THE EGYPTIAN OBELISKS

The question is naturally asked, Where were the obelisks originally placed? At the present day we find those of them that remain in Egypt, solitary objects without anything near them, and those that have been carried to other lands have been set up in great open squares, or on river embankments in the heart of the largest cities. Fortunately, there is no doubt at all on this point. They stood in pairs at the doors of the great temples, one on each side, where they served the same purpose which the campanile of the Italian church or the spire of a cathedral serves at the present day. Indeed, architects are of opinion that church towers and steeples are mere survivals of the old Egyptian obelisks, which furnished the original conception. The tower corresponded to the shaft of the obelisk, and the steeple to the sharp pyramidal part in which the summit of the obelisk terminated. And though there is usually only one spire or tower now in connection with our churches, there used to be two, as many old examples still extant testify, one standing on each side of the principal entrance after the manner of the Egyptian obelisks. The slender round towers of Brechin and Abernethy, and of Devenish and other places in Ireland, capped by a conical stone roof terminating in a single stone, which were for a long time a puzzle to the antiquary, are now ascertained to be simply steeples connected with Christian churches of the tenth and eleventh centuries. And just as these towers are now left isolated and solitary without a trace of the buildings with which they were associated, so the Egyptian temples have passed away, and the obelisks are left alone in the desert. But we can reconstruct in imagination the massive and lofty buildings in front of which they stood, and where they showed to the greatest advantage. Instead of being dwarfed by the enormous masses of the propylons, their height gained by the near comparison. The obelisks in our squares and vast open spaces have their effect destroyed by the buildings being at a distance from them. There is no scale near at hand to assist the eye in estimating the height; consequently they seem much smaller than they really are. But when seen in the narrow precincts of a temple court, from whose floor they shot up into the blue sky overhead, surrounded by great columns and lofty gates, breaking the monotony of the heavy masses of masonry of which the Egyptian temples were composed, and acting the part which campanili and spires perform in modern churches, a standard of comparison was thus furnished which greatly enhanced their magnitude.

Nothing could be grander than the objects associated with the obelisks where they stood. The temple was approached by an avenue of huge sphinxes, in some cases a mile and a half long. Drawing nearer, the worshipper saw two lofty obelisks towering up a hundred feet in height, on the right and left. Behind these he would observe with awe four or six gigantic statues seated with their hands on their knees. And at the back of the statues he would gaze with astonishment upon two massive towers or pylons, broader at the base than at the summit, two hundred feet wide and a hundred and twenty feet high, crowned by a gigantic cornice, with their whole surface covered with coloured sculptures, representing one of the great dramas in the reign of a victorious monarch. Above them would rise the tall masts of coloured cedar-wood, inserted in sinkings chased into the wall, surmounted by the expanded banners of the king, or the heraldic bearings of the temple floating in the breeze. Between the huge propylons opened up the great gateway of the temple, sixty feet high, which led into a vast court, surrounded by columns and open to the sky. Beyond were walls whose roofs were supported by a forest of enormous pillars, which seemed to have been raised by giants. Each hall diminished in size, but increased in sacredness, until the inmost sanctuary was reached; small, dark, and awful in its obscurity. Here was the holy shrine in the shape of a boat or ark, having in it a kind of chest partially veiled, in which was hid the mystic symbol of the god. Like the tabernacle of Israel, the common people were not allowed to go farther than the outer court beyond the obelisks; only kings and priests being permitted to penetrate into the interior recesses, there to observe the ritual ceremonies of the mysterious Egyptian worship. On the plan of the Egyptian temple were modelled the sacred buildings of the Jews; and the famous pillars of burnished brass, wonderful for their workmanship and their costly material, which Solomon erected in the court of his temple, called Jachin and Boaz, had their prototypes in the obelisks of the Nile.

The obelisk belongs essentially to a level country; and there is no habitable region in the world so uniformly flat and unbroken by any elevations or depressions of surface as the valley of the Nile. There it produces its greatest effect; its size is not dwarfed by surrounding heights, and comes out by contrast with the small objects that diversify the plain. It forms a conspicuous landmark, a salient point on which the eye may rest with relief as it takes in the wide featureless horizon. In an artificial landscape, where there is no wild unmixed nature, where every inch of ground is cultivated, it is the appropriate culmination of that triumph of human art which is visible everywhere. It was a sense of this harmony of relation that induced the builders of the great cathedrals and temples of the world to place them, not amid varied and rugged scenery, where they might be brought into comparison with nature's work, but uniformly on level expanses of land. There they form the crowning symbol of man's loving care and painstaking endeavour, and give to the artificial landscape, which man has entirely subdued for his own uses, the finishing touch of power.