Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Vatican Obelisk

St Peter's Basilica with the obelisk in the foreground

An interesting story is told about the obelisk that is in the center of the St Peter’s square, where thousands of people will gather over the next few days to greet the new Pope. It was Pope Sixtus V who ordered the obelisk to be brought from Egypt and erected in the famed piazza. The obelisk was originally erected at Heliopolis by an unknown pharaoh around c. 2494 BC – 2345 BC. During its history of c. 4400 years, the obelisk has been successfully moved 3 times. The Emperor Augustus (c. 63 BC – 14 AD) had it moved to the Julian Forum of Alexandria, where it stood until year 37 A.D. In 37 A.D., Caligula ordered the forum demolished and the obelisk transferred to Rome. He had it placed along the center of the Circus of Nero, where it would preside over Nero's countless brutal games and Christian executions.
It was moved to its current site in 1586 by the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana under the direction of Pope Sixtus V. His feat of engineering took the concerted effort of 900 men, 75 horses and countless pulleys and meters of rope. The men that were brought in to help erect it, were told not to say one word while it was being brought up.  As the obelisk was being put in place, one sailor noticed that the ropes were going to break unless something is done to them. So he broke the silence and yelled “water to the ropes, water to the ropes!”
The organizers took notice of this and threw water on the ropes, and the obelisk continued its journey up in its permanent place, and no one got hurt. 

The base of the Obelisk
The Pope instead of punishing the man, wanted to reward the courageous and law-breaking sailor, named Benedetto Bresca, and he asked if he could provide the palms for Palm Sunday every year from the region where he lived. And so the tradition has been for the past 400 years that the palms are always brought from the San Remo region on the coast of Northern Italy. By the way, the obelisk is 83 feet in height and weighs 331 tons!

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