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Lateran Obelisk

Lateran Obelisk, c. 1400 B.C.E., originally erected at the temple of Amun, Karnak by Thutmose III and Thutmose IV at a height of 32 meters; now roughly 4 meters shorter), monolith of red granite, 28 meters high (moved to Alexandria by Constantine, and later erected in the spina of the Circus Maximus in Rome by Constantius II in 357 C.E., re-erected at the Lateran in 1587 by Domenico Fontana for Pope Sixtus V speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(jaunty piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're standing beside Saint John Lateran, one of the oldest and largest churches in Rome, but we're here to look at something that is even older- much older. We're standing in front of an absolutely enormous obelisk from ancient Egypt. - [Dr. Harris] In fact, this is the tallest ancient obelisk known. It took two ships and hundreds of oarsman to bring it from Egypt to Rome. So, an Obelisk is a monolith, it's made of a single stone, it's square at the base and has a small pyramid at the top. - [Dr. Zucker] And commonly, that would be clad in some kind of metal so that it would be highly reflective and that was appropriate because obelisks were understood by the ancient Egyptians who made them and then by the ancient Romans who imported them as reflective of the divinity of the sun. - [Dr. Harris] So, obelisks are associated with the cult of the sun god by both the ancient Egyptians and by the Romans. They symbolize the rays of the sun and often covered in hieroglyphics and erected often in pairs in front of ancient Egyptian temples. - [Dr. Zucker] This obelisk is made out of red granite- an incredibly hard stone. And so, the act of quarrying something this size, the act of carving it, of transporting it, of setting it upright was monumental in every respect. - [Dr. Harris] It's easy to see why a conquering ruler would wanna take these obelisks from Egypt and bring them home with them. This particular one was so enormous, so impressive that previous conquerors had decided to leave it alone and not offend any gods who might be associated with it. - [Dr. Zucker] And while most hoists were set up in pairs, ancient chroniclers tell us that this obelisk existed alone in a temple to the sun in the great city of Karnak. And it remained there until the fourth century when Constantine the Great visited Egypt in the year 301 and may have seen this obelisk. Later, he would order its removal. It was taken down and a special boat was built to move it from Karnak to Alexandria from which it would be transported. But Constantine dies and it would remain in Alexandria for two decades until his son, who is known as Constantius the Second, would have, we think, three ships built in order to transport it across the Mediterranean. Two ships straddled the obelisk on either side as it lay between them and a third ship at its prow to break the waves. It was then brought up the Tiber and transported by sled to the Circus Maximus, a large race track right beside the imperial palace. And this obelisk was set up in an island in the center around which the chariots would race. - [Dr. Harris] So, the Roman empire had a centuries-old relationship with Egypt. In 30 BCE, Egypt actually became part of the Roman Empire. And Augustus and many other Roman emperors were interested in bringing obelisks from Egypt back to Rome. - [Dr. Zucker] As Rome became Christianized, the ancient city fell into disrepair and the population was drastically reduced. Now, the circus Maximus is a fairly marshy area. And so, an obelisk of enormous weight would eventually become destabilized and this obelisk ultimately fell and broke into three pieces - [Dr. Harris] And it was discovered under layers of mud more than a thousand years later in the late 1500s. And a year later, it was re-erected, his time not in the no-longer-used Circus Maximus but the very important Christian site of St. John Lateran. - [Dr. Zucker] So, this is extraordinary historical continuity from the original patrons, Thutmose the Third and Thutmose the Fourth, to the ancient Roman emperor Constantine and his son who transported the obelisk to Pope Sixtus the Fifth who had this obelisk repaired and re-erected. - [Dr. Harris] I think it's really important to see the interest in obelisks that develops in the Renaissance as part of this interest in the ancient world- both ancient Rome, but also ancient Egypt. - [Dr. Zucker] The ancient Romans looked at the grandeur of ancient Egypt, of their engineering capabilities, of their extraordinary skill, and their triumph over that culture made ancient Rome even greater. And when the obelisk is re-erected by the Pope for the Catholic church, an inscription is added to the base that tells the extraordinary history of this object. - [Dr. Harris] And so, today, as we walk around St John Lateran, a church built on land once owned by the emperor Constantine given to the church to establish a church and a palace here for the popes, we can stand and look at an enormous obelisk covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that takes us back millennia to ancient Egypt through to ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and here into the 21st century. (jaunty piano music)