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Deciphering the Obelisk: A 19th-Century Obsession Helps Break the Hieroglyphic Code

  • S. Dillon Ripley Center 1100 Jefferson Drive Southwest Washington, DC, 20001 United States (map)

The beauty and mystery of ancient obelisks captivated 19th-century Europe and America. Engineers even had to invent new modes of conveyance to bring these objects out of Egypt to satisfy cities swept by obelisk fever. Once they arrived, people clamored to learn more about their origins and the meaning of the strange symbols carved into them. The massive Egyptian obelisks we see in New York, London, and Paris are more than icons of these urban landscapes: They provided an early map into the realm of hieroglyphs.

The Renaissance scholar Athanasius Kircher had produced fanciful translations of Rome’s Egyptian obelisks, but an obelisk brought to England in 1878 provided important keys to more accurately deciphering hieroglyphs and understanding the symbolic and ceremonial meaning of these structures.

In a fascinating evening, noted Egyptologist Bob Brier shares the history of the hieroglyphs on three noted obelisks, as well as tales of the naval endurance and engineering dexterity needed to transport and transplant these prized objects across the globe.  

Brier is a senior research fellow at Long Island University, author of numerous books on Egypt, and host of TLC’s documentary series The Great Egyptians, The World of Pyramids, and Mummy Detective. His new book, Cleopatra’s Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt (Bloomsbury) is available for signing.