THE EGYPTIAN OBELISKS

Obelisks are the most enduring monuments of antiquity, and yet no class of objects has undergone such extraordinary vicissitudes. The history of the changes to which they have been subjected reads like a romance. At a remote age, not long after they were erected, most of them were cast down during some political catastrophe, which shook the whole country to its foundations. Under a subsequent dynasty the obelisks seem to have been lifted up to their former places, and regarded with the old veneration. After the lapse of nearly a thousand years, the land was again convulsed by a terrible revolution, the nature of which is still wrapped up in almost impenetrable mystery. A warlike migratory race came from the north-east, and subdued the whole country. This is known as the Hyksos invasion, or the invasion of the Shepherd Kings, and produced the same effects in Egypt as the Norman invasion produced in England. Previous to this period the horse seemed to have been altogether unknown; but after this date it uniformly appears in Egyptian paintings and sculptures. The Hyksos must therefore have been a pastoral race, in all likelihood belonging to the plains of Tartary; and, mounted on horses, they would find little difficulty in overcoming the foot soldiery of Egypt. When they had obtained possession of the country, they burnt down the cities, demolished the temples, and overthrew the obelisks. This disaster, the most dreadful which Egypt had ever known, followed suddenly upon a period of extraordinary prosperity, when new cities were built, and old cities enlarged; works of great public utility were constructed, a mercantile intercourse established with the surrounding nations, and the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, favoured by the long peace and the abundant resources of the country, reached their highest excellence. The reversal of all these signs of prosperity was so overwhelming, that the Egyptians of subsequent ages looked back upon this period of subjection under a foreign yoke which lay upon them for five hundred years, with bitter resentment. When the hated dynasty was at an end, the Egyptians obliterated, as far as they could, every sign of its supremacy, chiselled out the names of its kings on their monuments, and destroyed their records, so that few traces of this revolution remain to dispel the strange mystery in which it is involved. They could never bear to hear the detested names of the Shepherd Kings; and this circumstance throws light upon the passage in Genesis which says that the occupation of a shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians. Under the patronage of the new dynasty the arts which had been destroyed were again restored, the monuments of the suppressed religion were freed from their indignities, and once more reinstated with the old honours, and the whole country was reconstructed. But, while the temples were re-erected, and the old worship established with even greater splendour, there can be no doubt that many of the earlier obelisks, owing to their smaller size, as compared with the other gigantic monuments of Egypt, had been destroyed past all reconstruction; and some of them remain in the land at the present day on the sites where, and in the exact manner in which, they were overturned by the Shepherd Kings.

But greater changes still happened to the Egyptian obelisks after this. Previously they had been devastated and overturned on their own soil. But now they excited the cupidity of the foreign invaders of Egypt, and were carried away to distant lands as trophies of their victories. The first obelisks that were removed in this way were two of the principal ones that adorned one of the temples of Thebes. After the capture of Thebes by Assurbanipal, the Assyrian king, the famous Sardanapalus of the Greeks, they were transported to the conqueror's palace at Nineveh, and were afterwards lost for ever in the destruction of that city, about sixty years later, or about six hundred years before Christ. The transportation of these enormous masses of stone across the country to the seashore, down the Red Sea, over the Indian Ocean, up the Persian Gulf, and the river Tigris, to their destination in the palace of Nineveh, nearly two thousand miles, must have been a feat of engineering skill at that early period of the world's history, far more wonderful in regard to the difficulties overcome, without any precedent to guide, and considering the rudeness of the means of transport, than anything that has ever been attempted since in the same line. The example of the Assyrian tyrant was followed, after a long interval, by the Romans, who sought to magnify and commemorate their conquests in Egypt by spoiling the land of its characteristic monuments. The Cæsars, one after another, for more than a hundred years, took advantage of their victories and the ruin of the unhappy land of Egypt to convey its beautiful obelisks to their own capital to permanently adorn one or other of the various places of public resort. They seem to have set almost the same high value upon these singular monuments which their inventors did. Pliny and Suetonius describe the almost incredible magnitude of the vessels in which these gigantic masses of stone were conveyed to Ostia, the harbour town, and from thence up the Tiber to Rome. The huge triremes were propelled by the force of hundreds of rowers across the waters of the Mediterranean. From the quay at Rome they were dragged and pushed, by the brute force of thousands in the old Egyptian manner, on low carts supported on rollers instead of wheels, to their destination, where they were set upright by a complicated machinery of ropes and huge upright beams.