THE EGYPTIAN OBELISKS

The history of the Lateran obelisk is unusually varied. It was originally constructed by Thothmes III., and set up by him before the great temple of Amen at Heliopolis. But being an old man at the time, he left his successor to complete it by adding most of the hieroglyphics. It took thirty-six years to carve these sculptures; the four sides from top to bottom being covered with inscriptions in the purest style of Egyptian art. From one of these inscriptions we learn that the obelisk was thrown down in Egypt probably during the invasion of the Shepherd Kings, and was re-erected by the great Rameses, who did not, contrary to the usual custom, arrogate to himself the honours of his predecessor. These sculptures tell us of monarchs who had reigned, and conquered, and died long before the mythic times, when the "pious Æneas," as Virgil tells us, landed on the Italian shore, and Romulus ploughed his significant furrow round the Palatine Hill. A thousand years before the foundation of Rome, and two thousand years before the Christian era, it had been excavated from the quarries of Syene and worshipped at Heliopolis. It was as old to the Cæsars as the days of the Cæsars are to us. Pliny tells us that the work of quarrying, conveying, and setting it up employed twenty thousand men; and there is a dim tradition that so anxious was the king for its safety, when it was erected, that in order to ensure this he bound his own son to the top of it. A close examination of the hieroglyphics reveals the curious fact that the name of the god Amen wherever it occurs, is more deeply carved than the other figures, in order to obliterate the name of some other deity which had previously occupied its place. It is supposed that this circumstance indicates a theological revolution which happened in the history of Egypt when Amenhotep III., the Memnon of the Greek historian, married an Arabian wife of the name of Taia, who introduced her own religion into her adopted country, as Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, introduced the worship of Baal into Israel. When this dynasty was overthrown, in the course of about fifty years, the old faith was restored, and the names of the old gods substituted for those which had usurped their place on the religious monuments. It is supposed that the Lateran obelisk was the one before which Cambyses, the great Persian conqueror, stood lost in admiration, arrested in his semi-religious course of destroying the popular monuments of Egypt. Augustus intended to have removed it to Rome, but was deterred by the difficulty of the undertaking, and also by superstitious scruples, because it had been specially dedicated to the sun, and fixed immovably in his temple. Constantine the Great had no such scruples, believing, as he said, that "he did no injury to religion if he removed a wonder from one temple, and again consecrated it in Rome, the temple of the whole world." He died, however, before he had completed his design, having succeeded only in transporting the obelisk to Alexandria, from whence his son and successor Constantius transferred it to Rome, and placed it on the Spina of the Great Circus. So clumsily, however, was it erected in this place, that several deep holes had to be drilled in the upper part of it, in order that ropes for hauling it up might be put through them; a defect in engineering skill which has disfigured the obelisk, and contrasts strikingly with the resources of the ancient Egyptians, who were able to raise the stone to its position without such a device. The obelisk is thus an enduring monument of three great rulers—Thothmes, who first constructed it in Heliopolis; Constantine, who removed it to Rome; and Pope Sixtus V., who conveyed it from the Circus Maximus, and re-erected it where it now stands.