The Emperors' Needles

The Emperors' Needles: Egyptian Obelisks and Rome

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Emperors' Needles
    Book Description:

    Obelisks, originally associated with the sun cult, had their heyday between 2000 and 1500 BC, when they adorned the Nile’s banks and proclaimed the splendour of the pharaohs. Today, only twenty-seven Egyptian obelisks remain standing and they are scattered in various locations throughout the world. Rome, with thirteen, boasts more than anywhere else, including Egypt itself. These monolithic structures can be seen in every corner of the ‘Eternal City’ and still hold a fascination for all who gaze upon them. This book is intended as a general guide to the obelisks that have found their way to the four corners of the earth. It examines the interest shown in them by the Roman emperors; it discusses each obelisk in detail, and traces individual histories and anecdotes concerning their journeys from Egypt. The work is illustrated throughout and translations of some of the relevant historical texts are supplied.

    eISBN: 978-1-78138-077-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Preface
    (pp. IX-XII)
    Susan Sorek
  5. Standing Obelisks and their Present Locations
    (pp. XIII-XVI)
  6. Chronologies
    (pp. XVII-XXIV)
  7. INTRODUCTION: The History of Pharaonic Egypt
    (pp. 1-8)

    Ancient Egypt owed its existence to the fecundity of the river Nile. As well as irrigation, the annual flooding brought a black silt rich in minerals to the floodplain, an excellent soil for growing crops. The river thus created a wide fertile valley in the desert and along its banks one of the oldest civilizations in the world began.

    Discoveries of stone tools in the Nile Valley show that Neolithic communities existed in Egypt as early as 7000–6000 BC. By 3200–3000 BC, these communities were united under one ruler, Menes, who founded the first of the Egyptian dynasties...

  8. CHAPTER 1 The Cult of the Sun Stone: The Origins of the Obelisk
    (pp. 9-16)

    At some point in history, so long ago that it cannot be dated with any accuracy, the people of the Egyptian town of Iunu (Anu, meaning pillar), had as a cult object a stone that was thick at the base and tapered to a point at the top. Iunu is better known today by its Biblical name of On or its Greek name of Heliopolis, which is how it is referred to in this book. This early stone was called the Ben stone, and it is represented in texts of the sixth dynasty as a small obelisk surmounted by a...

  9. CHAPTER 2 Created from Stone: How Egyptian Obelisks Were Made
    (pp. 17-28)

    The majority of Egyptian obelisks are made from red granite, calledmatin Egyptian. Others are made from from greenish-black basalt (bekhen) and a few small ones from sandstone (bia). The largest obelisks are of granite—red or black—hewn from the great quarries on the east bank of the Nile, near modern Aswan. Quarrying was carried out in many places in that region, but the most important quarries were at the islands of Elephantine and Seheil in the Aswan region, and in Shellal opposite the island of Philae.

    A clue to how obelisks were excavated and carved comes from...

  10. CHAPTER 3 Contact with the West: Greece and Rome
    (pp. 29-32)

    As far back as Homeric times, Egypt had been known to the Greeks as a region of fabulous wealth. Its fame—even when it was in decline—is noted in theIliad: ‘Where in Egyptian Thebes, where the houses overflow with the greatest troves of treasure . . . Thebes with the hundred gates and through each gate battalions, two hundred fighters, surge to war with teams and chariots . . .’ (HomerIliad9: 467–9).

    When the Greeks arrived in Egypt and saw the huge freestanding stones they gave them the name by which they are known today....

  11. CHAPTER 4 Roman Annexation of Egypt
    (pp. 33-36)

    The story of the Egyptian obelisks’ travels to the West begins on 2 September 31 BC, when a minor naval skirmish in the Gulf of Ambracia off the north-western coast of Greece altered the course of history for the Western world. The main protagonists were Mark Antony, the Roman general who had once been a close friend of Julius Caesar, along with his consort Cleopatra VII of Egypt—the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty—and the young inexperienced nephew and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, Octavian. Since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the main rivalry for control...

  12. CHAPTER 5 Egyptian Influences in Rome
    (pp. 37-44)

    Even before Octavian’s victory at Actium, earlier contact with Egypt during the period of the republic had resulted in a migration of Egyptian religious ideologies, including the cult of Isis and the practice of astrology, which would later exert a profound effect on emperors and civilians alike. It is important to say something about these influences, to demonstrate the effect that the ideology encompassed by the obelisks was later to have.

    Less visible, but no less important than the obelisks, was the adoption by many Romans during the first century BC of the Hellenized Egyptian cult of Isis. By the...

  13. CHAPTER 6 Augustus and the First Egyptian Obelisks to Reach Rome
    (pp. 45-52)

    We know from the accounts of the first-century AD Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, that Augustus brought several obelisks to Rome sometime between 13 BC and 10 BC, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the conquest of Egypt. Two in particular (1, 2) are given special attention here because of the significant role they played in establishing Augustus’ right to rule.

    The siting of these monuments was very important, and the Campus Martius (Field of Mars), was the selected location. It was a flat piece of land originally used for military training, with areas set aside for horse and chariot...

  14. CHAPTER 7 Other Augustan Obelisks
    (pp. 53-58)

    Augustus re-erected a second obelisk (2) in the Campus Martius, this one in the Circus Flaminius (the southern sector of the Campus Martius, where chariot and horse racing took place) at the east end of thespina, the richly ornamented central barrier around which the racetrack turned. It was erected at the same time as the sundial obelisk in the Campus Martius (1); archaeologists have ascertained this because the inscriptions are identical to those on the base of Psammetichus’ obelisk (seeCorpus Inscriptiorum Latinumvi 701 = 702 for the full text). The Circus Maximus was close to the Flaminian...

  15. CHAPTER 8 Augustus’ Successors: Tiberius and Caligula
    (pp. 59-70)

    During the reign of Augustus’ stepson Tiberius there were no attempts to remove any artefacts from Egypt, and even the cult of Isis fared less well. Suetonius (Tiberius36: 1) tells us that Tiberius banned Egyptian rites from Rome, forcing the priests to burn their vestments and other religious paraphernalia. In AD 19, as already mentioned, they were deported to Sardinia. The only Egyptian influence that Tiberius seemed to favour was astrology, something at which he became particularly adept.

    Before he became emperor he summoned the astrologer Thrasyllus to enquire about his future and was impressed by the response, for...

  16. CHAPTER 9 Claudius and Nero: The Last of Augustus’ Dynasty
    (pp. 71-74)

    Caligula’s uncle Claudius (emperor AD 41–54) was a most unlikely candidate for emperor. He had been kept away from public office all his life because of his physical disabilities. He certainly did not fit into the image of the perfect Roman family that Augustus wanted to promote and was something of an embarrassment to the imperial family.

    Caligula was assassinated in AD 41 by a group led by the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Cassius Charaea. The guards then went on a killing spree dispatching any member of the imperial household they could find; they discovered Claudius hiding behind...

  17. CHAPTER 10 The Flavian Emperors and the Obelisks of Domitian
    (pp. 75-88)

    The turbulent year of AD 69 saw no less than four contenders vying for the principate and was thus known as the ‘year of the four emperors’. Galba lasted barely a month, having offended the aristocracy and the soldiers. The other commanders, Otho and Vitellius, had more success: they were able to win over much of the aristocracy, but they failed to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of their social peers as well as with the soldiers.

    By July of that year Vespasian, the general serving in Judaea, was declared emperor in Egypt, followed by Syria and the rest...

  18. CHAPTER 11 The Emperor Hadrian A Memorial to Grief
    (pp. 89-100)

    After the death of his father, Hadrian had been placed under the guardianship of the man who later became the Emperor Trajan (AD 98–117). He embarked on a military career and married Trajan’s grand-niece Sabina. Later, he was adopted by Trajan, and, shortly before Trajan’s death, Hadrian was made his successor.

    Hadrian (AD 117–138) was one of the most capable emperors. His rule was strong but not, by Roman standards, as oppressive as some earlier rulers. He was also a great patron of the arts. Much of Hadrian’s reign was spent visiting the provinces of the empire and...

  19. CHAPTER 12 Constantine and the New Rome
    (pp. 101-106)

    The obelisk that now stands in the Piazza di San Giovanni is the largest surviving obelisk in the world: it stands 32 metres (83ft) high and weighs 455 tonnes. It was made of red granite, possibly from the same quarry as the Vatican obelisk (5).

    It was probably Min, the mayor of Thinis, overseer of the priests of Onuris, who supervised its original construction for the eighteenth-dynasty pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BC). It was originally intended to stand in one of the courts of the Temple of Amun-Rā at Karnak; it was brought from the quarry and deposited in...

  20. CHAPTER 13 From Rome to Constantinople
    (pp. 107-114)

    From AD 364 to 375, the Roman Empire was governed by two co-emperors, the brothers Valentinian I and Valens; when Valentinian died in AD 375, his sons Valentinian II and Gratian succeeded him as rulers of the Western Roman Empire. In 378, after Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople, Gratian appointed Theodosius to replace the fallen emperor as co-augustus for the East. Gratian was killed in a rebellion in 383, and Theodosius’ elder son, Arcadius, was appointed co-ruler for the East. After the death in 392 of Valentinian II, whom Theodosius had supported against a variety of usurpations,...

  21. CHAPTER 14 An Egyptian Obelisk in France
    (pp. 115-122)

    At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a surge of interest in ancient Egypt gripped Europe. However, this time it was not a Roman but a French emperor who was responsible for the removal of an obelisk.

    When Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt on his military campaigns in 1798–1801, he brought with him a scientific expedition of scholars. They produced a colossal work,Description de l’Egypte, which gave the first complete survey of the country and its people since Strabo nearly two thousand years earlier. The work provided a detailed account of all the ancient monuments found, and included...

  22. CHAPTER 15 Obelisks in Britain
    (pp. 123-130)

    Nectanebus, one of the last native Egyptian kings, who reigned around the middle of the fourth century BC, rebuilt or founded a temple to Isis on the island of Philae, which lies at the southern end of the First Cataract, near Aswan. Later, the Ptolemies added to the temple, and sometime during the second century BC Ptolemy IX (116–107 BC) built a pylon with two figures of lions in front of it and set up a pair of red granite obelisks.

    The explorer Belzoni visited the island in 1815 and noted that the lions had been badly damaged and...

  23. CHAPTER 16 From the Old World to the New: An Obelisk in New York
    (pp. 131-136)

    The story of the removal of the other Alexandrian obelisk to New York (21) is less complicated than its companion’s trip to London, and encompassed a shorter period of time. Khedive Ismail first offered the obelisk to the United States at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The khedive suggested the idea to William Hurlbert, editor of theNew York World, and Hurlbert became the driving force behind its removal.

    The offer was not given a great deal of consideration by the United States until the London obelisk was removed, which aroused considerable interest. Negotiations went on for...

  24. CHAPTER 17 The Obelisk Builders and the Standing Obelisks of Egypt
    (pp. 137-146)

    Sesostris I, the second king of the twelfth Egyptian dynasty (1971–1928 BC), built a new temple in Heliopolis in honour of the sun god. In the twentieth century AD two fragments of this temple were found, having been reused in buildings in modern Cairo. Although the temple is almost completely destroyed, the plans and records of its construction survive in Berlin. A damaged leather roll once used by a scribe for writing practice has on one side a dedicatory inscription, which Sesostris I may have had carved upon a stele in his temple at Heliopolis. The scribe records the...

    (pp. 147-150)

    In ancient times the erection of these monuments must have been a time for great rejoicing and ceremony. Their visual splendour—great shafts of light—would have impressively adorned the capitals of ancient Egypt. It is little wonder, therefore, that when invading armies conquered Egypt they sought to establish their right to rule the land by carrying off pieces of these valuable items as symbols of power and authority.

    It was many hundreds of years later, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, that the lowering, transportation over enormous distances and re-erection of these colossal monuments happened on an...

  26. APPENDIX: Translations of Two Obelisk Inscriptions
    (pp. 151-158)
  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 159-160)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 161-168)