The word "obelisk" comes from the Greek "obeliskos," meaning skewer or roasting spit. The obelisk is a lofty four-sided shaft, often of impressive height, tapering gradually from the base to the top and terminating in a pointed pyramid called the pyramidion. The height of an obelisk is typically 10 to 15 times the width of the bottom. A true obelisk is a solid stone monolith, but the largest obelisk-shaped structures are hollow and constructed of hundreds or thousands of stones. The true origin of the obelisk shape is lost in antiquity. In any case, a large obelisk was an impressive and highly visible monument that rose above most other surrounding structures. The monolithic obelisk shaft usually rests on one or more pedestal stones. The shaft and pyramid comprise a single stone. The first base is square – up to 18 feet on a side and up to 2 feet high. The second base is also square, but smaller and stepped back from the first base. The die, on which an inscription is often carved, was smaller in cross-section but higher (6 feet or so) than the bases. The plinth, a platform on which the shaft rests, often overhangs the inscription die and includes elaborate decorative edge moldings. The tip of the pyramid is called the apex. Sometimes a stone or metal symbol, such as a star, urn, sphere, cross or bird, was placed on top of the apex. History The great era of obelisk construction covered almost three millennia of Egyptian history, ruled by over 30 dynasties of pharaohs. The first record of obelisks in Egypt dates from 2,600 BC. These were small, only 10 to 12-feet tall, and none have survived. Around 2,300 BC, an obelisk was erected by Usortesen I at Heliopolis (the sacred city of the sun) and at 76 feet tall, it survives as the oldest large obelisk and the last obelisk standing at Heliopolis. Later, around 1,500 BC, the largest monolithic obelisk ever erected, reaching a height of over 105 feet, was erected at Thebes by Thothmes III and IV – a size that presented enormous engineering challenges in transport from the quarry and erection at Thebes. All Egyptian obelisks came from the same quarry at Elephantine in the Lybian Mountains. This quarry yielded reddish Syenite granite of fine texture that could be polished to a high luster and permanence. Splitting was probably done by wetting wooden plugs in a line of drilled holes, or by heating and then rapidly cooling a groove cut along the intended split. Surfacing was done manually and took many months. The Egyptians had a range of hand tools for working granite, including the copper and bronze saw, the hammer and pointed chisel, and the circular polishing stone used with sandstone, corundum or pumice abrasives. The obelisk was pulled over land on a sledge (with runners lubricated with oil) by hundreds of men from Elephantine to the Nile River. The obelisk was floated down the Nile on a barge and then pulled on a sledge to the site of erection, where it was finished and lettered. Both the quarry and the erection sites were near the Nile – minimizing the over-land distances. The shaft was erected by hauling it up an earthen ramp and gradually filling to increase the slope of the ramp until the shaft was upright on its pedestal. Uses Usually obelisks stood in pairs on either side of temple gates, between similarly-placed sphinxes and colossi. Obelisks were also used as sepulchral markers in a sacred field of the dead. An obelisk was typically raised to celebrate a pharaoh's 30-year jubilee, and inscriptions were carved in hieroglyphics on the shaft faces praising the glory of the pharaoh and recounting the history of his rein. The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra, and it was thought that the god existed within the structure. The pyramidion was often sheathed in gold or gilt bronze and its facets reflected the rays of the sun like a beacon, appearing to be the source of sunlight and thus the throne of Ra. Hatshesut, pharaoh and she-king of Egypt (1473BC – 1458BC), was one of the greatest builders of ancient Egypt. Her concern that she not be forgotten by future Egyptians led her to raise temples, shrines, statues of herself, stone tablets recounting her lineage, and four magnificent granite obelisks erected at the temple of the god Amun at Karnak. One of these obelisks is still standing and, at over 97 feet tall, is the largest standing obelisk in Egypt. An unfinished obelisk at the Elephantine Quarry with three sides roughed out is still attached to the quarry floor on its fourth side. It was abandoned when a crack was discovered. Had it been completed and erected, it would have been the world's largest monolithic obelisk at 136 feet tall and 1,200 tons. Although hundreds of obelisks were constructed, only nine remain standing in Egypt. Ten lie broken and the rest are buried or have been carried off to other lands. Discovery The earliest movement of obelisks from Egypt occurred in 664BC, when Sardanaphus, King of Assyria, ordered two moved from Thebes to Nineveh. In 521BC, Cambyses, King of Persia sacked Heliopolis. His soldiers destroyed the Temple of the Sun and toppled and defaced most of the obelisks in retaliation for an earlier Egyptian invasion of Persia. Caesar's army conquered Egypt in 30 BC and it became a Roman colony. The Romans fell in love with the Egyptian obelisk and Augustus ordered the movement of two obelisks from Heliopolis to Alexandria. Later, Roman engineers moved at least 15 obelisks across the Mediterranean and 12 of these still stand in Rome. Movement of the Egyptian obelisks by Augustus, Caligula and Constantius to Rome employed barges towed by boats with hundreds of rowers. The obelisks were transported overland in cradle-like sledges on greased runways by means of pulleys and capstans. Coming July 6: Many obelisks were quarried and finished in Barre. Most of Barre's major quarries, at one time or another, provided granite for obelisks including E.L. Smith, Wells-Lamson, Wetmore & Morse, C.E. Tayntor & Co., Marr & Gordon, and Boutwell, Milne & Varnum.

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