CLOSE
Original image
iStock

7 Fascinating Facts About Obelisks

Original image
iStock

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.’”

Original image
arrow
architecture
One of Frank Lloyd Wright's Final Residential Designs Goes on Sale in Ohio
Original image

In case you’ve missed the many recent sales of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed real estate, you have yet another chance to secure yourself a historical starchitect home. The Louis Penfield House is being sold by its original owners, and it could be yours for a cool $1.3 million. The restored Usonian home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

The house is currently a vacation rental and, depending on the preference of the new owner, it could continue to operate as a tourist destination. Or you could take it over as your private residence, which sounds pretty luxurious. It still has a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled living room that looks out on the Chagrin River, and comes with all the original furniture Wright designed. Like Wright’s other Usonian homes, it has a radiant-floor heating system that draws on a natural gas well onsite.

A retro-looking living room features floor-to-ceiling windows.
A bedroom is filled with vintage wooden furniture.

Around the same time as the original commission, Louis and Pauline Penfield also asked Wright to create another house on an adjacent property, and that home would prove to be the architect’s final residential design. It was still on the drawing board when he died unexpectedly in 1959. The sale of the Penfield House includes the original plans for the second house, called Riverrock, so you’d be getting more like 1.5 Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Seems like a pretty good deal to us.

All images via Estately

Original image
Chilton & Chadwick
arrow
architecture
Frank Lloyd Wright-Designed Home on a Private Island Goes Up for Sale
Original image
Chilton & Chadwick

From Fallingwater in Pennsylvania to Taliesin West in Arizona, many works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright are known for their stunning natural locations. The address of the latest Wright-designed home to hit the market is hard to beat: The Massaro House is situated on a heart-shaped island in Lake Mahopac in Putnam County, New York.

According to inhabitat, real estate agency Chilton & Chadwick is selling the property for $14.92 million. The listing includes all 11 acres of Petra Island plus a main house with a rich architectural history.

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Around 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned by engineer A.K. Chahroudi to build a house on the island. The architect agreed and got to work on a project that would surpass Fallingwater in ambition. The designs were complete after a few months, but they had to be scaled down to fit the owner's budget. In place of the full 5000-square-foot home, Chahroudi settled for a small guest cottage.

The house that currently stands on Petra Island is the realization of Wright’s original vision (with a few modern, somewhat controversial upgrades). Sheet metal contractor Joe Massaro bought the island in 1996 and also obtained the architect’s designs. Not long after, the new owner dedicated himself to constructing the house Wright intended to make.

Though it was completed decades after his death, the six-bedroom house on Petra Island emanates Wright’s signature style. Geometric windows light the home, a wraparound patio provides sweeping views, and boulders integrated into the walls give the building a natural feel. There are also plenty of features that you don’t necessarily need to be an architecture fanatic to appreciate, like the guest house, tea house, and helipad for 15-minute flights to Manhattan.

Watch the video below to get an intimate tour of the property.

[h/t inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Chilton & Chadwick

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios