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Obelisk of Arles

Present Site:  Place de la République, Arles, France
N 43°40'35.1"(43.676419) E 4°37'39.3"(4.627595)
Pharaoh:  It is probably a replica by Romans, not by the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Measurement:  15.26 meters high for the obelisk itself
Stone:  Red granite

About The Site:
Arles is a town located in southern France. The name is better known as a name of orchestral music "L'Arelesienne" by Georges Bizet, or a painting by van Gogh. Van Gogh has drawn more than 300 paintings and drawings while he was staying in Arles. The historical district has well preserved the old days, and the café which was painted in his "Café Terrace at Nigh" is still operational today.
In the time of ancient Rome, this town was a base for advance to enter Gallia through going upstream on Rhône River, and after Gallia became under Roman rule, it prospered as a junction for tradeing with Gallia. For this reason, ancient ruins of Roman times remain, say an Amphithéatre (built at the end of the 1st century), and a Roman Bath (built in 4th century) are well-preserved. Especially the amphithéater is still being used for concerts and other events, with auditoriums already in place. The Roman and Romanesque Monuments of Arles were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1981. Hence Arles has become one of the main tourist destinations in southern France, and it's crowded with many tourists.
Place de la République where the obelisk stands is a place that we may call as the center of Arles, and it faces on the entrance of Cathédrale Saint-Trophime (St. Trophime Church) which is listed as World Heritage, and Hotel de Ville (City Hall).

Whole Image of the Obelisk of Arles Place de la République
The back is the entrance of St. Trophime Church.
Its left is Arles' City Hall.

How To Get There:
Using SNCF - French National Railway would be common way for going to Arles. From Paris' Lyon station (Paris Gare Lyon) take TGV (high-speed rail service) to Avignon Center or Nimes and change to the Arles, train or bus. If we leave Lyon station early in the morning, we can arrive at Arles around noon. However, it is better to book in advance as the trains are not often.
There are few taxis in the town of Arles, so it would be better to walk from Arles station to the historic area. It is less than 1 km from the station to the Place de la République (Republic Square) with Obelisk, so it's around 15 to 20 minutes to walk along with a guide map. On the way, there is Place du Forum (the Forum Square) where Café Van Gogh exists, which was a model of Van Gogh's famous painting "Le Café La Nuit (Café Terrace at Night)", so we can enjoy the town walk.

About The Obelisk:
This obelisk has a distinctive shape which narrows toward the tip of the upper part. It is also called "l'Aiguille d'Arles" (means the Needle of Arles) from that form. The reason for becoming this shape seems to be because the time of construction is newer. It is also considered that there is no inscription (hieroglyphs) because Romans did make an imitation. With regard to the stone material, the stone was once thought that was quarried in Europe since it was considered as a blue porphyry. However, according to the recent researches, this obelisk is red granite from Assuan (or Aswan). But Wikipedia says "granite from Asia Minor".
According to the measurement in 1909 by Fassin and Lieutaud, this obelisk is 15.26 meters high for the obelisk itself, and 1.70 meters width at the basis. The pedestal is approximately 4.55 meters high.

The Provenance: The provenance of this obelisk is not well clarified.
One story is that it was originally set up in the Cirque Romain (Roman circus, Hippodrome for chariot racing) of Arles as a turning point sign on "Spina" (median strip) in around 70-80 A.D. during the era of Titus Flavius Domitianus (11th Roman Emperor) [Reigned: 69-96]. Another story is that it was set up at the "Spina" in the Cirque Romain built in 4th century by Constantine II [Reigned: 337-340].

Fountains with masks of Hercules There used to be water from the mouth of Hercules before, but now it is stopped. The back is an Arles' City Hall (Hotel de Ville) with the bell tower. Its left is the entrance of former Sainte-Anne Church.
In the Roman Empire Era, the obelisk was commonly erected at the center of "Spina" or at the Temple of Isis. Obelisks are often built in the amphitheater not only in the home country of Rome but also in the towns in provinces under the rule of the Roman Empire. For examples, the (fallen) obelisks were discovered in the ruins of amphitheater in Caesarea (Israel), and Tyre (Lebanon), and they are restored.
The Cirque Romain in which the obelisk was built was located 600 m away from the Place de la République in the west-southwest direction, now it is surrounded by the Arles Ancient Museum (Musée Départemental Arles Antique, Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence Antique), the highway (E8D) and the Rhône River. The semicircular landscape still remains on the east side of the Arles Ancient Museum, but this is the trace of the Cirque Romain.

After the Cirque Romain was abandoned in 6th century, the obelisk seems to have collapsed. The details of re-discover are unknown. One says, this was discovered broken in two parts from ditch in 1389, one says, this was retrieved from the Rhône River, another one says, this was discovered it by a farmer in a field near Arles during late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The Obelisk was left and ignored for a while after being discovered. The re-erection in the site of Roman Amphitheater has once been planned. But in 1675, the location for the re-erection of obelisk was decided the Place Royale where is in front of St. Trophime Church and the Citry Hall. (Place Royale was later re-named to current name, Place de la République.)
Jacques Peytret (a local Alres sculptor) and Claude Pagnon who applied to the nation-wide contest of transportation struggled to move it due to its weight of obelisk, it took a half year. And Jacques Peytret (a local Arles architect, painter and sculptor) added the pedestal with stone sculptures of lion at four corners. Finally, the obelisk was successfully re-erected and dedicated to then King Louis XIV on March 26, 1676. The photograph shows the two largely separated parts of obelisk were joined, and that the tip part is supplemented with different stone material.
The stone sculptures of lion were replaced in 1829 by bronze lions sculpted by Antoine Laurent Dantan (French sculptor). And in 1866-1867, Henri Révoil (French architect) added the fountains and pool, decorated with masks of Hercules.
Despite the heritages of ancient Rome, this obelisk has not included in the World Heritage List of 1981. Designated ruins and the buildings in "Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments" are 8 items; which include Cathedrale Saint-Trophime (St. Trophime Church), the arena (Hippodrome), the Roman theater (Amphithéatre), etc.

South Side

West Side

East Side

North Side

April 28, 2017    by Hiroyuki Nagase    (For high definition image, please click the picture)

Arles Ancient Museum and M. Jean Claude Golvin:
When I re-visited Arles in 2017, I visited the Arles Ancient Museum as well to see the model of Cirque Romain.
From the historical area of Arles, walking along the Rhône River for about 500 meters, we reach the former site of Cirque Romain where it is now a green space, and we can see the Arles Ancient Museum behind of it. It is a modern building whose exterior is blue. There were two models of Cirque Romain, one of which was a huge one with a length of about 5 m.
I came across the name of Jean Claude Golvin, a French architect and archeologist, when I was learning about this museum. He is recently working for re-creating the ancient monuments and scenes with water-color painting. I often visited ruins of the site of some Amphithéatre and/or hippodrome, but even if I went to the site and stood in the center of Spina, it's difficult to imagine the situation of the old times, so I was deeply impressed with his drawings.
We can see his works in his website jeanclaudegolvin.com. On the front page, the drawings of Cirque Romain in Arles, together with Karnak Great Temple of Amun, etc. appear. Further more, we can see the drawings of various towns of Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, and the hippodrome in Caesarea of Israel, Tyre of Lebanon, Constantinople (Istanbul) of Turkey, and so on. The drawings on Arles can be found by following ANTIQUITY - Gaul - Arelate. Such drawings are very interested, and we never get tired of seeing drawings of various ancient towns.

Arles Ancient Museum in blue
The road is curved is the trace of the outer shape of the Cirque Romain.

model of roman arles
Ancient Arles (North direction at bottom left)
It seems that the actual size of Cirque Romain was far vaster than the current site.

Roman circus and Obelisk
Closeup picture of Spina at Cirque Romain
The obelisk stands at the center.

April 28, 2017    by Hiroyuki Nagase    (For high definition image, please click the picture)

Notes For Pictures:
When I firstly visited the Place de la République on May 1, 2015 it was unfortunately rainy weather, but on my re-visit of April 28, 2017 it was lucky with fine weather. Due to the Place de la République is the center of the historic area of Arles, there are many tourists, but most people seem to haven't paid attention to the obelisk.

Copyright Hiroyuki Nagase nagase@obelisks.org and Shoji Okamoto okamoto@obelisks.org