“Taken from among ruins, dust and sands,
An obelisk wandered to the foreign lands,
On exile like a banit, used to stand alone,
Offering no shadow with his heart of stone,
Standing silent, its spirit in the land of ghosts…”
(J. Słowacki, Letter to Aleksander H.)
Obelisk of Ramesses II came to the Poznań Archaeological Museum as a long-term loan thanks to a personal initiative of professor Dietrich Wildung, the director of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung in Berlin. Three-meters high granite monolith bearing inscriptions of three rulers of the Nineteenth Dynasty is a unique object. It is the only pharaonic obelisk in Poland and one of a few in Europe. Poznań joined thus London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Munich and Istanbul, cities that received other ‘banits’ from the land of pharaohs. Obelisk is not only one of the most characteristic elements of ancient Egyptian culture, but it belongs to the tradition of European art and architecture as well. Examples of use of this motif as funerary or memorial monuments are innumerable. The word ‘obelisk’ became in fact to mean a ‘monument’, ‘memorial’ even if its form goes far from the ancient pattern. The roots of our culture reach really deep – nothing can express this better than the obelisk standing in the middle of St. Peter’s square in Vatican. Ancient Egyptian solar symbol, piercing the sky with its pointed top, sets the axis of the world, joining earth and sky, humanity and divine realm, affinity and afterlife. Life-giving sunrays, uttered in stone, symbolize what were the most optimistic features of the Egyptian religion: light, affirmation of life, power of positive magic. The ancient Egyptians believed that not only people and gods, but also some buildings and objects have their ‘souls’ called ba. Obelisk of Ramesses II hosted in Poznań thanks to German-Polish friendship is therefore a LIVING proof of a relativity of borders – not only the political ones – and unity of the world.
The obelisk is made of grey granite (granodiorite), quarried at Aswan. Its base length is 53 cm, which corresponds to one Egyptian cubit. Its height, probably intended to be exactly six cubits, is now reduced to 300 cm because of damage of the pyramidion. An estimated weight of the obelisk is approx. 1800 kg.
The obelisk came from the city of Hut-heri-ib (Greek Athribis, present Tell Atrib, a district of town Benha) in the Nile Delta, the capital of the 10th nome (province) of Lower Egypt. In the antiquity it was standing in front of the temple of god Khenti-kheti, together with another obelisk kept now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Removed from Athribis, it was used as a threshold in a house in Cairo in the 19th century (damaged inscriptions on one of the sides and a destroyed pyramidion are traces of this re-use). After its discovery therein it was bought in 1895 by C. Reinhardt. Brought to Europe, since 1896 it has been in the possession of the Berlin museum.
The four sides of the obelisk bear incised hieroglyphic inscriptions with names and titles of three pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty: Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), Merenptah (1213-1203 BC) and Sethi II (1200-1194 BC). The texts are similarly distributed on all of the sides, they differ, however, in details, giving different names and epithets of the kings, and names of the gods worshipped at Athribis. Ramesses II’s text (the middle column) has been cut in a visible depression, indicating that an earlier inscription may have existed, removed before the decoration of the obelisk by this king. It is therefore probable that Ramesses usurped an obelisk erected at Athribis by an earlier ruler, who might have been Amenhotep III. Merenptah, son and successor of Ramesses II, added his names at the bottom of the obelisk on both sides of his father’s text. Upper parts of both lateral columns were subsequently filled in with the titulary of Sethi II. Signs representing god Seth in the king’s name were destroyed in later times. The reason for this was an increasing hostility against this god, who was considered in the Late Period not only an enemy of Osiris, but also the patron of foreign nations invading Egypt.
The bases of both Athribis obelisks, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, are made of quartzite and decorated with representations of Ramesses II making offerings to local deities and two solar gods Horakhty and Atum.
At some point in the history (Middle Ages?) the obelisk was transferred from Athribis to Cairo and re-used as a threshold in a house. At that time probably the original pyramidion was cut away. Whether it was once covered with a metal sheet or not cannot be determined. Anyway, it came to Poznań in this state of preservation, with a plywood pyramidion, painted grey, placed on its top. The director of Poznań Archaeological Museum, the late professor Lech Krzyżaniak decided then that a new, gilded pyramidion would be made as a sign of gratefulness for the Berlin museum. The idea was to show how it may have looked in the antiquity. This project was realized in October 2003 and since then the pyramidion is placed on the top of the obelisk.
The assumption was that the proportions should be less or more like other Eighteenth Dynasty obelisks and it appeared that the height of it could be exactly one cubit (52.5 cm), which agrees with the observation that the shaft of the obelisk was probably planned to be 6 cubits high. The new pyramidion has thus the dimensions of 36 x 37 cm (the base, not exactly square, which reflects the damaged surface of the top of the obelisk), and its vertical height is 52.5 cm, which makes about 55 cm along the walls. It was made of 2 mm steel plate, painted with anti-corrosion paint, covered with mixtion, and finally, covered with leaves of 23-carat gold. Of course it is not attached to stone, as one could imagine the ancient ones were. It is fixed upon a low base, which is a cast of the preserved surface of the top of the obelisk, made of special cement-like material.
There is only one other obelisk in the world that got such a gilded pyramidion (for obvious reasons no original ones are preserved from the antiquity). It is the obelisk of Ramesses II that stood once in front of the Luxor temple, and now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. In 1997 its pyramidion was covered with a bronze plate, gilded with 23.5 carat gold (as a remark of Franco-Egyptian friendship, on the occasion of the Egyptian president Mubarak’s visit to France). The cost was 250 000 $. The Poznań pyramidion was a bit cheaper.