Art history professor co-authors book on ancient Egyptian obelisks

April 08, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- Brian A. Curran, associate professor of art history at Penn State, is a co-author of "Obelisk: A History," published in April 2009 by MIT Press. The illustrated book traces the fate and many meanings of obelisks -- giant standing stones invented in ancient Egypt as sacred objects -- across nearly 40 centuries. Curran's co-authors are Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long and Benjamin Weiss.

The authors address what obelisks meant to the Egyptians and how other cultures have borrowed, interpreted, understood and misunderstood them through the years. Although they serve no practical purpose, obelisks, with their inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphics, seem to many people to connote some special sort of power. Over the years, dozens of them have traveled from Egypt to Rome, Paris, London, New York and other cities. In each culture, obelisks have taken on new meanings and associations. To the Egyptians, the obelisk was the symbol of a pharaoh's right to rule and connection to the divine. In ancient Rome, obelisks were the embodiment of Rome's coming of age as an empire. To nineteenth-century New Yorkers, the obelisk in Central Park stood for their country's rejection of the trappings of empire just as it was itself beginning to acquire imperial power.

Scholars from a range of disciplines have endorsed the book, calling it a "fascinating account of the way a bizarre Egyptian luxury object became an essential symbol" and a "stunningly illustrated book [that] offers a new vision for obelisk studies."

The book is part of the Publications of Burndy Library series.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 09, 2009