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If you’ve ever wanted to go to Egypt to see real life Pyramids, Mummies, Sarcophagi, obelisks and other ancient Egyptian treasures but flying to Egypt may not be an option for you, well, you can get a taste of Egypt right here in Italy!!
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How did Italy get so lucky with such a vast assortment of Ancient Egyptian artifacts including the obelisks? After the Romans conquered Egypt during the reign of Augustus in 30BC, tourism just boomed. And not to mention, with the whole Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony scandals filling up the gossip papyrus, Egypt was quite en vogue.
Wealthy Roman tourists were so impressed with Egypt’s pyramids, obelisks, and artifacts that they just HAD to bring some home as souvenirs…and what they couldn’t schlep to Rome, like the pyramids, they had them commissioned here to be built.
Pyramids are what you’d expect to only find in Egypt, right?? Wrong!! Rome has it’s own ancient Pyramid thanks to one Egyptofile by the name of Gaius Cestius, a Roman magistrate who in 18 BC decided to build a tomb for himself like the pharaoh he considered himself to be. The 72 foot tall pyramid was built using brick faced concrete covered with slabs of white marble on a travertine foundation. For all the work he put into immortalizing himself into posterity, by the middle ages the locals attributed the pyramid to the tomb of Remus…with the tomb of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome, believed to have been another pyramid that was built between the Vatican and Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Unfortunately for archeologists and tourists everywhere, that pyramid was demolished in the 1600′s, and probably used as spare parts for buildings in the area! It took Pope Alexander VII to set the record straight when he had the pyramid excavated in the 1660′s and uncovered inscriptions and 2 bronze statues that Cestius’s family had made. So now Cestius can rest in peace.
When the Aurelian Wall was constructed around 271 AD, the pyramid was incorporated into the walls to form a triangular bastion. Many other structures in Rome were used to form part of the new walls, probably to save on materials, labor and time.
Another Egyptian symbol is the obelisk, and Rome is especially full of them!! There are at least 8 ancient Egyptian obelisks that were originally from Egypt and taken to Rome after the Roman conquest of Egypt, and at least 5 obelisks were either commissioned in Egypt by wealthy Romans and the shipped to Rome, or are Roman made copies of Egyptian originals. Here are a few of the main obelisks you’ll see gracing Rome’s prominent piazzas and churches.
In St Peter’s square is the Vaticano Obelisk that was originally raised in Alexandria, Egypt, around 30 BC. It was brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD for the spina of the Circus Vaticanus. Originally, this obelisk stood in what it’s now inside the Vatican and it was moved to the center of the piazza in 1586. It’s the only obelisk in Rome that hasn’t topped since the Roman times. The cross on the top of the obelisk is said to symbolize Christianity’s triumph over paganism.
The largest standing ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world, and the tallest in Rome can be found near the Basilica of St John in Lateran. This 230 ton obelisk was brought to Rome in 357 from Alexandria’s Temple of Amun in Karnak by Constantius II to decorate the spina of Circus Maximus. Discovered in 1587 broken in 3 pieces, it was restored 4 meters shorter than its original height and erected in its present location replacing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that was moved to the Capitoline Hill.
In Piazza del Popolo, or the People’s Square, stands the Flaminio Obelisk, and it was originally from Heliopolis dating way back to Ramses II. It was brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus in 10 BC to be erected on the spina of Circus Maximus.
The Macuteo Obelisk graces Piazza della Rotonda facing the Pantheon. It was originally one of the two obelisk at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis and relocated to the Temple of Isis near the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church not far from the Pantheon. Discovered in 1373 near San Macuteo church, it was erected on the Capitoline hill and then in front of the Pantheon by Pope Clement XI in 1711 on top of the fountain.
Back to the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, you’ll find a rather unique Egyptian obelisk that was erected on top of Bernini’s Baroque elphant, in front of a Gothic church that’s built over the foundation of the ancient Roman pagan temple dedicated to Minerva – hence, the name St Mary over Minerva.
The Agonalis Obelisk in Piazza Navona was erected on top of the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini 1651. THIS however, was a copy commissioned by Emperor Domitian to be erected at the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The dove on the top is the symbol of the Pamphili family of of Pope Innocent X who commissioned the fountain.
Another famous square with its own obelisk is the Spanish Steps, or Piazza de Spagna. The Sallustiano Obelisk is a smaller Roman copy of the Flaminio Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo built for the now deserted Gardens of Sallust around 1st century BC.
Another important church with its own obelisk copy Santa Maria Maggiore.
Next on the list are Mummies, Sarcophagi, ancient Egyptian Art…
You can see all these in one stop at the Egyptian Museum inside the Vatican Museums. Founded by Pope Gregory XVI, this museum contains a grand collection of Ancient Egyptian material like sarcaphogi, mummies, sculptures, papyruses, and more!
There’s another museum that features amazing Ancient Egyptian artifacts….in Florence! The National Archeological Museum in Piazza Santissima Annuziata, features an impressive collection of more than 14,000 restored artifacts distributed over 9 galleries and 2 warehouses.
Believe it or not, as vast as these 2 museums are in Egyptian artifacts, neither of them is the largest Egyptian museum outside of Egypt…that honor goes to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. The museum displays 6 and a half thousand artifacts, with some 26,000 objects in storage due to lack of display space, conservation, and objects only in interest to scholars, not general public.
So when you’re in Italy, can have your gelato and Egypt too… Until next time, ciao for now!