The Obelisk of Seti I

Seti I Obelisk
Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Egypt was famous for its obelisks. One of the most famous obelisks is the Piazza del Popolo Obelisk which was originally erected in the Sun Temple at Heliopolis, then-capital of ancient Egypt.

The obelisk originated with Seti I who decorated three sides of the obelisk. After his death, his son Ramses II carved the fourth and erected the obelisk in the Sun Temple. In the obelisk, Seti described himself as “the one who fills Heliopolis with obelisks that their rays may illuminate the Temple of Re.” Ramses II, one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, called himself the one who made “monuments as innumerable as the stars of heaven”

The latest issue of Saudi Aramco World (September/October 2007) contains an interesting article on the Seti I’s obelisk. The article is written in the first person. The narrator is the obelisk itself, telling its story from its inception in the days of Seti through the days of Ramses II, through the days of Octavian, who became the first emperor of Egypt with the title of Augustus, and through the days of Nero who burned Rome.

The article has many beautiful pictures and provides a short history of Egypt from Seti I to modern day Rome. The following is an excerpt from the article:

I, the obelisk of Seti I and of his son Ramses II, was born and raised a devoted Egyptian in spite of my current address. At birth, I weighed more than 250 tons, and I measured more than 24 meters’ (78′) in length. It took an army of chanting men with chisels and heavy hammers to labor me out of the granite quarries near Elephantine. Workers swarmed over me for months, midwives on a mission, as the parent rock was cut away, and I was delivered, cut by cut, blow by blow. Great levers then lifted me to an embankment, where thousands pulled at straining ropes, dragging me, gently despite my great bulk, to the Nile. There, cradled in a special barge and the focus of a mobile ceremony, I journeyed down through history, from Thebes and Abydos to Memphis and Anu.

My noisy procession came ashore at Holy Anu, City of the Sun. Seti I, beloved of Ptah, conceived me as a monumental shaft of the sun’s pure light that would stand before the temple of Ra. Before Pharaoh’s wish was accomplished, however, fate intervened: Suddenly (as we Egyptians say), old Seti became Osiris, ruler no longer of the living, but the dead.

How I Was Raised In Rome (Gallery)I lay heartbroken and half-born until Seti’s son, the long-lived Ramses II, took his place as Lord of the Two Lands, Upper and Lower Egypt-in 1279 BC, as I think you would say. Like a second father, Ramses set me towering over the sun-priests at Anu. In the hush that fell as I found my footing, everything finally made sense to me. At last I saw the world as it was intended to be-not that and near, but far below, stretching out in every direction with vistas of beauty and mystery. I marveled at the tiny upturned faces of the followers of Ra. I recognized nearby my brother obelisks, some already a thousand years older than I, arrayed across the city like a scattering family of tourists. Across the Nile, I glimpsed the pyramids that alone made me feel small among the monuments of men. What a wonderland in which to be raised! Holy Anu, now the suburbs of Matariya and `Ain Shams in Cairo -a city I have never seen, by the way-bustled back then as a center of worship and learning. Anu’s fame attracted visitors from foreign lands, and they marveled at me. On my polished sides, the priests pointed out the deep-cut symbols that expressed the pride and piety of my two fathers, Seti and Ramses. The Greeks, who came here often, gave to these signs the popular name hieroglyphs, which translates into your language as “priestly carvings.” They also coined a playful word for my siblings and me –obeliskos, meaning “a little souvlaki skewer.” How envy makes men jest!

Read the article in its entirety by visiting Saudi Aramco World online.

NOTE: For other studies on the history and archaeology of Egypt, read my post Egypt, The Land of the Pharaohs.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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