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7 Fascinating Facts About Obelisks

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The first thing you might not know about obelisks is what they are. If you have ever visited the Washington Monument, however, or walked across the Place de la Concorde in Paris, or seen any rendering of ancient Egypt in its glory, you are very familiar with obelisks: vertical stone columns that taper as they rise, topped by a pyramid. Washington’s Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk, by John Steele Gordon, is an absorbing account of the obelisk’s place in human civilization. Here are seven things revealed by Gordon that you might not know about obelisks.

1. THEY WERE BUILT BY THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, THOUGH ONLY A FEW REMAIN IN EGYPT.

The ancient Egyptians placed pairs of obelisks at the entrances of their temples. According to Gordon, the columns were associated with the Egyptian sun god, and perhaps represented rays of light. They were often topped with gold, or a natural gold-and-silver alloy called electrum, in order to catch the first rays of the morning light. Twenty-eight Egyptian obelisks remain standing, though only six of them are in Egypt. The rest are scattered across the globe, either gifts from the Egyptian government or plunder by foreign invaders.

2. AN OBELISK WAS USED IN THE FIRST CALCULATION OF THE CIRCUMFERENCE OF THE EARTH.

Around 250 B.C., a Greek philosopher named Eratosthenes used an obelisk to calculate the circumference of the Earth. He knew that at noon on the Summer Solstice, obelisks in the city of Swenet (modern day Aswan) would cast no shadow because the sun would be directly overhead (or zero degrees up). He also knew that at that very same time in Alexandria, obelisks did cast shadows. Measuring that shadow against the tip of the obelisk, he came to the conclusion that the difference in degrees between Alexandria and Swenet: seven degrees, 14 minutes—one-fiftieth the circumference of a circle. He applied the physical distance between the two cities and concluded that the circumference of the Earth was (in modern units) 40,000 kilometers. This isn’t the correct number, though his methods were perfect: at the time it was impossible to know the precise distance between Alexandria and Swenet.

If we apply Eratosthenes's formula today, we get a number astonishingly close to the actual circumference of the Earth. In fact, even his inexact figure was more precise than the one used by Christopher Columbus 1700 years later. Had he used Eratosthenes’s estimation, Columbus would have known immediately that he hadn’t reached India.

3. TRUE OBELISKS ARE MADE OF A SINGLE PIECE OF STONE.

True obelisks as conceived by the ancient Egyptians are “monolithic,” or made from a single piece of stone. (The literal translation of monolith—a Greek word—is “one stone.” On that note, the word “obelisk” is also Greek, derived from obeliskos, or skewer. An ancient Egyptian would have called an obelisk a tekhen.) The obelisk at the center of Place de la Concorde, for example, is monolithic. It is 3300 years old and once marked the entrance to the Temple of Thebes in Egypt. So difficult is the feat of building a monolithic obelisk that Pharaoh Hatshepsut had inscribed at the base of one of her obelisks the proud declaration: “without seam, without joining together.”

4. THEY WERE REALLY, REALLY HARD TO BUILD.

Nobody knows exactly why obelisks were built, or even how. Granite is really hard—a 6.5 on the Mohs scale (diamond being a 10)—and to shape it, you need something even harder. The metals available at the time were either too soft (gold, copper, bronze) or too difficult to use for tools (iron’s melting point is 1,538 °C; the Egyptians wouldn’t have iron smelting until 600 B.C.).

The Egyptians likely used balls of dolerite to shape the obelisks, which, Gordon notes, would have required “an infinity of human effort.” Hundreds of workers would have each had to pound granite into shape using dolerite balls that weighed up to 12 pounds. This doesn’t even address the issue of how one might move a 100-foot, 400-ton column from the quarry to its destination. While there are many hypotheses, nobody knows precisely how they did it.

5. AN OBELISK HELPED ARCHAEOLOGISTS TRANSLATE HIEROGLYPHICS.

Until the 19th century, hieroglyphics were thought to be untranslatable—mystical symbols with no coherent message beneath. Jean-François Champollion, a French Egyptologist and linguist, thought differently, and made it his life’s purpose to figure them out. His first success came from the Rosetta Stone, from which he divined the name “Ptolemy” from the symbols. In 1819, “Ptolemy” was also discovered written on an obelisk which had just been brought back to England—the Philae obelisk. The “p,” “o,” and “l” on the obelisk also featured elsewhere on it, in the perfect spots to spell the name “Cleopatra.” (Not that Cleopatra; the much earlier Queen Cleopatra IX of Ptolemy.) With those clues, and using this obelisk, Champollion managed to crack the mysterious code of hieroglyphics, translating their words and thus unlocking the secrets of ancient Egypt. (Almost 200 years later, the European Space Agency’s mission to land a spacecraft on a comet commemorated these events; the spacecraft is named Rosetta. The lander is named Philae.)

6. THE OLDEST REMAINING OBELISKS ARE AS OLD AS RECORDED HUMAN HISTORY.

The oldest obelisks are almost impossibly old—ancient even by the standards of antiquity. Seaton Schroeder, an engineer who helped bring Cleopatra’s Needle to Central Park, called it a “might monument of hoary antiquity,” and commented eloquently, “From the carvings on its face we read of an age anterior to most events recorded in ancient history; Troy had not fallen, Homer was not born, Solomon’s temple was not built; and Rome arose, conquered the world, and passed into history during the time that this austere chronicle of silent ages has braved the elements.”

7. THE TALLEST OBELISK IN THE WORLD IS THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT.

First conceived in 1832, the Washington Monument took decades to build. It is, by law, the tallest structure in the District of Columbia, and is twice as tall as any other obelisk in the world. Gordon notes that it stands unique among memorials in Washington. Whereas people visit memorials to Lincoln and Jefferson (among others) to see giant statues of the men they commemorate, the highlight of the Washington Monument is the monument itself. The statue of Washington inside receives little notice. As Gordon writes in Washington’s Monument, “The obelisk, silent as only stone can be, nonetheless seems to say as nothing else can, ‘Here is something significant.’”

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One Photographer's Quest to Document Every Frank Lloyd Wright Structure in the World
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From California’s Marin County Civic Center to the Yokodo Guest House in Ashiya City, Japan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence spans countries and continents. Today, 532 of the architect’s original designs remain worldwide—and one photographer is racking up the miles in an attempt to photograph each and every one of them, according to Architectural Digest.

Andrew Pielage is the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s unofficial photographer. The Phoenix-based shutterbug got his gig after friends introduced him to officials at Taliesin West, the late designer’s onetime winter home and studio that today houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Higher-ups at Taliesin West allowed Pielage to photograph the property in 2011, and they liked his work so much that they commissioned him for other projects. Since then, Pielage has shot around 50 Wright buildings, ranging from Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, to the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles.

Pielage takes vertical panoramas to “get more of Wright in one image,” and he also prefers to work with natural light to emphasize the way the architect integrated his structures to correspond with nature’s rhythms. While Pielage still has over 400 more FLW projects to go until he's done capturing the icon’s breadth of work, you can check out some of his initial shots below.

[h/t Architectural Digest]

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Art
What the Homes of the Future Will Look Like, According to Kids
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Made.com

Ask a futurist what the house of tomorrow will feature and she might mention automatic appliances and robot assistants. Ask a kid the same question and you’ll get answers that are slightly more creative, but not altogether impractical. That’s what Made.com discovered when they launched Homes of the Future, a project that had kids draw illustrations of futuristic homes that served as the basis for professional 3D renderings.

According to Co.Design, the UK-based furniture retailer recruited children ages 4 to 12 to submit their architectural ideas. The doodles, sketched in pen, marker, and colored pencil, showcase the grade-schoolers' imaginations. Paired with each picture is concept art made with a 3D illustrator that shows what the homes might look like in the real world.

The designs range from colorful and whimsical to coldly realistic. In one blueprint, drawn by Ameen, age 10, a neighborhood of rainbow buildings and flowers float among the clouds. Another sketch by Ellis, age 7, shows a “home built to last” with titanium, bricks, a steel roof, and bulletproof windows. Some kids seemed less concerned with durability than they were with the tastiness of the infrastructure. Cherry-flavored bricks, candy windows, and a giant jelly slide were just some of the features built into the future homes. Sustainability was also a major theme, with solar panels appearing on two of the houses.

Check out the original artwork and the 3D versions of their ideas below.

House of the future drawn by kid.

House of the future drawn by kid.

House of the future drawn by kid.

House of the future.

House of the future.

House of the future.

House of the future.

House of the future.

House of the future.

House of the future.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images courtesy of Made.com.

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