The obelisks of Egypt

Lots of the ancient people put up standing stones, huge stones (monoliths) standing on their ends, but the Ancient Egyptian obelisks are in a class of their own.

An obelisk was made of just a single piece of a very hard rock called granite. It was square in cross-section and tapered very slightly for most of its length, and then had a tip like a very small pyramid (a pyramidion). Its whole surface was covered in hieroglyphs. But unlike most other standing stones it was usually at least ten times higher than it was wide and was just balanced on its end, not partly buried in the ground to stop it from falling over. Think of a new pencil balanced on its blunt end, but made of just one piece of stone, higher than a three floor building, only as wide as your outstretched arms, and weighing more than five large fully loaded lorries, and you have some idea of a medium sized obelisk.


Pharaohs put up obelisks to commemorate important events. They were usually put up in pairs, for example one each side of the entrance to a temple.

Some of them are still standing on their own bases, four thousand years after they were erected, but some have fallen down. A number of obelisks have been moved from their original positions in Egypt and taken to other countries. There are more than twelve obelisks in Rome, and others in London, Paris, New York and other cities. The one in London is by the River Thames. It is usually called Cleopatra's Needle, but it was actually put up by Tuthmosis iii who was Pharaoh more than a thousand years before Cleopatra lived! It was erected on its new site in London on 13th September 1878. It is 20.87m high and weighs 187 tonnes. You can see a picture of Cleopatra's Needle, and other obelisks, by clicking on the Obelisk link at the bottom of this page.

The largest obelisk still standing on its original base in Egypt is in the temple at Karnak. It was erected by the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut who reigned from 1473 to 1458 (all dates in Ancient Egypt are approximate and BCE of course), and is 29.5m high and weighs 323 tonnes - and remember that all obelisks are carved out of just one single piece of stone! Obelisks were usually erected in pairs and this one had a twin which has fallen down.

But there is another obelisk which would have been much bigger than these of Hatshepsut, but it was never finished, because it cracked when it was being cut out of the rock, and they left it just as it was, still in the quarry. If it had been finished it would have been 41.75m high and weighed 1168 tonnes. Most of what we know about how obelisks were made comes from studying the Unfinished Obelisk.

For lots of pictures of obelisks and other information about them and links to other obelisk and Ancient Egyptian sites visit the Obelisk site scarab

To see some pictures of the Unfinished Obelisk, and for some other pictures of Ancient Egypt please visit the Unfinished Obelisk site scarab

For more about Peret, Shomu and the Egyptian seasons please click here scarab

Barry Gray
© Barry Gray November 2000