The imposing obelisk of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican It is one of the most representative symbols of Christianity and, in essence, of papal power. Something contradictory, without a doubt, and even ironic if we think that said monument has a clearly pagan origin with more than 4,000 years old.
At 25 meters and 320 tons, it stands with an imperturbable yet defiant air since Pope Sixtus V decided to place it in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1586, in memory of the tragic end of St. Peter in Nero’s Circus. Hence, it is also known as the “mute witness.” Would you like to know more about the history of this famous obelisk?
The «mute witness» who was brought from Egypt
It was in the time of ancient Rome that this fervor for obelisks was kindled, so to speak. Just like the Ptolemies At the time, the Romans saw these artistic representations in the form of imposing spiers as a symbol of power and a way to further beautify streets and squares. So why not uproot them from their original locations and take them to Europe? And so it was, they did not hesitate to loot the ancient Egyptian temples to move them to Rome. And there were many, of course, there were several countries that, even today, continue to display these stolen pieces in their cities that we can see both in Rome and in Paris or the United States.
And the one that stands in St. Peter’s Square is probably the most famous of them all. The one who around the year 40 AD, Emperor Caligula he wanted to have in his circus when he saw it in the Julian Forum. To do this, he did not hesitate to develop an almost «titanic» ship (remember that Caligula was obsessed with those large ships), with which to transport that granite obelisk to Rome. He would dedicate it to the sun god and also to his ancestors: Augustus and Tiberius. Later, in the time of Nero, it would become the largest circus in Rome, here where the apostle Saint Peter suffered his famous martyrdom.
But where does our famous obelisk actually come from? Experts maintain that it most likely belonged to Lower Egypt and was erected in the famous Heliopolis. Very surely that beautiful granite came from the Aswan quarryand it is also probable that, after the Persian invasions and the founding of Alexandria, the emperor Augustus was the first to notice it to order its movement and erection in the Julian Forum, where, later, Caligula himself wanted it for his Roman circus .
Pope Sixtus V and his obsession with the obelisk of the Roman circus
The pilgrimage of the Egyptian obelisk did not end at all in the Roman circus of Caligula and later Nero. We are in the 16th century and the Pope, Sixtus V, wants to beautify Rome. To do this, he asks the architect Domenico Fontana, to bring the obelisk of Nero’s Circus maximus to the center of the famous square designed by Bernini. And he had to be very careful, because that obelisk was one of the few that still remained intact and endowed with splendid beauty. Can you imagine how they managed to transport it and erect it again without suffering even the slightest mishap? The engineering was perfect. They used 900 men, 75 horses, hundreds of pulleys and meters of rope.
If the Romans succeeded in Caligula’s time How could Fontana himself not achieve it? Of course he did, and this was reflected in his works titled: “In the tenuto way in which I will transport the Vatican obelisk.” In fact, Rome is the city that houses the most Egyptian obelisks, almost thirteen, and they all tell a fascinating story of looting, wars, attacks and lust for power throughout various eras, civilizations and religions.
The one that stands in Vatican City is very unique, since it lacks any inscription. A silent witness that tries to represent the martyrdom of an apostle, a monument that, to tell the truth, understands nothing of this strange world capable of transporting it from one country to another to represent different cults. But whatever the case, its beauty continues to impress and fascinate us.
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