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Next time you visit the nation’s capital, you can wow tourists by telling them the Washington Monument is an obelisk — a tall, narrow stone pillar that tapers to a point at the top and commemorates an important person or event.
Obelisks were all the rage in ancient Egypt and still in vogue in Rome’s heyday. The Egyptians associated the skinny four-sided monoliths with the sun god Ra and thought they looked like the sun’s rays shining down. Herodotus was among the first writers to describe obelisks, and it’s to him that we owe the word; it comes from the Greek obelos, meaning “nail” or “pointed pillar.” History buffs can still spot obelisks, also called “Cleopatra’s Needles,” everywhere from Myanmar to Manhattan.