They started our “real work” last week with basically a huge scavenger hunt. Cause we live real hard lives at the Centro. They split us up into groups of three and assigned us each an obelisk to find in the city. My group was on it really intently in the beginning. We came out of the classroom with maps open and feet on our way to the nearest bus stop. We got to our obelisk in pretty good time if I do say so myself (at 9:25, not to brag;). We took the bus to the colosseum and then walked to our piazza. We turned the corner and wow! It was a lot larger than I had imagined. It turns out that it is actually the tallest obelisk in existence (not just in Rome!), the oldest in Rome, and the latest to be brought into Rome. We turned the corner just as the sun was perfectly rising behind it which made for a pretty majestic picture. Especially when considering that obelisks were considered to be symbolic embodiments of the rays of sun.
The statue has four main inscriptions running around the base detailing how the obelisk got to its current location.
It started out in the temple of Karnak in Thebes in the temple of Amun-Ra. Literary sources told us that Augustus considered appropriating the obelisk in another of his shows of subjugation over Egypt, but that he ultimately considered its placement in the Sun temple to be too sacred. He didn’t want to mess with that, or perhaps he considered the ridiculous cost that would be involved in transporting the massive stone to Rome.
Constantine the Great had no such qualms about removing the obelisk. The inscription around the base implies that it was the emperor’s wish to take away the obelisk from the pagan Egyptians who were using it for impious deeds, but I’m not too sure about that considering that Constantine may have been a sympathizer at this point, but he was still officially a pagan himself. In any case, he wanted it to trick out the “New Rome” (Constantinople) he had founded with some sweet digs. He thus moved the obelisk from Thebes to Alexandria with the intent of moving it to Constantinople eventually.
However, too bad for him, he died and never got around to moving it from Alexandria.
His son, Constantius II [Funny story- there was Constatius I whose son was Constantine I (the Great) who had Constans I, Constantius II, and Constantine II. Somebody’s got an ego.] moved the obelisk from Alexandria to Rome. To do so he had to build this super intense ship with three hundred oars. It was such a big deal that they mention it in the inscription. They rowed across the sea and up the Tiber to the Circus Maximus in 357 C.E..
The Circus Maximus itself was a giant metaphor for the universe with the temples to the sun and moon on either side and the repetitive circuits of the charioteers around the track. The obelisk stood in the middle of the spina and was, yet again, a metaphor for the sun. There is remained through the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. It stayed in pieces under the muck until it was excavated and moved to the Piazza Giovanni Laterano in the sixteenth century.
The statue of Marcus Aurelius was moved from this location to make room for what it is now appropriate to call the Lateran Obelisk. It has all this pope and Borghese family symbolism going on.
So we were all really into our obelisk, one of us had some history with hieroglyphs and was trying to make them out, and we were also just really impressed with the size. No one else was really stopping and we were joking like why aren’t they into this??
Then we turned the corner and realized that it was the back of the Lateran church that we had been looking at in the piazza…
Damn, am I right?
Also nearby was this really cool gilded mosaic thing which I couldn’t find an explanation for online: use your imaginations.
Here are a few pictures of my group around Rome after we had found our obelisk and started our long odyssey homeward (seriously it took many buses, metros, trams, hours, and unhelpful Italians).