The Fingers of the Sun

by Danilo Brunetti

Symbolizing petrified rays of the sun, these Egyptian monoliths can be found all over Rome. Federico Schiaffino explains.

Boasting thirteen ancient obelisks, Rome has more than double the number of these majestic granite monuments than the entire country of Egypt. These massive monoliths, four-sided and topped with a pyramid shape, were created by the ancient Egyptians starting in the late 4th century BC.
Generally created in pairs, they graced the entrance of the temples of the sun god, Amun-Ra. However, during the Roman conquest of Egypt, the greedy emperors “imported” them to Rome, in part to harness the great power they were thought to command, but also to display their dominance over the great Egyptian empire. Contrary to popular belief, the obelisks in Rome are not all technically Egyptian. While eight obelisks, including the ones gracing St. Peter’s square and Piazza del Popolo, were indeed stolen from their original locations in Egypt, the other ve were copies commissioned by the Roman emperors themselves, most made in Egypt and then brought to Rome.

Either way, the question on everyone’s lips is always the same: how did they get these enormous objects from Egypt to Rome? While specific techniques are unknown, we do know that special “obelisk ships” existed for the sole purpose of transporting the stone monuments, and some claim these ships were filled with lentils to keep their precious cargo from being damaged during the trip.
The tallest of Rome’s obelisks can be found in front of the Basilica St. John in Lateran, measuring 32 meters and weighing in at over 230 tons. It’s also the oldest, dating back to the 15th century BC. The smallest, by comparison, is just over 5 meters tall, and so diminutive that it sits on the back of a small stone elephant, a charming sculpture by Bernini in Piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The only obelisk to survive the Middle Ages entirely intact, without toppling and breaking into several pieces, is the Vatican Obelisk, brought to Rome by emperor Caligula and placed in the center of his circus on the Vatican hill. It was moved slightly to its current location in the middle of St. Peter’s square in 1580 by Sixtus V, the obelisk-obsessed pope. How do you get away with placing a blatantly pagan object in the center of St. Peter’s square? Easy: put a cross on top.

Obelisks by Numbers.

  • Piazza San Pietro – Vaticano (1586) – Height 25,37 meters (40 m from ground)
  • Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore – Esquilino (1587) – Height 14,75 meters (25,55 m from ground)
  • Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano – Lateranense (1588) – Height 32,18 meters (45,70 m from ground)
  • Piazza del Popolo – Flaminio (1589) – Height 23,91 meters (36,43 m from ground)
  • Piazza Navona – Agonale (1651) – Height 16,53 meters (30,17 m from ground)
  • Piazza della Minerva – Minerveo (1651) – Height 5,47 meters (12,69 m from ground)
  • Piazza del Pantheon – Macuteo (1711) – Height 6,34 meters (14,52 m from ground)
  • Piazza del Quirinale – Quirinale (1786) – Height 14,63 meters (28,94 m from ground)
  • Piazza Trinità dei Monti – Sallustiano (1789) – Height 13,91 meters (30,45 m from ground)
  • Piazza Montecitorio – Campense (1792) – Height 21,79 meters (33,97 m from ground)
  • Villa Celimontana – Mattejano (1817) – Height 2,68 meters (12,23 m from ground)
  • Pincio – Aureliano (1822) – Height 9,24 meters (17,26 m from ground)
  • Via delle Terme di Diocleziano – Dogali (1887) – 6,34 meters