Tuesday, 22 June 2021 PL EN | |

Obelisk of Ramesses II

Death and life in Ancient Egypt

Obelisk of Ramesses II


Obelisk from Athribis

Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung
Inv. no. ÄMB 12800

Since 2002 on loan to the Archaeological Museum in Poznań


Height 300 cm; base 53 x 53 cm; top 38 x 37 cm

Eighteenth Dynasty?, possibly the reign of Amenhotep III
14th cent. BC. Usurped by Ramesses II

Provenance: bought in 1895 in Cairo by Carl Reinhardt


You can take a closer look at the obelisk here.

The obelisk came from the city of Hut-heri-ib, Greek Athribis, present day Tell Atrib district in the town of Benha in the Nile Delta. In ancient times the town was the capital of the 10th nome (province) of Lower Egypt. It was once standing in front of the temple of the god Khenti-kheti, paired with another obelisk. Removed from Athribis (in the Middle Ages?), it was found re-used as a threshold in a house in Cairo in the 19th century. Traces of this re-use are still visible in the form of a wide worn surface with damaged inscriptions on one of the sides; it seems that at the same moment the pyramidion was cut away. After its discovery in Cairo, the obelisk was bought in 1895 and transferred to Berlin. The shaft of its counterpart,[1] and one of the quartzite bases[2] were found re-used at Fustat, while the other base was found in situ at Athribis,[3] (now both bases are displayed in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).[4]

The four sides of the obelisk bear incised hieroglyphic inscriptions giving names and titles of three pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty: Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.), Merenptah (1213-1203 B.C.) and Sethi II (1200-1194 B.C.).[5] The texts are similarly distributed on all four sides, they differ, however, in details, giving different names and epithets of the kings, and names of the gods worshipped at Athribis. Ramesses II’s text (the middle column) on one of the walls has been cut in its upper part in a slight depression, indicating an earlier inscription that had existed, removed before the decoration of the obelisk by this king. Tiny traces of former signs are still visible.[6] It seems thus that Ramesses usurped an obelisk erected at Athribis by an earlier ruler.[7] The most probable candidate for the original owner is Amenhotep III, who is known to make extensive works at Athribis.[8] He was perhaps influenced by his vizier Amenhotep son of Hapu, who originated from that town. Amenhotep III’s work included granite lions set in front of the temple[9]; it is thus very probable that the obelisks formed part of a larger decoration program. Merenptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II, added his own names at the bottom of the obelisk on both sides of his father’s text. Upper parts of both lateral columns were subsequently filled in with the titulary of Sethi II. Signs representing the god Seth in this king’s name were destroyed in later times, most probably in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. The reason for this was an increasing hostility against this god, who was considered in the Late Period not only an enemy of Osiris, but also the patron of foreign nations invading Egypt.

Obelisks, placed in front of tombs and temples since the Old Kingdom, were markers of the connection between human and divine spheres. The root of the word tekhen, ‘obelisk’, has some relation to the verb khen ‘alight’; a similar word tekhen means a ‘door-leaf’. This suggests that the obelisks were perceived as a vertical connection between two spheres: human, mundane, and divine, heavenly. Those which were placed before the temples had strong solar significance, being the visible link of the sun god and his representative on earth – the pharaoh. This is why the obelisks played such an important role in the royal architectural programs. Starting from the New Kingdom the hieroglyph representing an obelisk might have been read men, in relation to the words men ‘to endure’ and menu ‘monuments’, and eventually became also a cryptogram for the name of the god Amun-Ra. Golden sheets decorating pyramidia or upper parts of obelisks, reinforced their solar meaning. In the case of the Athribis obelisk, it was part of great plans for the local temple of the god Khenti-kheti realised by Amenhotep III. The king undertook works at the temple, reflecting a theological development of the god towards a strong connection with Heliopolis and its solar deities. Specific materials of the bases and of the shafts of Athribis obelisks held symbolic value. Red quartzite represented desheret, ‘the red land’ of deserts, a sphere of wild, nature, primeval, and at the same moment of divine. Black granodiorite represented the civilisation which emerged to kemet, ‘the black land’ (= Egypt), a sphere of order, culture and religion, thus a royal space.[10] The dimensions of the obelisk are likewise carefully designed. The base of the shaft is 1 x 1 cubit and its height may be restored as 7 cubits. This means that the height of the two obelisks standing once in front of the temple of Athribis was 14 cubits, which is a meaningful number, referring to the number of the sun god’s and the king’s kas.

[1] Cairo TR 25/11/18/5; PM IV, 70; Daressy 1919, p. 276; Kitchen 1977, 466, § 171 (b).

[2] Cairo TR 11/11/20/20.

[3] Cairo JE 72147.

[4] For both quartzite bases of the two obelisks see Schott 1939 (material is described erroneously as red granite).

[5] Kitchen 1977, 466, § 171 (a); Kitchen 1996, pp. 287-289, § 171; p. 323, § 613)

[6] At the area of the serekh on the side ‘D’ of the ÄIB, p. 33.

[7] AV, p. 124: ‘Übringens scheint auch diese Denkmal wieder aus einem noch älteren Bauwerk, seiner Seiten ist leicht vertieft, als sei dort eine frühere Inschrift fortgenommen’; Priese 1991, p. 37: ‘Eine leichte Vertiefung in der Zone dieser Inschriften läßt vermuten, daß schon Ramses II. den Obelisken aufgefunden und für seine Inschriften noch ältere Schriftzeilen abarbeiten ließ.’ However, the dating suggested in PM IV, p. 70 (‘perhaps usurped from Middle Kingdom’) seems unsupported. 

[8] Amenhotep III at Athribis: temple (Bryan in Kozloff and Bryan 1992, p. 108; Quirke 2001, p. 148); various objects (Vernus 1978, pp. 29-32); a scarab in the Dayan-Collection with the text referring to Amenhotep III as ‘beloved by Horus Khentikhety, Lord of Athribis’ (Giveon 1974).

[9] Lion from Athribis, re-inscribed for Ramesses II, British Museum EA 857 (Vernus 1978, doc. 41, p. 41; identified as originally Amenhotep III’s: Bryan in Kozloff and Bryan 1992, pp. 106-107 and fig. IV.25; Shaw and Nicholson 1995, p. 45 s.v. Atrib, Tell).

[10] Ćwiek 2014, pp. 129-130.