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?

  • wikipedia list
    – user2597
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 13:45
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    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
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 7:45
  • The famous one in Paris is actually from Egypt and was offered to France in 1830.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 9:37
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    Well, Sigmund Freud has a thing or two to say about obelisks in his "Introduction to Psychoanalysis". You can guess what by the reference.
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 17:41

4 Answers 4


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.

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    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? Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 21:42
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    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? Commented Jul 15, 2013 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.
    – user2590
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 22:03
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    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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 22:12
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    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. Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 22:28

Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, started the fashion of moving Egyptian obelisks as a symbol of control over Egypt and technological might, first to Rome and later to New Rome or Constantinople. The Romans also made new obelisks in Rome. This custom ended with the decline of the Roman Empire.

In the 19th century the march of technology and international diplomacy caused the ancient Roman practice to be imitated. The Egyptian government started giving obelisks to foreign governments and the foreign governments started moving them to their big cities.


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.

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    The one in Central Park is ancient - it was a gift from the Egyptian government, as were the the ones in London and Paris. Commented Jul 15, 2013 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.
    – user2590
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 5:07

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