Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I am just wondering the significance of this. There is a large one in Washington DC and an old Egyptian one in New York. They have them in France, England, Spain, Canada, Australia etc. Wikipedia has a list of the oblelisks in question.

The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra, and during the brief religious reformation of Akhenaten was said to be a petrified ray of the Aten, the sundisk. It was also thought that the god existed within the structure.

It seems rather odd that all of these cities around the world just seemed to like this style of structure. From what I can tell, there was no purpose beside decorative unless you worship the sun god Ra or maybe entertain old Egyptian culture and religion.

Freemasons use them to some degree as a symbolism for something .. was this perhaps a way to celebrate the great empire of Egypt?

share|improve this question
    
wikipedia list –  gerdi Jul 16 '13 at 13:45
2  
Obelisk served at least one practical purpose in ancient times. They're basically giant sundials. The angle of the shadow tells you the time of day, and the length of the shadow at noon tells you roughly what day of the year it is. –  David H Mar 2 at 7:45
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Very good, interesting question:

The obelisk form is indeed ancient and ubiquitous - pre-Columbian American civilizations, ancient Egypt, Asian civilizations of long ago antiquity all were enamored with the obelisk and placed it at the center of their ritual and symbolic places of gathering. (See Paul Devereux's works)

Some have postulated that this indicates a common root for all human civilizations. The Talmudic sages believed that all civilization emanated from the dispersion that according to the biblical account occurred after the destruction of The Tower of Babel, which appears to have been an obelisk with a shrine at the top, according to Medrashic and other ancient sources (which I do not recall at the moment). However, modern archeology and anthropology seem to refute this idea - we find the obelisk form at sites which apparently pre-date what would be supportable according to the biblical timeline, in Sumeria and South America for starters.

IMO there is something about the obelisk form that inherently appeals to us humans. Many of our modern skyscrapers also emulate this form - the new WTC in NYC is essentially an obelisk, and I don't think it's simply an imitation of classical style.

Perhaps the obelisk form resonates on a deep human level: it evokes a feeling of looking-striving-surging upwards - so fundamental to the human condition. Certainly the new WTC reflects such feelings, as did the very ancient biblical Tower of Babel.

In addition, (thanks to Eugene Seidel for this edit...) a high place to give a strategic advantage in warfare, and political motives - the expression of power and might - were also very important - this is documented: (Again, see Devereuex) Rulers would appear at the top of the tower to demonstrate their closeness to the Gods and reinforce their god-like stature to the populace.

Still the question returns - why is this form linked to such feelings. (Many obelisks contained nothing, or simply a shrine at the top.) And the effort and great emphasis on esthetics in these structures indicates that they were about more than just a high point to gain strategic advantage in warfare, etc

Bottom line: obelisks are attractive and interesting everywhere, to everyone - as antiquities and mementos or as modern day manifestations of ancient designs and motifs. Certainly there is a particular history surrounding each obelisk - how/why it was built or got to be where it is. But I think my explanation is the fundamental underlying answer to your question.

share|improve this answer
    
Maybe the obelisk shape -- tall, slender, square cross-section, tapering towards top -- is the most economical form in terms of material and craftsmanship required if you want something tall? –  Eugene Seidel Jul 15 '13 at 21:42
1  
LOL good question... could be a mix of two motives. One, to have a landmark that is visible from afar and that proclaims the wealth and resources of them who ordered its construction. Two, the atavistic instinct to rise to the top, from where we can better survey our enemies and attack them. Wasn't that why King Kong climbed the Empire State Building? –  Eugene Seidel Jul 15 '13 at 21:48
    
@EugeneSeidel - see edit. I incorporated your ideas into my answer. You are certainly correct - your ideas about projection of power and strategic advantage are well documented. I was just in a sort of 'inspirational' frame of mind. LOL. –  comeAndGo Jul 15 '13 at 22:03
1  
Histophile, could pyramids and obelisks be somewhat related in their mystic nature both under a religious aspect related to God and under a magical perspective related to the spiritualist point of view? –  user2237 Jul 15 '13 at 22:12
2  
Well, what I was getting at -- I know I shouldn't be spamming so much here, mods please delete my comments after a while -- is that just as a pyramid is the "only" practical architectural form available to low-tech societies wanting to build on a gigantic scale, so the obelisk is the "only" sculptural form if maximum height at minimal cost is what you want to achieve. Could be wrong, but I don't think so. –  Eugene Seidel Jul 15 '13 at 22:28
show 1 more comment

The obelisk is somehow linked with different architecture styles. The Baroque era, The Empire era, The Neoclassical era and so on. The symbolism of a obelisk nowadays has to do with heritage of society values and urbanism dating back to Ancient Greece, The Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Egypt

share|improve this answer
add comment

It was fashionable at some point in imperialistic history of mentioned nations to steal obelisks from Egypt.

However US obelisks are mostly of modern origin whereas the obelisks situated in old European empires are mostly original ones obtained via plunder, regarded as spoils of war.

share|improve this answer
11  
The one in Central Park is ancient - it was a gift from the Egyptian government, as were the the ones in London and Paris. –  Nigel Harper Jul 15 '13 at 18:35
    
-1: The questioner is looking for more than just an inventory. The title is a bit misleading, but the question emphasizes "the significance" of these structures and why they were collected. I don't think you did the question justice. –  comeAndGo Jul 19 '13 at 5:07
add comment

protected by Community Mar 31 at 14:52

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.