The Philae Obelisk

The Philae obelisk at Kingston Lacy in Dorset

Kingston Lacy’s outstanding collections are not all to be found in the house. Outside on the south lawn is the nine-metre tall Philae obelisk. Originally it stood at the Entrance to the Temple of Isis on Egypt’s sacred island of Philae. But it was transferred to Kingston Lacy after William John Bankes encountered it on his Egyptian travels (1815-19). Today it remains an iconic feature of the Kingston Lacy landscape; a monument to William John’s ambitious and compulsive collecting for his beloved home.

The grade II* listed pink granite needle, one of a pair of obelisks which dates from 150 BC., holds a number of fascinating stories. Among them is the tale of its transportation from Egypt to Dorset. Unsurprisingly, this was no small undertaking. In fact, it took six years for the obelisk to journey from Philae to England, where it eventually arrived in 1821.

The autumn sun silhouettes the Philae Obelisk
The Philae Obelisk at Kingston Lacy in Dorset
The autumn sun silhouettes the Philae Obelisk

William John commissioned Giovanni Belzoni, a famed adventurer of the day, to take on the task. But soon after the obelisk had been moved to the edge of the Nile, its support failed and it began to sink into the riverbed.  

When the obelisk eventually arrived in England, the Duke of Wellington, whom William John knew from his military service, offered his gun carriage for its onward transportation to Dorset. And the obelisk’s connection with the Duke doesn’t end there. An inscription at the bottom confirms that he chose where it was to be positioned in Kingston Lacy’s grounds.

Detail of the obelisk shaft showing the hieroglyphs
The Philae obelisk at Kingston Lacy in Dorset
Detail of the obelisk shaft showing the hieroglyphs

Arguably the most important story associated with the obelisk is its contribution to the nineteenth-century race to decipher hieroglyphs. William John, highly educated and intellectually curious, observed inscriptions on the obelisk in two languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on the main shaft, and Ancient Greek on the plinth. His understanding of Ancient Greek led him to identify the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra in hieroglyphic characters. His discovery was verified, and the obelisk went on to become instrumental in Jean-François Champollion’s eventual decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.

The Philae obelisk is the most significant of Kingston Lacy’s collection of Egyptian artefacts. The wider collection – the largest in private ownership in the UK -also includes another obelisk and sarcophagi (all located in the grounds) in addition to stelae, ostraca and other antiquarian objects which are currently displayed in the mansion house. A number of detailed drawings of the monuments William encountered on his Egyptian travels are held in the Bankes Archive (deposited with Dorset History Centre).