Rome’s obelisks in antique photos
By order of the pharaohs – kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, divine sons of Ra, with the Horus falcon resting on their headgear – well-paid, skilled workers once extracted majestic obelisks from Aswan’s red granite quarries, and then carved them with stone tools and sycamore wedges soaked in water. They started on the rock esplanade by outlining the shape of the obelisk on the ground for its entire length – which would later be its height – and then dug down the flanks of the future monument, around its spire and broad base, lowering themselves into crevices as narrow as wells, until they reached what would be the width of the obelisk.
At this point the most difficult and dangerous phase of their work began: separating the obelisk from the rock underneath. The workers had to venture more and more under the huge sculpture, which would finally weigh several tons. Once finished, the obelisk was slung, lifted and dragged to large rafts on the Nile, where, taking advantage of the current and controlling navigation with ropes from the banks, it was moved to the temple’s location. Then it was slung again, pulled up on a ramp of sand, and finally, kept barely under control, it was erected making it slide onto its base. After cane scaffolding was built around it, masons and scribes would then start engraving hieroglyphics, with the pharaoh’s prayers – to Ra, his father, and to the other gods – repeated at the variable intervals that ensured their effectiveness.
These granite sunrays, a small pyramid placed on top, bound the earth to the sky and vice versa, granting the pharaoh and Egypt the protection of the gods.
But after thousands of years, the time of pharaohs in Egypt declined: from the 1st century of the Christian era, the Romans – first with Augustus and then with Caligula – brought many of the most beautiful obelisks back to Rome, so that the city could arrogate the protection of the gods and that imperial power could flaunt a divine investiture. Taking the obelisks away also symbolized Egypt’s defeat and submission to the new Latin Empire. Soon a trend began, with other emperors erecting obelisks in Rome, sometimes without any engravings or with made-up hieroglyphics – like Domitian did for the temple of Isis built in the Campus Martius. In the early 4th century, Constantius II brought the last, majestic obelisk back from Constantinople, which had by then flourished into a second Rome.
Thus today there are fourteen obelisks in Rome, while in Egypt only four remain.
That is how Ramset II came to kneel in front of Ra-Osiris on the four sides of the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, between Bernini’s door and Rainaldi’s twin churches, surrounded by statues of Rome, Neptune, the four seasons, and white marble sphinxes on the ramps that go up to the Pincian Hill.
Then, in front of the old Loggia delle Benedizioni of the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, we encounter a high and mighty obelisk erected in Egypt by Thutmose III, which the emperor Constantius II wanted here in Rome after it was destined to Byzantium at first.
Both of these obelisks were once placed on the dividing barrier of the Circus Maximus, where they witnessed thousands of chariot races. Then – after the decline of the Empire, the decrease in Rome’s population from one million people to about one hundred thousand, the desertion (and exploitation for construction materials) of the monuments that were not used in the new Christian city, and finally the barbarian invaders’ looting – even these obelisks, in the same state of abandonment of almost all the other monuments, fell to the ground struck by the shock of powerful earthquakes.
They lay on the ground, which eventually became marshy. Then Pope Sixtus V ordered their recovery and had them transferred, under the care of Domenico Fontana, to the most important squares in Rome: Piazza del Popolo, where pilgrims came from the North, and Saint John Lateran Square, where his papal ecclesiastical seat was.
Like lighthouses in the urban landscape, the two obelisks joined a third one, taller than them, that Caligula had brought to Rome. Placed on the dividing barrier of what would later become the Circus of Nero, it is said that it witnessed the martyrdom of the apostle Peter, and rises up next to the Vatican Hill, where the first Vicar of Christ was buried.
By order of Sixtus V, in three years of titanic efforts by architect Domenico Fontana, the obelisk was lifted off of its old base, brought in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and placed there as a beacon calling all men to the Holy See, marking the port of salvation embraced by Bernini’s colonnades.
Pope Sixtus V performed exorcist ceremonies for all three obelisks, as well as on Rome’s two historiated columns (Trajan’s column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius), as reported by the inscriptions on the bases, in order to erase all traces of their pagan – and therefore diabolical – past.
(to be continued)