The Masonry Obelisk is one of three surviving monuments from the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It was located on the spina of the Hippodrome towards its southern end. Of the other two surviving monuments of the Hippodrome, the Serpent Column is closer while the Obelisk of Theodosius is closer to the northern end of the spina.
The Masonry Obelisk is not technically an obelisk, as obelisks originally are monoliths from Egypt and typical are made of Aswan granite. Instead this ‘false obelisk’ is made of limestone ashlar blocks. Its height, though, is impressive - its inscription compares it with the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is around 32 meters tall, the same height as the Lateran Obelisk, which is the tallest obelisk in Rome. It was originally sheathed in bronze, as indicated both by its inscription and the numerous holes in the stonework, later looted along with other bronze monuments in the Hippodrome during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Its inscription made during the reign of Constantine VII (948-959) indicates that the ravages of time made it necessary for it to be restored. It was restored again in 1895-1896.
The inscribed base sits on a pedestal consisting of three steps. Excavations at the Hippodrome uncovered numerous water channels. Traces of lead piping were also found underneath the pedestal and the nearby Serpent Column, indicating both the Masonry Obelisk and the Serpent Column once served as fountains. The excavations indicated that the base had a four-spouted fountain, with loose mosaics suggesting that there were once basins of mosaics catching the water.
Its date of construction is unknown, though it is generally assumed to have been erected in Late Antiquity, perhaps in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine or Constantius. While the exact date of the Masonry Obelisk is uncertain, the reasons for setting it up in the Hippodrome are much clearer. An obelisk erected by Augustus in the Circus Maximus in 10 BC was among the first obelisks brought to Rome. Other obelisks, including the Vatican Obelisk, were also set up in other circuses over time. Once Constantinople became the new capital, there was a need for its emperors to emulate older Roman models. In addition, major imperial building projects once common in Rome began to be undertaken in Constantinople, as seen with the Forum of Constantine and the Hippodrome. Erecting an obelisk in Constantinople’s hippodrome directly recalled both the Circus Maximus and its obelisk erected by Augustus. This, in turn, linked Constantinople with the city of Rome, emphasizing the Romanitas (“Romanness”) of both the new capital and its emperors.
The Masonry Obelisk also might share link with the Lateran Obelisk had erected in the Circus Maximus in 357. The fact that they have the same height does not seem to be a mere coincident. While Ammianus claims that Constantine had this obelisk brought to Alexandria from Thebes with the aim of moving it to Rome, its lost inscription, recorded when it was excavated in the 16th century, claims otherwise. It states that Constantine intended this obelisk to be sent to Constantinople.It could be argued that, as it was unable to be shipped in time for the dedication ceremony of Constantinople in 330, Constantine had the Masonry Obelisk built instead. Even if this is dismissed as unwarranted speculation, it is clear that both obelisks relate to the rivalry between Constantinople and Rome at the time.
Obelisks came in fashion again in the 19th century, with Paris, London and New York acquiring their own Egyptian obelisks. Interesting, the Washington Monument, completed in 1884, was built in a similar fashion (with ashlar blocks) as the Masonry Obelisk. With a height of 169 meters, it was briefly the tallest structure in the world.
Τὸ τετρ[άπλευρον] θαῦμα τῶν μεταρσίων
χρόνῳ [φθαρὲν νῦν] Κωνσταντῖνος δεσπότης
οὗ Ῥωμ[αν]ὸς παῖς δόξα τῆς σκηπτουχίας
κρεῖττον νε[ο]υργεῖ [τῆς πά]λαι θεωρίας·
ὁ γὰρ κολοσσὸς θ[άμ]βος ἦν ἐν τῇ Ῥόδῳ
καὶ χαλκὸς οὗτος θάμβος ἐστὶν ἐνθάδε.
The four-sided marvel of the uplifted,
wasted by time, now Constantine the Emperor,
whose son is Romanus, the glory of the kingship,
restores better than the ancient spectacle.
For the Colossus was a wonder once in Rhodes,
and this is now a brazen wonder here.
Created by Antoine Helbert
Detail from a miniature of Istanbul by Matrakçı Nasuh (c. 1537)
Ottoman acrobats on the obelisks from Hünername (c. 1530)
Mosque of Sultan Ahmet by Luigi Mayer (1804)
Photo by David Talbot-Rice (1927)
Photo by Pascal Sebah (Second half of 19th century)
Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Grig & Kelly
“The Monuments and Decoration of the Hippodrome in Constantinople” by Jonathan Bardill
Obelisk: A History by Brian A. Curran
The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome by Anne Roullet
The Hippodrome of Constantinople And Its Still Existing Monuments by Grosvenor