Chasing Obelisks in Rome
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For all you parents traveling with young kids, here's the Roman equivalent to counting cows. Thirteen obelisks (well, now there are only twelve) still stand in Rome:

Viale dell'Obelisco (on the Pincio).
This unadorned column originally stood over the grave of the beautiful youth Antinous, who drowned in the Nile while saving Emperor Hadrian's life. When it was brought to Italy it was remade, and eventually was erected here in 1822.
Water on the Ropes! Piazza Trinità dei Monti.
The obelisk that looms above the Spanish Steps is a 2nd-century Roman copy of the Flaminian Obelisk (described below), and it was erected here in 1789. In those days, the straight line from here to the Pincio obelisk was considered the most fashionable walk in town.
St. Peter's Square.
This is the oldest monument in the square, and the first obelisk to be re-erected in "modern" times. The story of its raising is Roman legend: how in 1586 Pope Sixtus V ordered the huge crowd of spectators to remain silent under pain of death, how the ropes were about to break under the strain of the column's weight, how a Genoese sailor risked his life, screamed, "Water on the ropes!" and thus saved the obelisk from crashing into a million pieces, how the grateful Pope ordered that henceforth all the Vatican's Palm Sunday fronds be purchased in Bordighera (they still are).

"Water on the Ropes!"
Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.
This is probably Rome's most illustrious obelisk, partly because it is the city's oldest and partly because, at 140 feet, it is the world's tallest. Originally built in the 15th century BC for Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Tuthmosis IV, it was brought to Rome in 357 by Emperor Constantius and placed in the Circus Maximus. An earthquake toppled it; then, in 1587, it was unearthed and placed here in place of the Marcus Aurelius mounted statue, which trotted over to the Capitoline Hill (where it can be seen today). Both the obelisk and the statue were gloriously restored in very recent years.
Piazza Montecitorio.
Built in the 6th century BC for King Psamtik I, it was found in Heliopolis by Augustus. When he brought it to Rome it caused such a stir that even the ship used to transport it was kept on public display. Over the centuries it fell into total disrepair, and was only discovered again in the late 1700s. It is surmounted by a gnomon and ball, which makes it a bona fide sun-dial when combined with the lines in the pavement of the square.
Piazza del Popolo.
Built 3200 years ago for Pharaoh Rameses II, the so-called Flaminian Obelisk was brought to Rome from Heliopolis by Augustus and erected in the Circus Maximus; along with its sister (now in Piazza di Montecitorio), they formed a sun-dial. It made its way here in the 16th century, and the lions at the base were added in 1818.
Piazza Esquilino.
This Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk was unearthed at the mausoleum of Augustus in 1527. Pope Sixtus V had it moved here 60 years later.
Piazza del Quirinale.
Sibling of the Esquiline obelisk, this one also came from Augustus' tomb in 1527, but it was not erected until 1786, under Pope Pius VI. At its feet is the beautiful fountain of Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Zeus who are revered in Rome because victory at a crucial battle was attributed to their divine intervention. The Italian flag flies behind the obelisk above the Quirinale Palace, former summer home of the popes and present-day home of Italy's President.
Piazza della Rotonda.
Unearthed in 1373, this delicate exemplar was originally brought to Rome by Emperor Domitian and erected in the Temple of Isis (a few ruins of which can be seen in a nearby alley). Today it stands in front of the Pantheon, at the center of Giacomo della Porta's exquisite fountain, whose water-squirting dolphins are the delight of young travelers.
Piazza Navona.
The obelisk crowning Rome's most famous fountain also came from the same temple. The hieroglyphics on this one record the emperor's devotion to the goddess Serapis: look for her portrait with horns.
Piazza di Minerva.
Every child's favorite obelisk seems to be the one borne on the back of an adorable little elephant created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The obelisk journeyed to Rome with the one now in Piazza della Rotonda and also ended up at the Temple of Isis. Then, like most of its cohorts, it fell over, was buried by the rubble of the ages, and only re-emerged in 1665.
Villa Celimontana.
The smallest obelisk is also the most battered and the hardest to find. But its location is well worth hunting for, in one of Europe's most beguiling urban parks tucked behind the Coliseum. Originally, this sweetheart was paired with the one now found at the Pantheon. One wonders if they hanker for each other's company?
Baths of Diocletian.
Like those at the Pantheon and Piazza della Minerva, this little-known obelisk was brought from Heliopolis by Domitian. It stands near the ancient baths, inside part of which Michelangelo created one of Christendom's hugest churches.
Piazza di Porta Capena.

I
ronically placed in front of what eventually became the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, this 4th-century monument was "removed" by Mussolini from the Ethiopian holy city of Axum, and erected here in 1937 as a tangible symbol of Fascist Italy's delusions of imperial grandeur. Originally built by Pharaoh Tuthmosis III for the spot seen in the watercolor on the left, the obelisk has a twin that currently lives in Istanbul. Fervent obelisk lovers who believe that a throbbing heart exists inside these stone monoliths have a special fondness for Axum, whose story lives on into the 21st century. It seems the tip of the 200-ton wonder was struck by lightning in May of 2002, thereby necessitating its removal for extensive restorations. This set off an international incident which resulted in Italy agreeing to return the hostage to the country's erstwhile "protectorate," Ethiopia. At a cost of around 1.5 million Euros to the Italian government, the obelisk was again broken into three segments, carefully wrapped in a gel, mortar and carbon-fiber shell, and placed in storage for three years while the runway at Axum airport was especially upgraded to facilitate the illustrious return. The obelisk was finally airlifted home in 2006. But due to the finding of older burial chambers on the intended site, the monument then languished in Axum awaiting re-erection until 2008, when re-assembly began. We bet it took the emperors much less time to move their obelisks around the Mediterranean!


Lungotevere Marasciallo Diaz.
Until very recently, Rome had only one modern obelisk. It was erected by the latter-day would-be emperor, Mussolini, and it bears the words, "Mussolini Dux." At the end of the Fascist regime, all public references to the Duce were outlawed and removed, but the letters on this 55-foot column were too large to be effaced, so they remain as a bizarre testament to the dictator's oh-so-Roman megalomania.
Piazza Marconi, EUR.
And behold the newest addition to the family! Modern hieroglyphics narrate the endeavors of inventor Guglielmo Marconi and other 20th-century triumphs in the 92 panels that decorate this obelisk created in 1959 for the Rome Olympics.


The obelisks of Rome on Wikipedia.

While searching for obelisks in Rome, keep an eye out for a possible publisher for Obelisk Seven, a thriller that combines global warming, the ancient Egyptian obelisks and a mysterious modern microbe.

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