The City Traveler invited guest bloggers Jennifer and David Raezer to highlight one of Rome’s unique cultural elements: ancient Egyptian obelisks. David and Jennifer are the creators of Approach Guides, cultural travel guidebooks that offer a new approach to understanding and appreciating the world’s most important historical sites.
Due to the efforts of its emperors, Rome holds the greatest concentration of obelisks in the world, with 13 (12 in Rome and one in Vatican City).
After the Roman Empire fell, the obelisks remained buried until the Renaissance when there began to be interest in them again.
At the end of the 16th century (1585-90), in addition to building streets to connect the seven pilgrimage churches in the city, Pope Sixtus V conceived of the idea of using the obelisks as markers for pilgrims who visited Rome (he did this with four).
It was his idea to place them in front of the major basilicas so that they might be visible from a distance, “christianizing” them by mounting a cross on the top.
The obelisk featured in the accompanying photo, is the the third tallest in Rome and can be seen in Pizza del Popolo.
Originally from Heliopolis (an ancient city now located in the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt), it was brought to Rome in 10 BC by Agustus and was erected in the Circus Maxiums. It was later rediscovered and erected in 1589 by Domenico Fontana who was responsible for erecting several of Rome’s obelisks: Piazza S. Pietro, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano).
Keep in mind that not all the obelisks are “original” Egyptian obelisks, meaning that they were not erected in Egypt by a Pharoah and the subsequently shipped off by the Romans when they conquered the region. The “non-originals” consist of Egyptian granite, but were mined subsequent to the Roman takeover and given hieroglyphics once they were brought back to Rome by Egyptian immigrants.
A perfect example of this a “non-original” obelisk is the one standing in the the Piazza Navona.
In order of the largest to smallest, here are the Roman obelisks:
1. Piazza S.Giovanni in Laterano (also the tallest obelisk in the world)
2. Piazza S. Pietro (Vatican)
3. Piazza del Popolo
4. Piazza Monte Citorio (Quirinale hill)
5. Piazza Navona
6. Piazza dell’Esquilino (behind Santa Maria Maggiore)
7. Piazza del Quirinale (a twin of the one at Piazza dell’Equilino)
8. Trinità dei Monti (top of Spanish Steps)
9. Monte Pincio
10. Terme Obelisk (South Garden, Viale delle Terme di Diocleziano)
11. Piazza della Rotonda (Pantheon)
12. Piazza della Minerva (in Piazza dei Cinquecento)
13. Villa Celimontana (the park on Celio hill)
One good read: The Emperors’ Needles: Egyptian Obelisks and Rome