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“Obelisks in Exile”: The Ethics of Obelisks Abroad

June 27, 2022

Looming over Paris is the oldest monument in France: one of two Luxor obelisks meant to stand in Karnak. Across the channel, in England, another obelisk needles a cloud-heavy skyline. In Washington DC, an obelisk sits right across from the country’s political epicenter—the White House. It seems that, of all Egypt’s enduring symbols, the obelisk has found a seat in many countries over the centuries. For so long, “the obelisk [has] been admired and copied in various cities of Africa, Asia, and Europe” writes scholar W. R. Cooper in ‘A Short History of the Egyptian Obelisks’ (1877). This phenomenon of “obelisks in exile” has been dated back to the era of ancient Rome, where the fascination with Egyptian symbology was key to the marriage of cultures. Numerous Egyptian obelisks were expatriated to Europe during the reigns of Augustus – a “self-styled Pharaoh” – and Theodosius, as early as 10 BC and 30 BC with Rome’s taking of Alexandria. However, despite its ubiquitous nature, the real purpose of the obelisk has been lost to textbooks and relegated to libraries. What is an obelisk? An obelisk, or a tekhen, is “a monument…

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