Obelisk-hunting in St. James Cemetery

On the eastern side of Toronto’s downtown is located the Anglican St. James Cemetery, a historic location in use since 1844. The cemetery, nestled on the side of a tree-protected ravine, is enveloped by a serene and tranquil aura and its residents lie in peace away from the bustling racket of the city. Near its entrance is also located the chapel of St. James-The-Less, which is over 150 years old and was designed by then-notable Toronto resident F.W. Cumberland.

An obelisk at St. James Cemetery with the chapel of St. James-The-Less in the background (authors' photo)
An obelisk at St. James Cemetery with the chapel of St. James-The-Less in the background (authors’ photo)

The Nile Scribes visited the cemetery this week and as we made our way through the gate, immediately a familiar icon stood out to us: obelisks! In all shapes and sizes, obelisks dotted the funerary landscape. Another, rarer Egyptianising form we saw were columns with decorated capitals that reminded us of Egyptian palmiform columns. Greek columns (Doric and Ionic) were much more prevalent in the cemetery, but both illustrate the widespread architectural revival that occurred during the Nineteenth Century which incorporated Egyptian and Classical symbols. The prevalence of the obelisks at the cemetery, however, inspired this post.

Obelisks in Ancient Egypt

Obelisks, called tekhenu in ancient Egyptian, were carved from a single piece of stone, including from quartzite, sandstones, calcite, etc., though most commonly they were made of red granite, and some reach heights of over 35 m. In the Egyptian world, obelisks were closely associated with the sun-cult, a connection which is due to their height and its pyramidal top that is reminiscent of the sun’s rays. For the Egyptians, the colour of red granite had close connections to the sun, life, and regeneration.  The shape is related to the famous benben-stone, whose location is said to be at the centre of the sun-cult at Iunu (Greek: Heliopolis). Being the focal point of an early creation myth, the Egyptians believed the primeval mound was located at Iunu. In this story, the mound arose out of the primeval waters during creation and produced the sun-god. This deity, one version tells, would go on to create the Egyptian pantheon and the rest of humankind – a fact emphasised by the epithet: He who split himself into millions.

Egyptian obelisks from the reigns of Hatshepsut (left) and Thutmose III (right) from Karnak Temple (authors' photo)
Egyptian obelisks from the reigns of Hatshepsut (left) and Thutmose I (right) at Karnak Temple (authors’ photo)

The tradition of obelisks dates back to the Old Kingdom; during the Fifth Dynasty obelisks were the focal point of a sun-temple complex. An altar was located near the obelisk in the sun-temple complex of Neuserre’ Ini, which suggests food offerings being placed here. In the Pyramid Texts, which emerged at the end of the Fifth Dynasty, obelisks are mentioned in connection to offerings such as in Spell 515:

“May you give me bread, may you give me beer, from your bread of eternity, from your beer of continuity. I am one who is at the two obelisks of the Sun that belong to the earth.” (2)

Roman emperors were the first collectors to seize upon this symbol; Augustus removed a red granite obelisk of Seti I as early as 10 BC from Iunu (Heliopolis) and re-erected it near the Circus Maximus in Rome. For the next few centuries, obelisks continued to be taken from Egypt to Rome, Paris, London, New York, and Istanbul. Hundreds of years later, obelisks stand testament in cities and cemeteries around the world to one of ancient Egypt’s most recognisable symbols.

The Lateran Obelisk at the Piazza di San Giovanni (3)
The Lateran Obelisk at the Piazza di San Giovanni (3)

Obelisks in the Western Mind

During the Nineteenth Century, obelisks quickly took hold as a popular monument style in the western world (the famous Washington Monument obelisk was designed in 1833). The Neo-Egyptian revival was sparked by Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt (1798-1801) and the subsequent multi-volume publication The Description de l’Égypte that introduced the exotic land of the pharaohs to a modern European audience. At the same time, Egyptian architectural forms like pyramids, sphinxes, temples, and obelisks began appearing in western funerary landscapes as grave markers and were easily amalgamated with other western (and in some cases Christian) funerary symbols. At St. James cemetery, there are numerous obelisks of various shapes and sizes, some with shrouds or palls draped over their points. The shrouded urn (of Greek imagery), another similar funerary motif of the period, represents the thin veil between life and death, or the funerary shroud left behind when the deceased’s soul left their body. The image of the shrouded urn, then, inspired the shrouded obelisk, as obelisks were never shrouded in ancient Egypt.

Shrouded and unshrouded obelisks at St. James Cemetery (authors’ photo)

Obelisks in particular were so commonly used for Nineteenth Century historical, patriotic, and funerary monuments that it is easy to forget that they originated on the African continent as a symbol of solar worship thousands of years earlier. The shape of the obelisk may have been especially appealing to western audiences because of its height and pointed top that seem to draw a viewer’s gaze heavenward. They were also practical: in quickly crowding cemeteries, the obelisk was a striking monument that did not require a lot of ground space.

A Mausoleum built in Egyptian Revival

Apart from numerous obelisks at St. James, we also discovered a mausoleum built in Egyptomanian fashion hidden away from the road. As we explored the cemetery, we noticed a curious roof peaking out of the ground and a flight of stairs on its side. The architecture reflects a general Egyptian shrine with a pair of very stylised Egyptian columns flanking the entrance and a cornice along the top decorated with winged sun-disks. When we went back up the stairs, we saw the name of the tomb owner: GZOWSKI. It is no other than Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzwoski, who was one of Toronto’s well-known residents of the nineteenth century.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1813, his family was from Grodno in modern-day Belarus, which at the time was under Russian control (4). Having joined the Imperial Corps of Engineers in 1830, he became involved in a group aiming to restore an independent Poland and ended up in an Austrian prison after an unsuccessful revolt. Exiled a few years later to the USA, Gzowski went on to get a degree in law as well as American citizenship. Eventually, he returned to engineering and it is this skillset that brought him to Canada in 1841, looking to find work in the construction of water- and rail-ways. He would find fame and fortune in the construction of parts of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad as well as The Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to Sarnia. He would go on to become a well-known member of Toronto’s community and even served briefly as Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor from 1896-1897.

However, the reasons for his choice of an Egyptian Revival mausoleum are not immediately clear, though he was clearly bit by the Egyptomania-bug sweeping across the western world. After a three-month long battle with an illness, Gzowski died on Aug. 24, 1898 and was eloquently remembered in the Toronto World:

“Yesterday morning, just as the terrific thunderstorm had subsided and the morning sun was peeping over the eastern horizon, the spirit of one of Toronto’s most illustrious citizens took flight.” (5)

Clearly, the sun-disk on top of his mausoleum would protect his body as his akh joined the sun-god in its daily journey across the sky.

Are there Egyptomanian monuments in cemeteries near you? We’d love to hear about them. Leave us a comment!

Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski (1813-1898)
Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski (1813-1898)


  1. Palm column from the pyramid temple of Sahure at Abusir – Fifth Dynasty. Acc. # 10.175.137, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – more information.
  2. Allen, J.P. 2015. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. 2nd ed. Atlanta: SBL Press – page 163. The spell is from the pyramid of Pepi I.
  3. Photo by Magnus Manske – more information.
  4. Information for his biography was gleaned from Nelles, H.V. 1990. ‘GZOWSKI, Sir CASIMIR STANISLAUS’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto/. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gzowski_casimir_stanislaus_12E.html.
  5. The quote was published in the Toronto World edition of August 25, 1898.