Vatican Obelisk square

Vatican Obelisk St Peter’s Square: History Facts, Inscriptions & More

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The Vatican Obelisk might not be top of mind when you go to Rome – but its an interesting sight, more so if you understand the history.

If you haven’t read up on it, then read on. Let’s start by understanding just why a massive obelisk at the Vatican is there anyway. It’s important to find out, because whilst Rome boasts several of them, the Vatican City Obelisk is thought to have been the only one transported to the capital in one piece.

And unfortunately, we are not exactly sure of where it began its life – but it is an original Egyptian one, spotted in Alexandria in 28BC, where it stood until it was brought to Rome in 37AD.

The History of the Vatican Obelisk

The short history of Vatican Obelisk in Rome
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The Obelisk at the Vatican was firstly installed in the gardens of Gaius Caligula – which is why it is sometimes known as Caligula’s Obelisk.

Eventually, it was moved to the area that is now known as St Peter’s Square and is thoughts to have been first installed at the southern end of the now constructed St Peter’s Basilica.

The Vatican City Obelisk now occupies pride of place in the center of the square and can be seen in footage of the Vatican from above. Apparently, it took over a year to move the whole thing to its current spot in the 16th century.

The Meaning Behind the Vatican Obelisk – What does the Vatican Obelisk Represent?

The St Peter’s Square Obelisk is certainly striking when you see it.

But is it more than an interesting monument? Is there any secret Vatican Obelisk meaning?

Well, firstly there is the meaning of the word Obelisk – from the ancient Greek obeliskos – that should be explained. It means needle, which I guess you can understand when you look at the structure pointing into the sky.

It was traditionally a funerary symbol. But this structure carries more meaning than that. It is used as a sign of the Vatican’s win over paganism. In order to deem the statue acceptable, it was blessed and had the arms of the pope inscribed on it.

Why was the Vatican Obelisk Exorcized?

The above topic pretty much answers the question.

In order to ensure that the huge ornament wouldn’t be worshiped by pagans or other idolators, the then-pope blessed the Obelisk Vatican structure. In fact, he conducted an exorcism, mounted a cross on its top and had a religious text engraved on both sides.

In doing so, he ensured that the monument would be considered a Christian symbol, and not fall prey to any other forms of worship. The Obelisk Vatican City therefore became legitimized.

The Vatican Obelisk Inscriptions

Vatican Obelisk inscriptions explained
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Interestingly, even though the Egyptian Obelisk Vatican City has no hieroglyphics, there are a range of inscriptions that are however to be found – in Latin.

The more ancient are dedications to Caesars of time gone by, including Caesar Augustus. They are found on the end of the shaft on the south side; there are references to the movement of the Obelisk to its current position, as there are on the north side.

The north side also contains a smaller reference of the man that was tasked with coordinating the move of the massive structure, which is rumored to have required almost 1000 men and lots of horses! The east and west faces are both inscribed with references to Jesus Christ.

Vatican Obelisk Materials, Dimensions and Weight

Just how impressive the move of this Obelisk was – first from Egypt, and then again to its new position in the center of St Peter’s Square – can only truly be believed when you are there. It is simply huge.

The Vatican Obelisk height is 134 feet when mounted on the base, it weighs a whopping 330 tons. The obelisk is made from red granite although it looks grayer when you see it. The St Peter’s Square Obelisk serves not only as an historical monument but is also a massive sundial!

Where is the Vatican Obelisk Located and How to Visit?

Vatican Obelisk map
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Good news – especially for budget travelers – is that the Vatican Obelisk, plus St Peter’s Square and the Basilica are free to visit.

It is easy to get to on the Rome Metro – simply take the red line to Ottaviano/S Pietro station. Trains come along every 3-5 minutes during business hours.

Then it’s a 10-minute walk to Vatican City. You can also get off at Cipro station if you fancy it. However, you may prefer to walk it completely and see some sights along the way.

It takes just 20 minutes from the Piazza Navona to the Vatican City, where you can view the Obelisk for free right in the center of the square.

3 Best Guided Tours According to Reviews

Best guided tours St Peter's Basilica entrance
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Remember firstly that it is free to visit the Obelisk. So don’t get duped into paying for entry tickets or anything like that for St Peter’s Square.

Vatican City travel tips Tip – You may wish, however, to incorporate a guided tour into your itinerary – one that takes in the sights of the square from the knowledgeable perspective of a local guide.

Or tickets that contain entry to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are another option.

Here are three of the best:

  1. Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel Entrance Ticket – For just 26 Euros per person, you can enter the Vatican Museums and see the wonders of the Sistine Chapel. Then, head out to St Peter’s Square and check out the Obelisk for yourself. Tickets include skip-the-line access to the Vatican, so you can bump the queue.
  1. Vatican City Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel Guided Tour – For just a fraction more – starting at 43 Euro per person – you can enjoy a guided tour as part of a group. Up to 20 people can participate in this trip, which gets you skip-the-line access, and a guided headset in multiple languages, and skip-the-line access.
  1. St Peter’s Basilica Dome to Underground Grottoes Tour – A guided tour that will hit off the Vatican Obelisk before you take a walking tour around the Basilica for panoramic views. Starting at 49 Euros, you get a live tour guide and a trip to the top of the dome. It is also possible to reserve this tour for private groups for an extra cost.

Less Famous Obelisks in Rome

Less famous obelisks in Piazza Popolo
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The Vatican Obelisk is believed to be the only remaining Egyptian original in Rome. The rest have been toppled over time. Some believe that it maintained its position because it was thought that Caesar's ashes were held in it.

Others thought it had been kept because it was a witness to the Crucifixion of St Peter. Either way, whilst you will see plenty of other Obelisks in Rome origin. There are actually 13 in total around the city, some of which are Egyptian originals.

You’ll see one standing in the Piazza del Popolo for example. The largest one however is to be found in the Piazza Giovanni in Laterano. It is worth noting that the Vatican Obelisk is the only one that has been left standing since the time of the Romans.

Others were toppled or installed after the Romans – for example, the obelisk you can see at the top of the Spanish steps is a replica. Some still were repatriated to their original countries – the Obelisk of Axum was given back to Ethiopia in 2005.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Miss if you are Nearby

Taking Vatican Gardens guided tour
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If you are facing the Vatican Obelisk you are in one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world!

Here are the 5 things you must see near the Vatican Obelisk:

  1. St Peter’s Basilica – You can’t miss it, it’s right there. Better still, access is free! You may need to queue, but it is totally worth it.
  1. The Vatican Museums – Book skip the line Vatican Museum tickets and get access to one of the most spectacular collections of art on earth!
  1. The Sistine Chapel – Marvel at supreme frescos and other art in one of the most beautiful chapels in Europe. To make the most of the experience, book a guide.
  1. Vatican GardensOff-limits gardens with a range of interesting art and topiary, restricted numbers keep this attraction a lesser-known part of the Vatican City.
  1. Vatican Grottoes – Home to the resting place of many popes, the best part about the Vatican Grottoes is that entry is completely free!

Frequently Asked Questions 

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Why is there an Obelisk in the Vatican?

It has been very much en vogue throughout the centuries to install Egyptian obelisks in famous locations in Europe. The Vatican too took this to heart, installing a huge obelisk but turning it into a symbol of victory over the pagans.

Where did the Vatican Obelisk come from?

The Vatican Obelisk was transported from Alexandria in Egypt to Rome – in one huge piece!

Did Cleopatra commission the Vatican Obelisk?

Cleopatra’s needles are the names given to 2 obelisks – but they aren’t in Rome. One is in London, the other in New York.

How old is the Vatican Obelisk?

The Vatican Obelisk is thought to be around 4500 years old.

How tall is the Obelisk in Vatican City?

It is about 83.6 feet (25.5m) tall.

Is the Obelisk at the Vatican from Egypt?

Yes – the obelisk is an Egyptian original, unlike some others in the city which are copies.

Conclusion

Don’t neglect this often-overlooked attraction when checking out the Vatican City – plus now you can impress your friends with your knowledge too.

Now, prepare for the rest of your trip by picking a skip-the-line entry ticket to the Vatican Museums so you can avoid the famously long queues.

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