Timeless, Elegant Art in the Landscape

By Mary and Hugh Williamson






Throughout history, obelisks with their classic grandeur have punctuated the landscape. Often of impressive height, these tapered four-sided pillars have a fascinating history, which all began in ancient Egypt.

A Little “Simplified” History
The design inspiration for the obelisk form was a visual ray of the sun, or a “sun pillar”. This optical phenomenon is caused by the sun’s reflection on tiny atmospheric ice crystals and is usually seen when the sun is low on the horizon. Ancient Egyptian obelisks were evident from 3,000 BC to 1,000 BC.The early examples followed the Egyptian Canon of Proportions, which strictly informed the proportions of each example to be 10:1, height to base. Evocative of the sun’s rays the earliest temple obelisk still standing was crafted in homage to the sun god “Ra”. Part of the enthusiastic Pharaoh Senusret I building program ca.1941 BC, this monolithic red granite structure with its pointed top reaching to the sky was thought at one point in history to house the sun god within. It remains in place in what is now the city of Heliopolis. The obelisks that often graced the entrance to temples were usually placed in pairs, and were generally embellished with gold or gold alloy-covered pyramidion caps. Often inscribed on the bases and columns by pharaohs to document their successes, they now serve to provide and confirm meaningful information for historians.

Ancient Romans were drawn to the majestic structures that the Egyptians crafted. After the death of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII, and the subsequent fall of Egypt as it came under the control of the Roman Empire, many of Egypt’s ubiquitous monuments were “relocated” to Rome. The monoliths were transported on “obelisk boats” via the Nile River to Alexandria, and across the Mediterranean to the Roman seaport of Ostia and to many other locations. These boats likely used the same technology that allowed the earlier Egyptians to craft the obelisks at the quarries of Upper Egypt, load them onto huge boats and sail them to their original locations along the Nile.

Innovation Continued
The relocation continued for centuries. The St. Peter’s Square obelisk was re-erected in 1586 AD, in the time of Pope Sixtus V. This Vatican “raising” project required 1,000 men, scores of cranes, and brilliant engineering. Fearing failure and the consequences, the “civil” engineer Domenico Fontana even had an “escape plan”, which happily he did not have to set in motion. It was a successful, Herculean feat, seen as even more impressive looking back from the present … similar attempts as recent as 1999 utilizing ancient theories, have been abject failures. So how did they do it?

“We have our arts, the ancients had theirs. We cannot raise obelisks a hundred feet high in a single piece, but our meridians are more exact.” ―Voltaire

Shared Culture
The Romans were not the only beneficiaries of Egyptian “generosity”. In the 19th century, as France and the United Kingdom jockeyed for political and trade advantages, ancient obelisks were welcomed to Paris in 1833, London in 1877 and finally in 1881 to New York’s Central Park. These red granite treasures came to be known as Cleopatra’s Needle, although they were already 1,000 years old when Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt. The New York and London monoliths were originally a pair, buried under the sands of Alexandria for over two millennia. The French King Louis Philippe ordered the third Needle, the Luxor Obelisk, to be placed in the Place de la Concorde, marking the spot where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette faced the guillotine in 1793.

Important versions of obelisks continued to be incorporated into noteworthy locations around the globe through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as commemorations and memorials. The most important example is perhaps the Washington Monument, celebrating the life and contributions of the first American President. This famous example is not monolithic, but rather is a building. At 555 feet, it is the tallest structure in Washington D.C. and is the tallest obelisk in the world. Damaged by an earthquake in 2011, the restored building was reopened in 2014.

Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde

Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde at midnight

The Obelisk Form Continues to Be Loved
Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801) helped to fuel “Egyptomania”, and you may come across splendid obelisks in your travels. They are seen in the Philippines, Korea, Sweden, Russia and many other countries, and are abundant in middle America, where municipalities graced war memorials with their elegance. There is also the High Point Monument in Montague, New Jersey, which celebrates the highest point in the state.

Another very special obelisk can be found in Biscayne Bay on Flagler Island, where it memorializes Henry Flagler, an important force in late 19th and early 20th century Florida. Its allegorical, figured base has not fared well, nor have other monument examples located in the U.S. It seems that thousands of years in Egypt’s desert is easier on these beautiful structures than the weather and acid rain of western locales.

Side view of the Vatican obelisk

Side view of the Vatican obelisk being lowered, 1590. Engraving in Della trasportatione dell’obelisco… (Rome: Appresso Domenico Basa). The Getty Research Institute, 87-B7401

Contemporary Applications
There are no straight lines in nature. So, if you are undertaking a landscape design that utilizes one of the basic principles of design, contrast, what do you incorporate? How about vertical straight lines in a definitive object that absolutely draws the eye with a pleasing sense of proportion. Maybe an obelisk? These can be scaled for a balcony or patio. Some modern-day obelisk variations are trellises. On larger properties they can be much larger and are dramatic and impressive when placed in a surrounding of the multiple curves created by plantings. Whatever the application they always signify that something special is there, and these days, no intergalactic assistance is needed.


An alternate theory… Could it be?

Viewers of the History Channel‘s Ancient Aliens might be familiar with the theory that ancient alien astronauts interacted with ancient humans. The show offers that archaeological discoveries, as well as translations of ancient documents, that the Anunnaki (translated from Sumerian, the language of the Marsh Arabs of Sumer, now southern Iraq, as “those who came down from the heavens”) might have walked among ancient Egyptians from 4500 BC (or earlier) to 1900 BC, imparting superhuman traits to their half-earthly offspring, or hybrids. They purportedly were a very advanced culture from a distant planet, who came to earth to mine gold, a necessity in their world. Is it a coincidence that Eridu in Sumer was perhaps the world’s first city, and that this population was able to construct something so complex as a ziggurat?

Nazca lines in Peru

Nazca lines in Peru

And Were They Peripatetic?
The Tello Obelisk that was discovered in 1919 by famed archaeologist Julio Tello at its site in Peru’s Chavín de Huantar  may suggest that the ancient aliens were interested in more than Mesopotamia and Egypt. Coupled with the Nazca Peru runways, it all prompts investigation that can take you into the wee hours. The runways are often offered by science mystery lovers as proof of ancient alien visits.