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The Washington Monument Looks Like an Obelisk Because of Egyptomania

In the 1800s, America was desperate to look like it had been around for a while, so it was adopting old styles. Really old

The monument at sunset. (Wikimedia)
smithsonian.com

In a technical sense, the Washington Monument isn’t an obelisk, because it isn’t made from a single piece of stone. That fact makes it no less impressive.

Stretching 555 feet in the air, the Washington Monument is the tallest thing in the city. The Washington Monument, completed this day in 1884, is the city’s Eiffel Tower, its Big Ben, writes John Steele Gordon in Washington’s Monument and the Fascinating History of Obelisks. The monument is its most potent symbol of identity: interesting, then, that it’s based on a form that likely predates history, but not surprising. People in the nineteenth century were crazy for ancient Egypt.

“Egyptomania,” some called it: a fascination with the imagery and ideas of ancient Egypt that likely had its roots in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign but translated well to the ambitions of a young republic looking to put down ancient roots.

“On the one hand, although paradoxically trendy, Egyptian motifs suggested permanence and stability, conjuring both ancient wisdom and the type of solid, well-built structure that remains standing through the ages,” writes Bruce Handy for Vanity Fair. On the other, the Egyptian revival style evoked other, erroneous, associations with Orientalist mystery and secrets, he writes.

No wonder the memorial’s Egyptian Revival styling was embraced, although in the end the obelisk was much plainer than it was originally envisioned. In fact, when Washington died, Congress floated the idea of placing his remains in a marble pyramid inside the Capitol rotunda, writes Handy. His heirs nixed that idea. In the early 1900s, the idea of a Lincoln pyramid was also floated. And the United States still carries other reminders of its founders’ fascination with ancient Egypt: just look at the money.

The original design chosen for the Washington Monument was fancier and more clearly neoclassical: the base of the obelisk was to be ringed with 30 columns, its entrance topped by a statue. After the monument sat unfinished, stalled at an embarrassing 156 feet above ground between 1854 and 1877 because of lack of funds, the Congress stepped in and began seeking new proposals, fearing that the monument would seem out-of-date (new proposals included this Gothic tower.) In the end, though, they kept the obelisk and threw out the rest of the original design, leaving the monument as it is today.

Choosing to keep the obelisk unadorned had another, more pragmatic function, writes the National Park Service, which oversees the Mall: it was cheap and it could be completed more quickly, cementing Washington’s legacy. This approach is the reason why stone from three different quarries was used, resulting in the multi-toned effect that Monument still has today.

The memorial to the country’s first president is unlike, say, the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials, both which include as a focal point statues of the men they commemorate. The Washington monument does have a statue of the man (inside the ground-floor lobby), but it wasn’t even added until 1994, writes Gordon. “It is the monument itself that people come to visit,” he writes.

The real point of the Washington monument seems to be, well, its point.

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