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Burndy Library exhibit examines obelisks over the centuries

New Yorkers watch their new obelisk as it is swung into place in Central Park (from Henry Gorringe's Egyptian Obelisks, 1882).
New Yorkers watch their new obelisk as it is swung into place in Central Park (from Henry Gorringe's Egyptian Obelisks, 1882).

As a follow-up to Boston's citywide celebration of ancient Egypt, Burndy Library, part of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, is tracing the legacy of one of ancient Egypt's most recognizable creations down through the centuries. "The Afterlife of Immortality: Obelisks Outside Egypt" draws on Burndy's large collection of prints, photographs and books about obelisks to look at the shifting meanings and associations of obelisks over the last 20 centuries.

Since the Roman conquest of Egypt in the first century BC, a remarkable number of obelisks have made the journey from Egypt to Europe and the United States. Over the centuries, as Egyptian history became just a hazy memory and knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs faded away, those obelisks lost their original meanings and became generalized emblems of Egypt -- and of what people wanted Egypt to be.

"The Afterlife of Immortality" begins in Egypt but quickly moves on to Rome. For the ancient Romans, obelisks were trophies of conquest and symbols of imperial power. They left dozens scattered around the city, most of which were toppled or simply fell down over the centuries. By the end of the 16th century, only one remained standing. Pope Sixtus V reclaimed that obelisk, moving it to its current location in front of St. Peter's Basilica as a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over the pagan empire. Most of the other Roman obelisks were moved, re-erected and reinterpreted in the 16th and 17th centuries by the popes, artists and scholars of Renaissance and baroque Rome.

During the century after 1586, ancient Rome's obelisks were reborn as symbols of the Imperial power of the Popes, the triumph of Christianity, the glory of particular Roman families, and the mystical wisdom of the Egyptians. The last interpretation was reinforced by some very creative readings of the hieroglyphs carved on the obelisks.

After a brief glimpse at 18th-century Egyptomania (drawing on the library's extensive collection of Piranesi albums), the exhibition continues into the 19th century. Obelisks were practically tailor-made symbols for France and Britain, Europe's new empires, and both countries secured and raised Egyptian obelisks; despite their imperial associations, the monuments took on different meanings in each country as they played off local disputes and prejudices.

New Yorkers also acquired an obelisk for Central Park, but not without some qualms about the appropriateness of such a monument in a democracy. However, the discomfort 19th-century Americans felt about imperial monuments did not prevent them from adopting them with great enthusiasm -- but with their own national twist. The first half of the 19th century saw a remarkable transformation in the cultural meaning of the obelisk in the United States, from image of power to symbol of death and remembrance.

That shift occurred all over the country, but was reflected on a grand scale in the construction of Boston's Bunker Hill Monument. The exhibition ends with a consideration of the history of that monument and the ways it has been reinterpreted and given new meaning over the last century and a half.

The exhibition will remain on view until April 7.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2000.

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