March 11: Egypt in Rome

2016/03/11 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1425 BC Thutmose III was born.

How do we have this exact date?  Because Egyptologists are really smart, that’s how.

T3 was stepson and nephew (go ahead, see if you can work that out that family tree) of Hatshepsut, with whom he was co-regent, but she was really running the show.  After her death he expanded the empire dramatically and, as all good emperor-king-pharaohs do, built a ton of stuff.  His architects fanned out to build or restore dozens of temples and tombs.  His patronage was especially active at the great temple of Amun at Karnak, where he rebuilt the amazing hypostyle hall, constructed his own famous Jubilee Hall, among other parts of the huge sprawling temple that he either fixed up or added to.

One of those impressive additions was the tallest obelisk in Egypt. Rising to a height of over 105 feet, the 455-ton stone was also unusual in being the only single obelisk ever planned for Karnak (usually obelisks came in pairs, like salt and pepper shakers).  He didn’t live to see it erected, but his follower did have it hoisted up in Karnak.  Some seventeen centuries later, the Roman emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) hauled it to the Circus Maximus in the capital. (This was just a thing Roman emperors–well, at least eight of them–did: it’s on their Imperial Checklist: 1. Become Emperor, 2. Build Stuff, 3. Annoy/Persecute Christians, 4. Sneer at/Succumb to Goths, 5. Move Obelisks around, 6. Worry about Feeding the Army.) There it stood until Pope Sixtus V hauled it over to the Lateran in 1588.  (This was just a thing that Renaissance popes–well, at least five of them–did: it’s on their Papal Checklist: 1. Become Pope, 2. Build Stuff, 3. Annoy/Persecute Non-Believers, 4. Sneer at/Excommunicate Protestants, 5. Move Obelisks around, 6. Worry about Feeding the Poor.)

The obelisk that T3 commissioned to honor the Egyptian Sun God now stands on a base whose inscription notes the “sacrilegious dedication” of the pharaoh, and records the baptism of “Constantine, winner of the Cross” and his efforts to “spread the glory of the Cross.”  It is crowned with papal symbols.  We may ponder the degree to which this would really peeve Thutmose, until we reflect that this is really just a thing that pharaohs, kings, emperors, popes, caliphs, czars and any general potentate you might imagine, does: play very elaborate games of finders keepers.

image: T3’s obelisk at St. John Lateran, Rome (Clio’s)


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