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The Luxor Obelisk and Trajan's Column: A Comparison

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The Luxor Obelisk and Trajan's Column: A Comparison

At first glance, one can see the similarities between a typical Egyptian obelisk and a Roman triumphal column. The most obvious of the approximations is the shape - a long, monolithic form, constructed out of granite or marble, respectively. Both columns and obelisks are comprised of three distinct sections: the base(bottom support), the shaft(center column piece), and the top piece(capital or pyramidion). Upon closer inspection, both are inscribed with a clear narrative about the person, deity or event for which the monument was built. However, this is the extent of the obvious likenesses, and in this essay, I will attempt to ascertain an influence that Egyptian obelisks have on Roman triumphal columns by examining the Luxor obelisk, situated in front of the Temple of Amun-Re in Luxor, Egypt, and the Column of Trajan, located in Rome, Italy.

Erik Iversen states that although the early history of the obelisk's form remains unclear, it may have originated as small sandstone funerary monuments during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties(c. 2465 - c. 2150 BCE) ("Obelisk"). Gradually, the obelisk's purpose shifted to that of marking temples associated with the sun god, Re. With the change of function came an increase in size, and the addition of the pyramidal apex, said to have been "a geometrical version of the Benben stone, an ancient cult object of the temple at Heliopolis"("Obelisk"). It was at Heliopolis where the legend of Amun-Re(known as Atum at the time) was developed, as he rose from the primeval ocean to a conical-shaped mound of earth, the Benben. It was here that the first ray of sun fell on Amun-Re, marking his ascent into heaven. Pliny the Elder aptly suggested that the obelisk represented a petrified ray of sun(Book XXXVI, Ch. XIV), as the oldest surviving complete obelisk is located at the site of Amun-Re's temple in Heliopolis, raised by Sesostris I (reg c. 1918-c. 1875 BCE) ("Obelisk"). The function of the apex would have been to absorb the sun's rays and ensure the presence of the sun god in his temple.

All granite obelisks seem to have been quarried near Aswan, at the southern border of Egypt, where an unfinished and partly broken obelisk remains in situ, showing traces of the quarrying methods used by the Egyptians. The top surface of the abandoned obelisk was flat, and there were trenches cut around the other three sides. The shaft was then hammered out by using dolerite balls, a tough, greenish-black stone found naturally in some of the valleys of the eastern desert(Isler 141). The monuments were then taken to river barges and floated to their destination via the Nile River, a scene that is depicted on a relief in Queen Hatshepsut's memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri ("Obelisk"). The method of erection involves many theories, however the method offered by Reginald Engelbach seems to be the most likely. It involves the use of a Y-shaped funnel filled with sand that was constructed over a stone base. The obelisk was then dragged up a ramp of mud bricks to the mouth of the funnel until its lower end rested on the sand, which was released to allow the shaft to slide into position using its own weight (Engelbach 69). Because of the extremely high cost of quarrying and transporting the monoliths, only the most wealthy and powerful monarchs could afford them. The tradition reached its pinnacle during the New Kingdom (c. 1540- c. 1075 BCE), and many surviving obelisks include those of Tuthmosis I (reg c. 1493- c. 1482 BCE) and Hatshepsut at Karnak, and those of Ramses II (reg c. 1279-c. 1213 BCE) at Luxor. Production declined during the 19th Dynasty (c. 1292-c. 1190 BCE) when rulers took existing obelisks and implemented them for their own personal use. The practice was revived during the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE), and used by the Ptolemies (304-30 BCE), who raised several monoliths in the newly established capital of Alexandria ("Obelisk").

The Luxor Temple complex was established approximately in the 16th century BCE, and was referred to as "Ipt rsyt," or southern sanctuary, where it was believed that Amun-Re resided. Mark Andrews asserts the earliest mention of the temple was found on a pair of stelae left at Maasara quarry, inscribed with information regarding the extraction of limestone for several temples, including the "Mansion of Amun for the Southern Sanctuary" ("Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt"). These stelae were created in the 22nd year of Ahmose's reign, c. 1550. However, structural evidence at the temple site date it during the co-rule of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, c. 1500 ("Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt"). Ramses II (c. 1280) built additions to the temple, the most grandiose during the Tuthmosid phase of the temple. The ownership of the temple complex has changed hands several times, first being conquered by the Romans in the late 3rd century CE, then as a Christian church and monastery after the Egyptian pagan period, and finally resting in the possession of the Muslims, who built a mosque in the 13th century CE, which is still in use today ("Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt").

Included in Ramses II's architectural addendums is a pair red granite obelisks dedicated to the worship of Amun-Re, located in front of the first pylon, one of which is still in situ, and the other was relocated to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France in the 19th century CE. Timothy Youngblood states that the in situ obelisk is 25 meters in height, with a pedestal of 2.5 meters, and weights approximately 254 tons ("Obelisk's of the World"). The monolith is slightly bowed, and two of its opposite faces swell out, most likely a result of rudimentary quarrying and polishing methods and tools. "The northwest face is both longitudinally and laterally convex, while the southeast face is longitudinally concave and laterally convex" (Isler 137). Isler suggests that the Egyptians used a string as a guide for cutting the obelisk out of the quarry, and that there's a good possibility that the string sagged in the middle, causing the longitudinal concave in the southeastern face (Isler 139-140). Isler also purports that the polishing of the obelisk may have caused the lateral convexity in both the southeast and northwest faces, "as the stone reaches the edges of the top surface, gravity pulls it down and slightly more stone is taken off the edges than the centre" (Isler 145).

At the base of the obelisk, there is a relief of four baboons, with their paws raised towards the rising sun. Baboons played an important role in Egyptian mythology and rituals. These baboons were imported from Nubia, and usually kept as house pets or within temples to be used in religious



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