Walled Obelisk

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Walled Obelisk or Masonry Obelisk (Turkish: Örme Dikilitaş) is a Roman monument in the form of an obelisk in the former Hippodrome of Constantinople, now Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, Turkey. It was probably dedicated to the Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun"), the official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers.


It is situated at the southern end of the ancient chariot-racing track of Constantinople's central barrier, beside the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpentine Column. Its original construction date in late antiquity is unknown, but it is sometimes named Constantine's Obelisk (Konstantin Dikilitaşı) after the inscription (inspect) added by the Roman emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who repaired it in the 10th century CE.

The 32 m (105 ft)-high The obelisk was most likely a Theodosian construction, built to mirror the Obelisk of Theodosius on the spina of the Roman circus of Constantinople; the Circus Maximus in Rome also had two obelisks on its spina. It was the last monument on the spine of the Hippodrome, where the chariots turned. Unlike the other obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, it was cut out of grey or pink granite: it is in fact made of natural stones, which explains why it is also known as the "Walled Obelisk". The Masonry Obelisk is one of three surviving monuments from the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Brief History

circa 950 CE

The 10th-century CE emperor Constantine VII had the monument restored and coated with plates of gilt bronze; a Greek inscription in iambic trimeter was added at this time. The gilded bronze plaques portrayed the victories of Basil I, the grandfather of Constantine VII. The obelisk's gilded bronze plaques were removed and melted down by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204 CE.

circa 950 CE

By the 10th and 11th centuries CE, the obelisk was referred to as the 'tower of brass' in the medieval Arab world, although accounts sometimes confused it with the Obelisk of Theodosius. The late 12th-early 13th-century writer al-Harawi was the source for several Arabic geographers' inclusion of a detail about the monument: the Byzantines put potsherds and nuts amongst the masonry in order to see them crack when strong winds would cause the stones to shift. Since young Janissaries liked to show their prowess by climbing the obelisk, the masonry suffered further damage to its surface.

circa 950 CE

While the exact date of the Masonry Obelisk is uncertain, the reasons for setting it up in the Hippodrome are somewhat clearer. The obelisk (Psammetichus II's obelisk) erected by Augustus in the Circus Maximus in 10 BCE 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 a link with the Lateran Obelisk he had erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 CE. 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.

Pedestal and Inscription

circa 950 CE

The inscribed base sits on a pedestal consisting of three steps. The inscription, on the eastern facade of the pedestal, records the repairs made to the monument by Constantine VII, who also covered the ancient monument with gilded bronze sheets inscribed with the victory narrative of Basil I. The pedestal inscription also compares the structure with the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Two (northern and western) out of three remaining sides seem to be dressed and one (southern) seems to be undressed.

circa 950 CE

The Greek inscription reads:
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.

Modern Repairs

circa 950 CE

The obelisk appears to have been repaired (inspect) recently.

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