Illustrated Architecture Dictionary


A tall, four-sided shaft of stone, usually tapered and monolithic, that rises to a pointed top


The obelisk is symbolic of the first land - the primordial mound - spotted by the benu bird at the act of creation. The obelisk tip is sometimes gold tipped - where the sun's rays first touched land.

The cap, or pyramidion, was sometimes sheathed with copper or other metal.

The obelisk represented rays of sun; obelisks could be made of pink granite, for example, and have a pyramid-shaped top often covered with a gold and silver alloy to scatter the sun's rays.

Originating in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, down each of the four faces, in most cases, ran a line of deeply incised hieroglyphs and representations, setting forth the names and titles of the Pharaoh.

The Egyptian obelisk was carved from a single piece of stone, usually granite, and embellished with hieroglyphics. It was wider at its square or rectangular base than at its pyramidal top, and could be over 100 ft (30 m) high.

The obelisks or monumental pillars, which stood in pairs to dignify temple entrances, are huge monoliths, square on plan and tapering to a pyramidal summit, with a metal capping, and have a height of nine or ten times the diameter at the base, and the four slightly rounded sides are cut with hieroglyphic records still visible.

The transport of such large blocks of stone, with-out steam power, was an extraordinary engineering feat. The granite was probably quarried by the insertion of wooden wedges which expanded after soaking and thus split the granite into blocks. The transport was accomplished on great barges, as depicted in sculptures, and the obelisk was placed on its foundation by hauling it up a causeway of earth, and then tilting it into position.

- A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, by Sir Banister-Fletcher, New York, 1950, p. 37


During the Roman empire, many obelisks were transported from Egypt to Italy. The Romans commissioned obelisks in an Egyptian style.

Because of the influence of Napoleon, the form was used as a decorative ornament in Directoire and Empire styles. Popular also during Egyptian Revival and Art Deco styles.

Iconography: timelessness and memorialization

Examples from Buffalo:

Other examples:

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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