The name obelisk, denoting in European languages the Egyptian and egyptianizing monuments, derives from Greek οβελισκοç (obeliskos), ‘small spit’. This name was given to Egyptian monoliths by Greek mercenaries who served the pharaohs in the 6th cent. BC. It reflected the fascination of the unusual shape of obelisks, referred to also in the Arabic word ﺔﺂﺳﻤ misalla, ‘a large packing needle’. The Ancient Egyptian term for an obelisk was techen. The etymology of the word is not clear, but it can possibly be related to another word thus pronounced, meaning ‘a door-leaf’. Since obelisks were set in pairs, the ancient Egyptian texts usually refer to tekhenui, ‘the two obelisks’. Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, ruling in 1473-1458 BC, proudly spoke in her inscription in the Karnak temple (fig.1): ‘The king (i.e. Hatshepsut) himself erected two large obelisks for her father Amun-Ra in front of the main columned hall, covered with electrum in great quantity. Their heads pierce the sky and light up the two lands like the sun-disk. Nothing has been done like that since primeval times’.
Form and material
Obelisk is a huge stone pillar with a square base, tapering towards the top, which is pyramid-shaped (hence the top of an obelisk is called a pyramidion). Ancient Egyptian obelisks were monolithic, i.e. made of a single block of stone. They were usually made of granite, but the quartzite, limestone and greywacke examples are known as well. On the side were engraved hieroglyphic inscriptions giving the royal titulary (names and epithets) of a pharaoh, and dedicatory texts for gods. The pyramidia were often decorated with representations of solar symbols (e.g. winged scarabei), or the king protected by a god (fig.2). The solar connotations of the obelisks were additionally stressed by a peculiar form of their decoration: pyramidia or even the upper parts of the shafts might have been covered with golden, electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), or copper sheets that gleamed reflecting the sunrays.
Making, transporting and erecting
The ‘production technology’ of great obelisks made of hard stones has been reconstructed fairly well, basing on evidence of texts, traces on preserved monuments, discovered tools, and especially by examination of unfinished obelisks still lying in the Aswan quarries. The rock was crushed with basalt hammers and a trench was cut around a planned monolith. The stone was then partially cut underneath. Next, it was levered with wooden beams and separated from the floor. It was not before the Graeco-Roman times that another system was employed, namely cutting narrow holes in which metal wedges were hit, and a stone broken along the line of holes. The example of the obelisk of Sethi I preserved in the Gebel Gulab quarry suggests that (at least sometimes) obelisks were decorated already in the quarry, and the inscriptions could have been engraved on the accessible sides of the stone before the final cut of the base. Obelisks were transported to their final destination site (e.g. from Aswan to Thebes) by water, on specially constructed cargo barks towed by a group of ships.
Such a fleet is represented in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari (fig.3). Between the quarry and the harbour, and after the reloading at the destination place, the obelisks were moved on sledges, towed by gangs of workers on specially built roads (fig.4).
They were placed in front of pylons (towered temple entrances) by moving along ramps of small inclination, or by gradual levering of one end of the stone. When the obelisk base fit grooves in the pedestal, it was erected to vertical position by means of ropes (fig.5).
Obelisks were considered as sacred to the sun god, representing the sunrays embodied in stone. They marked a symbolic axis of the world, being a cosmic pivot point and gate between earth and sky. Dedicated by the kings, they emphasized the role of the pharaoh as an intermediary between humanity and the gods, especially the sun god Ra. In this function they were erected before the entrances to the temples, usually set in pairs symmetrically on both sides of the gate axis. Tops of obelisks, covered with golden sheets, gleamed in the rays of the sun, symbolizing the life-giving power of Ra. During the Old Kingdom obelisks were erected in pairs flanking the entrance to a tomb, or before a false-door – a magical gateway between the realm of the dead and the world of living (fig. 6), (fig. 7). It reflected the fact that obelisks were likewise images of benben (mythical primeval hill, i.e. the first land that emerged from a primeval ocean when the world was created and the creator god, Atum, appeared on it). Benben-stone in the temple at Heliopolis (possibly a meteorite of peculiar shape) was a memorial of that event. Also pyramids and obelisks symbolized the primeval hill and their tops (pyramidia) were therefore called benbenet. The dead, reborn to a new life, not only repeated in some way his or her own birth, but also identified himself with the creator god, joining the sun in its eternal cycle of rising and setting.