THE EGYPTIAN OBELISKS

Among the first objects that arrest the attention and powerfully excite the curiosity of the visitor in Rome are the Egyptian obelisks. They remind him impressively that the oldest things in this city of ages are but as of yesterday in comparison with these imperishable relics of the earliest civilisation. At one time it is said that there were no less than forty-eight obelisks erected in Rome,—six of the largest size and forty-two of the smaller,—all conveyed at enormous cost and with almost incredible labour from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Tiber. Upwards of thirty of them have perished without leaving any trace behind. They are doubtless buried deep under the ruins of ancient Rome, but the chance of their disinterment is very problematical. One obelisk, indeed, was exposed a hundred and forty years ago in the square of the principal church of the Jesuits, near the Pantheon; but being found to be broken, and also to underlie a corner of the church and the greater part of an adjoining palace, so that it could not be extracted without seriously injuring these buildings, it was covered up again, and was thus lost to the world. As it is, we find in Rome the largest collection of obelisks that exists at the present day in the world, and the best field for studying them.

Obelisks were dedicated to the sun, which was the central object of worship, and occupied the most conspicuous position in the religious system of the oldest nations. Sun-worship, that which waited upon some hill-top to catch the first beams of the morning that created a new day, is the oldest and the most natural of all kinds of worship. He was adored as the source of all the life and motion and force in the world by the most primitive people; and we find numerous traces of this ancient sun-worship in the rude stone monuments, with their cup-shaped symbols, that have survived on our moors, in many of the old customs which still linger in our Christianity, and in the name by which the most sacred day of the week is commonly known among us. All the benefits conferred upon our world by the sun must have been strikingly apparent to the ancient Egyptians, dwelling in a land exposed to the sun's vertical rays, and clothed with almost tropical beauty and luxuriance. When they watched the ebbing of the overflowing waters of the Nile, and saw the moist earth on which the sun's rays fell, quickened at once into a marvellous profusion of plant and animal life, they naturally regarded the sun as the Creator, and so deified him in that capacity. The origin of all life, vegetable and animal, to those who stood, as it were, by its cradle, when the world was young and haunted by heaven, seemed a greater mystery and wonder than it is to us in these later faithless ages. Long familiarity with it in its full-grown proportions has made it commonplace to us.

Both the obelisk and the pyramid were solar symbols, the obelisk being the symbol of the rising sun, and the pyramid of the setting. The fundamental idea of the obelisk was that of creation by light; that of the pyramid, death through the extinction of light. And this symbolical difference between the two objects was practically expressed by the different situations in which they were placed; the obelisks being all located on the eastern side of the Nile, that being the region of the rising sun, and of the dawn of life; while the pyramids are all found on the western bank of the river, the region of the sunset, with its awfully sterile hills and silent untravelled desert of sand from which no tidings had ever come to living man, where the dead were buried under the shades of night, in their rock-cut cemeteries. It might thus seem, that by placing obelisks in our churchyards in association with the dead, we were violating their original significance, and guilty of adding another to the many incongruities which have arisen from adopting pagan symbols in Christian burying-places. But in reality we find a deeper reason for the association. In some of the oldest sculptures in Egypt, an obelisk is represented as standing on the top of a pyramid; and by this combination it was meant to signify the power of life triumphing over death. And hence the obelisk is the most suitable of all forms to indicate in our cemeteries the glorious truth of the resurrection, life rising victorious out of the transitory condition of death.