THE EGYPTIAN OBELISKS

Next in point of height to the Lateran obelisk is the one that stands in the great square of St. Peter's, between two beautiful fountains that are continually showering high in the air their radiant sunlit spray. It is meant to serve as the gnomon of a gigantic dial, traced in lines of white marble in the pavement of the square. Its rosy surface glistening in the rays of the sun, and its long shadow cast before it on the ground, make it a very impressive object. Its origin is involved in mystery, for there is no inscription on it to tell who erected it, or where it came from. This absence of hieroglyphics points to its having been an unfinished work—something having prevented its constructor from recording on it the purpose of its erection, as was usually the case. But as the vacant shadow of the dial and the blank empty lines of the spectrum are more suggestive than any sunlit spaces, so the blank unwritten sides of this obelisk give rise to more speculations than if they had been carved from head to foot with hieroglyphics. On account of this peculiarity, some authors have not hesitated to consider it a mere imitation obelisk, constructed by the Romans at a comparatively late period. This idea, however, is refuted by the evidence of Pliny, who regarded it as a genuine Egyptian relic, and tells us that it was cut from the quarry of Syene, and dedicated to the sun by the son of Sesores, in obedience to an oracle, after his recovery from blindness. It is generally believed that it first stood before one of the temples of Heliopolis, was then removed to Alexandria, and finally transported to Rome by Caligula. This emperor constructed a special vessel for the purpose, of greater dimensions than had ever been seen before; and after it had brought the obelisk to the banks of the Tiber, he commanded it to be filled with stones, and sunk as a caisson in the harbour of Ostia, which he was constructing at the time. On arriving at Rome the obelisk was set up on the Spina of the Circus of Nero, which is now occupied by the sacristy of St. Peter's Church. For fifteen centuries the obelisk remained undisturbed on its site, the only one in the city that escaped being overthrown. At last its foundation giving way, so that it leaned dangerously towards the old Basilica of St. Peter's, Sixtus V. formed the design of removing it to where it now stands, a very short distance from the original spot. The record of its re-erection, the first in papal Rome, by Fontana—a work of extreme difficulty and imposing ceremonial magnificence, which was richly rewarded by the grateful Pope—is exceedingly interesting. A curious legend is usually related in connection with it. A papal edict was proclaimed threatening death to any one who should utter a loud word while the operation of lifting and settling the obelisk was going on. As the "huge crystallisation of Egyptian sweat" rose on its basis there was a sudden stoppage, the hempen cables refused to do their work, and the hanging mass of stone threatened to fall and destroy itself. Suddenly from out the breathless crowd rose a loud, clear voice, "Wet the ropes." There was inspiration in the suggestion; the architect acted upon it, and the obelisk at once took its stand on its base, where it has firmly remained ever since. Not only was the sailor Bresca pardoned for transgressing the papal command, but he was rewarded, and the district of Bordighera, from which he came, received the privilege of supplying the palm leaves for the use of Rome on Palm Sunday—a privilege which it still possesses, and which forms the principal trade of the place.

To me the most familiar and interesting of all the Roman obelisks is that which stands in the centre of the Piazza del Popolo, the finest and largest square in Rome. It is about eighty feet high, carved with hieroglyphics, with four marble Egyptian lions, one at each corner of the platform on which it stands, pouring from their mouths copious streams of water into large basins, with a refreshing sound. Lions in Egypt were regarded as symbols of the sun when passing through the zodiacal sign of Leo, the time when the annual inundation of the Nile occurred. They had thus a deep significance in connection with water. The obelisk was originally erected in front of the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis, by the great Rameses, the Sesostris of the Greeks, whose personal character and wide conquests fill a larger space in the history of ancient Egypt than those of any other monarch. From Heliopolis it was removed to Rome, after the battle of Actium, by Augustus, and placed on the Spina of the Circus Maximus, the sports of which were under the special protection of Apollo, the sun-god, by whose favour it was supposed that the Egyptian victory had been achieved. For four hundred years it acted as a gnomon, regulating by the length and direction of its shadow the hours of the public games of the circus; and then it was overturned during those troublous days in which the empire was rent asunder. Twelve centuries of decay and wreck had buried it from the eyes of men, until it was dug up and placed where it now stands, in 1587, by Pope Sixtus V., to whom modern Rome is indebted for the restoration of many of her ancient monuments, and the construction of many of her public buildings and streets. With the cross planted on its summit, this noble monument was long the first object which met the traveller's eye as he entered Rome from the north by the old Flaminian way. Brought to commemorate the overthrow of the land from whence it came, it has witnessed the overthrow of the conquerors in turn; and now re-erected in the modern capital, it will endure when its glory too has passed away. And out of the ruins of the city of the Popes, as out of the ruins of the city of the Cæsars, some future architect will dig it up to grace the triumph of a brighter and freer resuscitation of the Eternal City than the world has yet seen.