|‘The one who fills Heliopolis with obelisks that their rays may illuminate the temple of Ra’
‘Making monuments as innumerable as the stars of heaven. His works join the sky. When Ra shines, he rejoices because of the obelisks in his temple of millions of years.’
(inscriptions of Sethi I and Ramesses II on the obelisk of Piazza del Popolo in Rome)
The oldest known obelisk, or rather ‘obeliskoid’, was an enormous building constituting a central structure in the sun-temple of Niuserra (Fifth Dynasty, ca. 2400 BC) at Abusir. It was a huge obelisk standing on a tall, trapezoidal base (fig.8). The whole structure was built of limestone blocks and cased with granite. It reached the height of 57 metres. The earliest ‘classical’ obelisks were erected in the temple of Heliopolis by the Sixth Dynasty rulers Teti and Pepi II, and subsequently many later kings added there their own monuments. Today at the site of Ancient Heliopolis (present-day el-Matariya, a district of Cairo) is standing a granite obelisk of Senwosret I (Twelfth Dynasty, ca. 1950 BC).
During the Middle and New Kingdoms it became common to place obelisks in front of temple entrances. They were dedicated to state gods, especially the solar deities as Ra-Horakhty or Amon-Ra. The occasion for erection of obelisks were often the royal jubilee or triumph over enemies. The New Kingdom obelisks attained large dimensions. The obelisk of Thotmes III at Lateran in Rome is over 32 m high and possibly weights about 455 tons. The largest of known obelisks, still lying in a quarry at Aswan, is 41.75 m long, and its estimated weight is 1168 tons (fig.9). It is possibly to be dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was abandoned when the stone has started to crush, which made its extraction impossible, even after a planned reduction of dimensions. From among numerous obelisks rising once in Egypt only a few has been preserved. These are the monoliths of Ramesses II at Luxor (fig. 10),
(fig. 11), Thotmes I and Hatshepsut at Karnak, and the obelisks of Ramesses II from Tanis (re-erected in Cairo). Many pharaonic obelisks were taken from Egypt abroad. It started already in ancient times. Octavian August brought in 10 BC two obelisks to Rome, and had them erected at the Circus Maximus and Campus Martius. Roman emperors not only usurped the obelisks of former rulers of Egypt, but also ordered new ones to be made and erected for their own glory at public places. It is Rome that is the site of the highest number of standing obelisks (thirteen). Already in ancient times also another obelisk was transferred to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), where it was placed on the hippodrome.