How many obelisks of Egyptian origin existed at one time in the world we do not know. They were undoubtedly very numerous; but many of them were broken up for building materials. The famous column called Pompey's Pillar stands upon a fragment of an ancient obelisk; and tradition asserts that there are many similar fragments of greater or less antiquity under the ruins of the older houses of Alexandria. At present forty-two obelisks are known to be in existence in different parts of the world. Of these, seventeen remain in Egypt on their original sites, of which no less than eleven are prostrate on the ground, having been overturned by some political or religious revolution, by the force of an earthquake, or by the slow undermining of the infiltrated waters of the Nile. No less than twelve of the oldest and grandest are still to be seen standing erect in Rome, where they constitute by far the most striking and memorable monuments. The others are distributed in various places wide apart. One is in Paris, two are in Constantinople, a fourth, the famous Cleopatra's Needle, is on the Thames Embankment, in the heart of London; a fifth, its old companion in Alexandria, is now in one of the public squares of New York. And there are several diminutive ones, from eight feet in height downwards, in the British Museum, in the Florentine Museum in Florence, in Benevento in Italy, and in the town of Alnwick in Northumberland.

The oldest of all the obelisks is the beautiful one of rosy granite which stands alone among the green fields on the banks of the Nile not far from Cairo. It is the gravestone of a great ancient city which has vanished and left only this relic behind. That city was the Bethshemesh of Scripture, the famous On, which is memorable to all Bible readers as the residence of the priest Potipherah whose daughter Asenath Joseph married. The Greeks called it Heliopolis, the city of the sun, because there the worship of the sun had its chief centre and its most sacred shrines. It was the seat of the most ancient university in the world, to which youthful students came from all parts of the world, to learn the occult wisdom which the priests of On alone could teach. Thales, Solon, Eudoxus, Pythagoras, and Plato, all studied there, perhaps Moses too. It was also the birthplace of the sacred literature of Egypt, where were written on papyrus leaves the original chapters of the oldest book in the world, generally known as the "Book of the Dead," giving a most striking account of the conflicts and triumphs of the life after death; a whole copy or fragment of which every Egyptian, rich or poor, wished to have buried with him in his coffin, and portions of which are found inscribed on every mummy case and on the walls of every tomb. In front of one of the principal temples of the sun, in this magnificent city, stood along with a companion, long since destroyed, the solitary obelisk which we now behold on the spot. It alone, as I have said, has survived the wreck of all the glory of the place, as if to assure us that what is given to God, however ignorantly and superstitiously, endures, while all the other works of man perish. It was constructed by Usirtesen I., who is supposed to have reigned two thousand eight hundred years before Christ, and has outlasted all the dynastic changes of the land, and still stands where it originally stood nearly forty-seven centuries ago. What appears of its shaft above ground is sixty-eight feet in height, but its base is buried in the mud of the Nile; and year after year the inundation of the river deposits its film of soil around its foot, and buries it still deeper in its sacred grave. Down the centre of each of its four faces runs a line of deeply-cut hieroglyphics, in whose cavities the wild mason-bees construct their mud-cells and store their honey. Nothing can exceed the beauty and distinctness of these carvings. The pictures of birds and beasts, chiselled in the hard polished granite, have a purity of form and line, a directness of expression and intention, which is most impressive. Its top is somewhat damaged, having been originally protected, as was the case with many of the obelisks which were not finely finished to a point, with a capping of gilded bronze that remained intact till the thirteen century. The inscription on its sides contains nothing of historic value. It is simply a dedication to Usirtesen, who constructed it, under the title of Horus, or the rising sun, which was borne, as I have said, by the kings of Egypt on account of their supposed origin as an incarnation of the sun.