Oddly enough, Rome is a city of obelisks. Amongst the most impressive are eight ancient Egyptian and five ancient Roman obelisks spread throughout the city like chess pieces.
Obelisks were prominent in the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who placed them in pairs at the entrance of temples. After the invasion of Egypt, not only did the Romans export several impressive obelisks to the Eternal City, but they commissioned many of their own.
I remember the first time I saw one of these seemingly out of place structures near the Pantheon. I was intrigued not only by the Egyptian influence in Rome, but the remarkable way in which the city has adopted the monoliths as their own. Here are five of my favorite Roman obelisks.
1. Vaticano obelisk
Arguably the most famous of Rome’s obelisks is the Vaticano obelisk, found in Vatican city. This remarkable edifice was originally brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 for the Vatican Circus. Although it has been moved, it is the only obelisk not to have been toppled since the time of the ancient Romans.
2. Lateranense obelisk
Not only is Lateranense obelisk Rome’s tallest but it is also the largest standing ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world. Originally from Karnak, it was eventually brought to Rome in 357 to decorate the Circus Maximus. It disappeared from history during the dark ages and was found in the 16th century in three pieces. Pope Sixtus V restored the obelisk and today it can be found in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.
3. Minerveo obelisk
Behind the Pantheon is a small church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome. I know it fairly well because I once stayed in a hotel next door to this remarkable, quiet basilica. It was during this stay that I noticed a strange looking obelisk in front of the church. Originally part of a pair, the Minerveo obelisk was brought to Rome by Diocletian for the nearby Temple of Isis. Found in the 17th century it was erected by Pope Alexander VII and sits on a gorgeous elephant base designed by Bernini.
4. Agonalis obelisk
One of the city’s five ancient Roman obelisks, Agonalis is red granite monolith erected to celebrate the emperor Domitian. It was later moved to the Circus of Maxentius and finally broken down in 5 pieces in 309. Like many of Rome‘s other obelisks, it was restored in the 17th century and is currently located in the Piazza Navona on top of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.
5. Macuteo obelisk
This is another obelisk seen by millions of tourists, few of whom realize the history behind their photographic subject. Located over a fountain in front of the Pantheon, Macuteo was originally part of the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis and was moved to the Temple of Isis in Rome near the Minerveo obelisk. It was found in the 14th century and found a home on the Capitoline and was relocated to its current location in the 18th century.