An obelisk a long way from home

Istanbul 2012 132When pharaoh Thutmose III commissioned a special obelisk for his temple to Amon-Ra at Karnak 3400 years ago, he little imagined where it would end up.

Carved from a pink granite block at Aswan in southern Egypt a few years earlier, hundreds of slaves laboured to lift it from the ground and onto wooden runners. Hauled by teams of oxen to the banks of the Nile and loaded onto a giant felucca filled with pulses for ballast, it took three years to transport the obelisk to Teb, 300km away.

Finally, in a massive ceremony attended by the top nobility and royalty, and presided over by priests dressed in leopard skins and with shaved heads, the obelisk was erected in Karnak temple.

One thousand eight hundred and forty years later, the Roman emperor Constantine decided to embellish his glittering new capital of Constantinople, showcase of the Eastern Roman Empire, with statues and monuments of fitting grandeur from across his lands. He issued as part of this massive development drive an order that the obelisk of Thutmose III at Karnak be uprooted and brought to his own new city on the Bosphorus.

Istanbul 2012 128He actually died shortly afterwards, but his son Constantine II managed to get it as far as Alexandria, where it lay for several more years waiting for the final leg of its journey across the Eastern Mediterranean. That was finally accomplished by the next emperor, Julianus, whose letter of about 361 to the governor of Alexandria is a fascinating contemporary source of information about the obelisk, concluding:

‘It is appropriate that you send this monolithic stone to Constantinople, a city which has generously opened its arms to you and your ships on their passage to the Black Sea, that you may play a part in beautifying the city.’

We don’t know for sure the exact timing or circumstances of the obelisk’s final journey to Constantinople, but the inscription on its plinth states that it was erected on the spina in the middle of the hippodrome in 390, in the reign of Theodosius I (379–395). Ever since then it has stood in Istanbul, one of the five select few of ancient obelisks now standing in Paris, Rome, New York and London.

Istanbul 2012 139Although the height of the obelisk today is 19.59 metres, the lower hieroglyphs are cut in half so originally it must have been taller. Experts reckon that the lower third of it is missing and was probably left behind in Egypt because of transportation difficulties.

Just beneath the pyramid-shaped top are carved figures of Tuthmose III And Amon-Ra, holding hands, and below them is Horus the falcon-headed God and guardian deity of Egypt. Below these are hieroglyphic inscriptions on all four sides of the obelisk.

It was the Byzantines who set the obelisk on its massive marble plinth and added two further inscriptions in Greek and Latin. They also added reliefs of the obelisk being erected, and of chariot races in the hippodrome.

Istanbul 2012 129The reliefs on the plinth’s four faces are 6 metres high and show Theodosius I with statesmen and friends watching racing from the royal box, holding out a laurel crown to a champion, accepting gifts from foreign envoys and watching a dancing performance.

Istanbul 2012 130The entire weight of the obelisk is supported by four massive bronze wedges driven into the marble of the plinth.

This amazing structure has been one of the city’s landmarks for fifteen centuries, standing between Haghia Sophia of the Byzantines and the much later Mosque of Sultanahmed.

Istanbul 2012 133Whenever I stand before the obelisk in Istanbul I feel dizzy at the thought of its long journey from Aswan and the people and civilisations it has witnessed. It makes one feel pretty small and insignificant, to say the least of it, and one’s earth-shattering concerns as inconsequential as the shifting Egyptian sands.

Istanbul 2012 135

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