The Story of the Vatican Obelisk

Saint Peter’s Square in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Over 100,000 people have been known to squeeze into Saint Peter’s Square on occasions like Easter or midnight mass or after a conclave takes place and a new Pope makes his first appearance to the massive crowds on the square. However right in the center of Saint Peter’s Square, you will find a monument that is impossible to miss called an Egyptian Obelisk. These Obelisks were taken from Egypt by the Ancient Romans so it is rather ironic that right in the center of Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican is a stolen object. So what is an Egyptian Obelisk and why does the Vatican have one?

obelisk in front of st. peters

What is an Obelisk?

An Obelisk is a four-sided monument ending with a pyramid-like shape at the top which is traditionally carved out of one block of stone. Obelisks originally came from Ancient Egypt and were built to represent the immortality of the Pharaohs. They were usually placed in pairs at the entrance of Ancient Egyptian Temples. Although there are 28 ancient Obelisk’s in the world there are only six remaining in Egypt today. This is mainly because in Ancient Roman times the Roman Emperors ordered them to be taken from Egypt and brought back to Rome. Thirteen obelisks are scattered throughout Rome today where eight of them are originally from Ancient Egypt and five of them were built by the Ancient Romans with the largest being the Lateranense Obelisk in Piazza Di San Laterano in Rome. There are also Obelisks in New York, London, Istanbul, and most famously at the Place De La Concorde in Paris known as the Luxor Obelisk which was given as a gift in 1829 by the city of Rome.

The first obelisk that was taken from Egypt by the Ancient Romans is known as the Flaminian Obelisk and was placed on the Circus Maximus. The granite monument was taken from a temple in Heliopolis created in 1280 B.C under Ramses II. It was found buried at the Circus Maximus in 1587 and today stands in Piazza Del Popolo in Rome’s historic center.

The word “obelisk” is a Greek rather than an Egyptian word meaning a four-sided pillar. It was the Greek traveler Herodotus who was the first classical writer to describe these objects.

The Vatican Obelisk

The obelisk at the Vatican is right in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square and is said to be around 4,500 years old making it over 1,500 years older than the city of Rome. It is traditionally known as Caligula’s Obelisk as it was Caligula who in 37 A.D took the monument from Alexandria to have it placed in the Circus Caligula was constructing and which was later completed by Emperor Nero. The Circus was later known as the Circus of Nero where chariot races and many executions took place. In fact, it is in this area where the first Pope, Saint Peter, was crucified upsidedown in 64 A.D. under Nero’s reign. The Circus of Nero was built almost exactly where Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Peter’s Square are located today.

Vatican obelisk seen from st peters

The Vatican Obelisk was moved to its current location between 1585 and 1586 under Pope Sixtus V and it is the only Obelisk that has remained standing since Ancient Roman times. Although the Obelisk was transported only a couple of hundred meters from its original location at the Circus of Nero to where it stands today it took 900 men and 140 horses five months to complete the task under the supervision of Domenico Fontana. The Vatican Obelisk is 83.6 feet (25.5 meters) tall and weighs 326 tonnes. The base is adorned with four lions and bronze eagles which were added in 1713.

Plaque marking the original location of the Vatican obelisk in the center of the Circus of Nero

St. Peter’s Square is free to visit so you can admire the obelisk at any time. If you want to see the original location of the Vatican obelisk and learn more about the Circus of Nero, you must take a Scavi Tour. This tour will bring you underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica and to the tomb of Saint Peter, passing by the center of the old circus along the way.