CODEX Entry 3301: Obelisks


The largest, most ancient obelisks originate from the two great religious cities of the Sun Gods, Heliopolis of the North, in modern-day Cairo, and Heliopolis of the South, at Luxor (Thebes). In the south were the ancient temples to Amun and Amun-Ra at Karnak (2000BC to 1400BC) and those in Luxor itself, where Pharaohs were deified from 1400BC. The Northern Heliopolis, also contained several important temples to Ra, Atum, and Horus (the local names for Ra, Amun, and Amun-Ra). Both cities were called the Cities of the Sun Gods but the local name was ‘The Pillars’ because they contained these towering solid granite obelisks in pairs, each pair donated by a pharaoh.

With Cleopatra’s death and the Roman occupation of Egypt under Augustus, the Emperor began the process of systematically pilfering the obelisks, first transporting them to the coastal capital of Alexandria, and then on to Rome. Today just one obelisk remains standing in Northern Heliopolis, the remaining stonework of the temples stripped bare for the construction of early Cairo, and, in the south, one at the entrance of the Luxor Temple, to which France only relinquished ownership in the 1990s. While several have fallen victim to earthquakes, over two-thirds of them were stolen by the invaders.

Emperor Augustus had completed the shipment, down the Nile, of five obelisks from Luxor to Alexandria by the end of his reign, a pair of which were used to decorate the front of the Caesarium Temple which Cleopatra had built in Alexandria to enshrine Julius Caesar. One, shipped to Italy, was erected in the Campus Martius, but collapsed and broke into many pieces in the 9th Century. It was later reconstructed as the Obelisk of Montecitorio and re-erected in the 18th century by Pope Pius VI. The second, Flaminio Obelisk, was taken from the Circus Maximus and re-erected by Pope Sixtus V in the same year as he erected the Obelisk Vatican. Augustus also commissioned two new obelisks in Egypt for his own mausoleum, and a copy was commissioned by Emperor Domitian and erected at the Temple of Serapis, the Greek version of Amun-Ra in Rome. The Earl of Arundel, Grand Master of English Freemasons from 1633 to 1635, paid a deposit and attempted to ship the four pieces of the Serapis Obelisk to London, but Urban VIII disallowed its export.

Fifty years later, the fifth of Augustus’ stolen obelisks made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, shipped to Rome on the request of Caligula in 40AD. This was considered such an amazing feat of engineering that Pliny the Elder recorded it in his history of Rome. Caligula placed it in his Circus, or what was called the Circus of Nero. This later became the Obelisk Vatican in St Peter’s Square.

The Caesarium in Alexandria was converted into a church in the 4th century, where the two obelisks at its entrance fell during an earthquake in 1303. After the siege of Alexandria, in 1811 in which Napoleon’s forces were defeated, the British commander, a prominent freemason, 7th Earl of Cavan, Richard Ford William Lambart, proposed that they be transported to London. This was delayed for seventy years but finally one arrived in 1877 after being lost at sea in the Bay of Biscay, and coming ashore in France. Its transportation was financed by a group of freemasons led by William James Erasmus Wilson. At the same time, financed by William Vanderbelt, masonic brother Lieutenant Commander H.H.Gorringe brought the other obelisk to New York.

Constantius II, son of Constantine, took power after ordering the murder of his two uncles and six cousins. A man who was later declared a heretic by the church for his attempts to change the creed. One of his interesting edicts was that only clergy could buy Christian prostitutes. He had two obelisks transported from the Luxor Temple to Alexandria in 357AD. One, the largest in Egypt at 450 tons, was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus in Rome, alongside Augustus’ smaller one. It is now known as the Lateran Obelisk. Having fallen and been partially buried in the river mud, Pope Sixtus V, had the broken sections dug up and re-erected near the Lateran Palace in 1588, The second obelisk was shipped by Theodosius in 390 to Constantinople and put up on the spina of the Hippodrome there. It broke during erection and is thus only 18m tall, and so a larger plinth was prepared to compensate.

In the same year of 1833 when the Washington Monument Committee proposed constructing a hollow obelisk taller than any building in the world at 500ft, another solid granite obelisk 75 ft high and weighing over 250 tons arrived in Paris from the Luxor temple to Amun-Ra. A purpose-built flat bottomed seagoing barge had sailed up the Nile to Luxor where 300 workmen dug a canal to allow the ship to come close to the obelisk. A French paddle ship ‘The Sphinx’ then towed the barge from Alexandria to Cherbourg. The re-erection of the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde was carefully planned by King Louis-Philippe I, the Grand Master of the Grand Orient de France.

Other much smaller obelisks made their way to Europe. One, the Boboli obelisk, was purchased In the sixteenth century, by Cardinal Ferdinand I de’ Medici and placed it in the gardens of the Villa Medici. Later, in 1788, Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Tuscany and Lorraine, son of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, the first royal Master Mason, transferred the obelisk to his residence in Florence.