Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Obelisk for a New Nation

If you wander through this blog periodically you already know that I have a fascination with obelisks.  Especialy as they relate to national self image.  As a symbol of, well, of national potency it was once considered essential to have an extremely phallic monument in your national capitol, be it Rome, London or Paris.

The Washington Monument may or may not be a true obelisk, it depends on your definition of things.  Ancient Egyptian obelisks were monolithic, that is they were carved from rock as a single unit.  The Washington monument is made up of laid blocks of stone, as were some lesser ancient obelisks, also it is hollow with stairs and an elevator inside it.

But lets give it points for scale.  It is the world's tallest free standing stone structure, and at 555 feet it dwarfs the largest ancient obelisk, that standing at the Piazza di San Giovanni in Rome.  In fact, that obelisk is just short of a puny 150 feet even with the cheating assistance of a modern base.

The Washington monument had some notable classical influences.  The competition for a design was announced in 1836, the same year a genuine Egyptian obelisk was erected in Paris.  The construction of the monument was a difficult process.  The first stones were laid in 1848, but construction was suspended from 1858 to 1877.  You can in fact see a difference in the stone color between the first and second phases of the project:
Interestingly the project ground to a halt in a controversy with Roman origins.

In the late 1840s a proposal was floated to have states, territories, societies and so forth donate commemorative stones for the inside of the structure.  It seems to have been a PR move at a time when funds were lagging.  Lots of donations were forthcoming, just under 200 commemorative stones can be seen inside the Monument today.

There were many in the spirit of the original suggestion, and more than a few odd ones from Masonic groups, a Temperance Society, a couple of photographers and sundry volunteer militia troops and fire brigades.  But one stone pretty much closed the project down.

Pope Pius IX decided to donate a block of black marble from the Temple of Concord, part of the ancient Forum of Rome.  This outraged a group of citizens called "No Nothings" who were ferociously anti-immigrant and specifically against any Roman Catholic influence in goverment.  Under cover of dark the Pope's stone vanished, supposedly broken up and tossed in the nearby Potomac river, where it will doubtless ruin some far distant archeological survey of the site.

The Know Nothings also arranged to take over the management of the project but like most vandals proved less adept at building up than at tearing down.  Only a few courses of shoddy work were laid on their watch, all of which had to be removed and redone when the project resumed post bellum.

Some other cool commemorative stones and pseudo Roman touches remain inside the monument, the following images are from the Library of Congress:
Although information is surprisingly hard to find on this topic, I did read that the Pope's stone was replaced in 1982.  I think this is it.

The Library of Alexandria is not a single structure of known location.  So this stone is likely a best guess.  Most of the Library was apparently washed into the sea in a tidal wave.

A rather nice bit of mosaic floor.  It has suffered the fate of so many classical examples, damaged by later additions.

When you see lonesome ruins of antiquity in some desert landscape it is easy to get all Byronesque and romantic, imagining waves of barbarians storming the gates followed by a long gentle decline.  But in fact many of the great ruins of the classic era, places like Leptis Magna, had a fairly abrupt demolition by earthquakes.

Surprisingly on my recent visit the interior of the Washington Monument was closed for the same reason....an earthquake struck the area in August of 2011.  The interior of the Monument is closed for visitors while the National Parks Service mulls things over.  I tried to get some pictures of earthquake damage, but the Park Ranger on duty that day did not seem eager to point out specific problem areas.  I suspect he is under orders to keep mum.  Still....
And from the National Parks Service site:

The above is an interior view showing a crack clear through on the little viewed Western side.  This might not be as bad as it looks, the Monument has much thinner walls at the top than at the bottom, but just try and find experienced obelisk repair men these days!

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