When you go to Rome, you expect to see churches, shrines, catacombs and, if you’re lucky, Pope Francis. You probably don’t expect to see Egyptian obelisks.
There are 13 Egyptian obelisks in Rome — towering four-sided columns of stone rising into the sky and capped with pyramids. Eight of Rome’s obelisks are from ancient Egypt; five are from ancient Roman times and were commissioned in Egypt.
Most of these 13 Egyptian obelisks of Rome have connections with popes. In fact, three ancient obelisks can be found near the great basilicas of Rome: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major.
The Lateran Obelisk
This is the largest obelisk from ancient Egypt existing in the world. It weighs 455 tons and stands 151 feet, including its pedestal. It originally stood at the temple of Amun in Karnak. It was moved to Alexandria and then to Rome by Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great, in 357 A.D. The obelisk was erected at the Circus Maximus, but eventually fell into ruins and was buried.
It was found, broken in three pieces, in 1587. It was repaired and erected by St. John Lateran in 1588, by order of Pope Sixtus V. The obelisk contains hieroglyphics that say it was built by the pharaoh Thutmoses III and his grandson, Thutmoses IV (dating it to the 15th century B.C.). Pope Sixtus had the restored obelisk topped with his personal family symbols of lions with pears and three mountains topped with a star.
This 134.5 feet obelisk of red granite, stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square. It came from Heliopolis (Cairo), Egypt. It lacks hieroglyphics, so it is not certain which pharaoh commissioned it. It was brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula in 40 A.D. and erected in the Vatican Circus (the Circus of Nero). A special ship was built just to move the obelisk and this vessel was sunk in the Tiber to form the left pier of Claudius’ harbor.
Nero’s Circus was where many Christians were martyred, including St. Peter. Legends say that the Vatican Obelisk has such a prominent place is that it witnessed the death of the first pope.
The Vatican Obelisk is the only Roman obelisk that has never fallen. Under orders of Pope Sixtus V, it was moved in 1586. The work started in 1585 and took until Sept. 10, 1586. The final lifting of the obelisk into place was done in 52 stages, all on one day, under the direction of the architect Domenico Fontana.
When first brought to Rome, the obelisk was topped with a golden orb. This was said to hold the ashes of Julius Caesar. However, when it was removed and opened, there was only ash. The orb is a Roman museum today and the obelisk is topped with a cross that contains a fragment of Christ’s cross.
After Fontana moved the Vatican Obelisk, it became part of a giant sundial, which marks the summer and winter solstices and the time. Its shadow moves through the signs of the zodiac that rest in cobbles of Vatican Square. A granite strip that runs from the obelisk toward the papal apartments and across one of the fountains in the square acts as the meridian: a line that indicates when the sun has reached true or solar noon and is at its highest point in the sky.
St. Mary Major Obelisk
The shortest of the three obelisks near Rome’s major basilicas is the 49-footer on the Esquiline Hill, behind St. Mary Major. Now topped with a cross, the Esquiline originally was one of a pair of obelisks standing at the Mausoleum of Augustus along the Tiber. The two fell and were rediscovered in 1527. Pope Sixtus V had this obelisk erected in 1587 — the pedestal has his family’s lions on it (as does the Vatican obelisk).
The Esquiline’s twin, the Quirinale Obelisk, was not erected again until 1786, by Pope Pius VI. (In 1792, Pius VI also ordered the erection of the Solare Obelisk, which also originally came from Heliopolis by order of Caesar Agustus.)
Pope Sixtus V had yet another obelisk — this one dating to the pharaoh Ramses and the 13th century B.C. — erected in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. This Flaminio Obelisk also came to Rome by order of Caesar Augustus in 10 B.C. and was placed in the Circus Maximus. It fell, was discovered with the Lateran Obelisk and repaired by order of Sixtus V. It is topped with his mountains and star.
Two other Roman obelisks from the time of Ramses II, and from a temple of Ra in Heliopolis, were placed in their current positions by Pope Clement XI in 1711: the Macuteo in the Piazza della Rotonda (next to the Pantheon, which is an ancient Roman temple now dedicated to Mary and all the saints); and the Dogali Obelisk now located at Baths of Diocletian.
Behind the Pantheon, and resting on an elephant pedestal, is the Santa Maria sopra Minerva Obelisk, placed there in 1667 by Pope Alexander VII. It dates to the sixth century B.C.
Of the remaining obelisks with papal ties, there are the Pinciano and Sallustiano. They are Roman-made obelisks. The Pinciano was commissioned in the second century by Hadrian. It was moved twice — once by Pope Alexander XIV and then, in 1822, by Pope Pius VII. The Sallustiano is a small replica of the Flaminio, ordered by the emperor Aurellian in the third century. It was placed by the Spanish Steps by Pope Pius VI in 1789.
Two obelisks of Rome seem to have no papal ties: the Matteiano, a twin of the Macuteo and assembled from fragments, of Via Celimontana; and the Agonalis in the Piazza Navona. It was commissioned by the Emperor Domitian in the first century.
Sources: “A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Obeliscus Vaticanus” at UChicago.edu; “Amidst the Crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Stands Ancient Egypt” in Street Archaeology; romartlover.it; Joan Lewis’ “Joan’s Rome” at ewtn.com; Legendaryrome.blogspot.com; “A Tourist in Rome” at jeffbodono.com; wikipedia.org; “A World of Obelisks” at pbs.org; and Catholic News Service