1/2 time as high as the diameter of the top of the obelisk in which it is placed. In modern examples the pyramid ion is almost always too flat, which gives a bad effect. Obelisk appears to have used in contrast with long horizontal lines of the temples; so that we are unable to judge of the effect produced by these gigantic monoliths, when placed in their original positions, for the few examples in Rome, Paris, &c., are isolated and have nothing near them to contrast them with. The enormous labour and care expended upon the Egyptian obelisk may be judged from the fact, that the largest one at Karnak which weighs 297 tons, must have been lifted out a carriage, transported more than a hundred miles on land, and then raised upright, and to a considerable height, to its pedestal.

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