Tuesday, April 13, 2010


While touring Kiev last weekend we ran across an obelisk, the kind of memorial that looks like the Washington monument. It was a black towering column that stood tall and majestic beyond a tree-lined boulevard leading to the Holodomor Memorial Park. We thought it was part of the Holodomor project, but it is a memorial to victims of all wars and other tragedies.

The Holodomor memorial park next to it also includes an obelisk, a contemporary version of the ancient architecture, with a golden triangle of arches on its very top, and a flock of storks or egrets at the bottom flying upward, as if to heaven, reminding us of rebirth.

What is it about obelisks? I've always thought of them as symbols of masculine power rising.

But the Kiev obelisk sent me on a google search, and toward a more charitable view of obelisks.

Obelisks are tall narrow tapering monuments that end in a pyramid at the top. They are ancient, Egyptian in origin (and perhaps Mexican), and were often created in pairs to guard the entrances to temples and sacred places. They are difficult to build, an engineering marvel. For more on this see http://www.pbs.org/ and the NOVA program "Pharoah's Obelisk" (February 2000), which explores how the ancients shaped, transported and erected their obelisks.

Obelisks symbolize the sun god Ra, also known as Atuk. They are thus integral aspects of creation myths and legends, connoting the creative force of the sun.

According to one historian, “Because of the Enlightenment-era association of Egypt with mortuary arts, obelisks became associated with timelessness and memorialization. Today they are found all over the world.”

The obelisks we see today, though, are not all from ancient Egypt. Only 29 of these originals remain in existence today, most in Rome not Egypt, an interesting fact.

One is in Istanbul. Emperor Theodosius had it shipped to Constantinople in 390 (imagine that!), where it was placed near the Blue Mosque and Roman Cistern. It's weather-beaten, shrouded in a faded glory, but its hieroglyphics and engraved symbols of ancient Egypt and the spread of Christianity still fascinate. I didn't know at the time how precious this obelisk was.

Another extant authentic obelisk is in Central Park, New York, Cleopatra's Needle's. Its partner is in London. This is a special pair, 68 feet tall, made of red granite, and inscribed with hieoroglyphics honoring the famed Queen and female pharoah. I'll look for this pair next time I'm in NY or London!
Cleopatria, by the way, worshipped Isis, the goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility, friend of slaves, sinners, the downtrodden, and protector of children and the dead. Worshop of Isis, in fact "spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, continuing until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era." It's fascinating what you learn on the way to understanding obelisks.

Most modern obelisks today honor historical figures of the past. For example, obelisks commemorate Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and Jefferson Davis in Fairview, Kentucky. Amazing, isn't it? That obelisks connect the Civil War presidents of the Union and the Confederacy as real life could never do.

One of my favorite obelisks is the Washington monument, standing over 556 feet in height and finished in December 1884, after many years of starts and stops. Compared to the authentic Egyptian obelisks, it is new, like America itself. It stands guard white and bright over the Mall of our capital city, a symbol of America's aspirations and founding ideals. When I lived in Washington I loved walking past the monument to the Tidal Basin and the cherry blossoms around it. The whole scene looked like a Japanese watercolor, a pink and white fairyland brushed on the bluest sky.

I have a renewed and less-facile appreciation of these towering monuments. Memorials come in all shapes and sizes, but the obelisk has certainly stood the test of time. Ancient or modern, they symbolize the universal human need to preserve and remember our ancestors, our personal histories, and our shared past. They unite generations, transport us to other times, tower into the heavens, remind us of the power of symbols, hold us in awe.

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