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Obelisk ships were ships used to transport obelisks. Today, eight Ancient Egyptian obelisks stand in Rome, though not in their original places. The first of the obelisks, the 263 ton Flaminian obelisk, was transported from Heliopolis – modern-day Cairo - in 10 B.C. while the last, the 500 ton Lateran obelisk, was transported from Karnak.
There are only two recorded texts describing the ships that transported the obelisks from Egypt across the Mediterranean to Rome. The first recorded text is from Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79), who described the great ships that transported the Vatican obelisk in 40 AD under the emperor Caligula. The second description comes from Ammianus Marcellinus (AD 330 – 393), who describes the ships that transported the Lateran Obelisk in 357 AD.
Destruction of ships
There is little evidence of the great ships that carried the large obelisks across the Mediterranean. One of the two ships that carried the Vatican obelisk was purposely sunk by the emperor Claudius to build the Portus harbor; the other burned down during Caligula’s reign (36 – 41 AD) while on display at the Puteoli harbor.
The evidence that is known suggests that ships were built similar to the Egyptian ships depicted in Pharaoh Unas’ tomb in Saqqara. The depictions show two ships that carry the obelisk underwater between them.
Three Roman ships were built to transport one obelisk. The two aft ships were of rectangular shape, they were 37 meters in length and 5 meters in width. The two ships were held together by longitudinal beams, while the obelisk was tied to these longitudinal beams and held stationary underwater. The third ship, a larger trireme, was in the front and was tied to the two larger ships carrying the obelisk. The third ship’s purpose was to help steer the two aft ships and have rowers and sail power the ship across the Mediterranean.
- Landström, Björn, (1970), Ships of the Pharaohs: 4000 years of Egyptian Shipbuilding. London: Allen & Unwin
- Torr, Cecil, (1964). Ancient Ships. Chicago: Argonaut Press
- Vinson, Steve, (1994) Egyptian Boats and Ships. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications ISBN 0-7478-0222-X
- Wirsching, Armin (2000), "How the Obelisks Reached Rome: Evidence of Roman Double-Ships", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 29 (2): 273–283, doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.2000.tb01456.x
- Wirsching, Armin (2003), "Supplementary Remarks on the Roman Obelisk-Ships", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 32 (1): 121–123, doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.2003.tb01438.x
- Wirsching, Armin, (2nd ed. 2010), Obelisken transportieren und aufrichten in Aegypten und in Rom. BoD Norderstedt, ISBN 978-3-8334-8513-8