The palms and the Egyptian obelisk

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic News Service | March 28, 2015

A time when speaking out loud, even when it was forbidden, changed history

What do ancient Egypt, the Roman emperor Caligula and ship ropes have to do with Palm Sunday? Hint: they all come together in Rome.

This Sunday, most of us will go to church and bring home fresh, green palms. Some of us will even weave those palms into small crosses to wear on our lapels or jackets during Holy Week — a tradition we may have borrowed from Lutheran Christians.

But not many of us will carry five-foot, six-foot or even taller palm weavings.

The pope and the cardinals at the Vatican will — and it’s a tradition going back more than 400 years.

The year was 1586. The place was Rome. Pope Sixtus V decided to move an Egyptian obelisk into St. Peter’s Square.

The only problem was that the red granite obelisk was 134.5 feet tall and weighed 350 tons. When the emperor Caligula first had it transported from its original site in Cairo in 40 A.D., he had a special ship constructed to carry it. The ship made that one trip and then was sunk in the Tiber River to form part of the harbor. Caligula had ordered the obelisk erected in the Vatican Circus — near where it stands now (about 250 meters away), but not all that close when you’re trying to move 350 tons of rock.

Pope Sixtus commissioned the famous architect Domenico Fontana to undertake the move and work was started in 1585. Then, on Sept. 10, 1586, the final 52 stages of the project began. All 52 steps had to be done in a one-day event. Since the task was so intricate and just plain difficult, the pope ordered that no one who crowded the square that day could make a sound — under pain of death. Some accounts even say the pope had a gallows erected to make his point clear.

It took 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches, as well as a complex structure of scaffolding and pulleys. The obelisk was lowered to its side, moved those 800-plus feet and then slowly angled upright. Even though the calculations were meticulous, the weight was too much. The ropes strained and began to fray.

Fontana was at a loss. Disaster loomed. Then, someone in the silent crowd shouted out, “Wet the ropes.” (Aiga ae corde! in Italian.)

It was an old seaman’s trick — wet rope shrinks and, as it does, it grows stronger. Fontana ordered the water poured, the ropes tightened and the obelisk went into place.

No, the pope didn’t kill the man who shouted, a sea captain named Benedetto Bresca. Instead, Pope Sixtus offered him a reward. Bresca — who was from the Italian Riviera region of Sanremo (also known as “the city of flowers”) and Beordighera — made an odd request. He asked that his family would receive the contract to supply the palms for the pope’s Palm Sunday ceremony. It was granted and that contract has lasted ever since.

It has been a pretty good deal for Sanremo and the region around, because today about 2,000 of the hand-woven palm leaves from there are distributed to crowds at St. Peter’s Square. Another 100 or so of the longer palm weavings — parmureli — are given to the cardinals and bishops at the Palm Sunday Mass. The largest one goes to Pope Francis. It is said that the intricately woven strands consist of three fronds each, to signify the Holy Trinity.

The Italian Riviera grows date palms. One legend says that its first date palms came from Egypt — just like the obelisk — either transported there by sailors, or from seeds blown on the winds from Africa across the Mediterranean. Whatever their origin, they all come together on one Sunday in Rome: the palms, the obelisk and the pope.


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Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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