THE EGYPTIAN OBELISK is the object in the Central Park which-many of us will esteem the one thing best worth seeing. Here we are face to face with antiquity. The monument was old when Moses read its inscriptions in honor of the Egyptian sun-god; and to-day it has behind it thirty-five centuries, during which, standing as an imperishable memorial of the Pharaohs, it has seen kings and empires rise and flourish and pass into oblivion.
The Obelisk stood before the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis (the City of the Sun), near Cairo, in Egypt, where it was erected in the sixteenth century, B. C., by Thothmes III., who reigned 1591 to 1565. Two hundred years later Rameses II (1383 to 1322), the Pharaoh of the Bible, added to it inscriptions setting forth his own majesty; and four centuries after another Pharaoh, Osarkon I., who lived about one thousand years B. C., recorded his own name along with those of Thothmes and Rameses.
Our Obelisk and a companion shaft remained standing in Heliopolis until 12 B. C., when, Rome being mistress of the world, Augustus Cxsar caused these monuments of the Pharaohs to be removed to Alexandria and there erected before the Temple of the Caesars. In the year 1877 the companion obelisk was re-moved to London and placed on the Thames Embankment. In the same year our Obelisk—known to the ancients first as Pharaoh's Needle and afterward as Cleopatra's Needle—was presented by the Khedive of Egypt to the United States. It was brought to America by Lieut.-Com. Henry H. Gorringe, U. S. N., and was erected on the present site in 1881. The cost of the removal was $102,576, which sum was contributed by William H. Vanderbilt.
The Obelisk is a monolith, or single stone, of syenite, from the granite quarries of Syene, in Egypt, and it is so hard that modern stone-cutting instruments make no impression upon it. The shaft is 69 feet high, 7 feet 9 inches by 7 feet inches at the base, and weighs 448,000 pounds. How the Egyptians quarried it, transported it a thousand miles from Syene to Heliopolis, and erected it there is one of the unsolved mysteries of antiquity.
The bronze crabs date from the time of Caesar. When the Obelisk was removed to Alexandria, the base was injured; to repair the damage melted lead was poured into the crevices, and four crabs were placed at the corners. Only two of the crabs have come down to us; they are preserved in the Museum of Art. The crabs now tinder the shaft were cast from these originals at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The inscriptions on the claws in Greek and Latin were made by the Romans, to commemorate the removal to Alexandria. They read: "Barbarus, Governor of Egypt, erected [this monument in the eighteenth year of the reign of Clesar. Pontius was the architect." The several inscriptions on the other claws summarize the history of the Obelisk. The base and pedestal were brought from Alexandria. The gilded zinc cap was put on the apex in 1893. The entire stone has been coated with paraffine to protect it against the weather, for the American climate has arrived to be injurious.
The hieroglyphics of the north, south and east faces may for the most part still be read; those on the west face have been eaten away during the centuries by the blowing sands of the Libyan desert. On each face the central vertical column is the original inscription of Thothmes III.; the two side inscriptions are those of Rameses II; and that of Osarkon I. is on the side near the lower edge. The Egyptians worshiped the Sun as a god, and regarded the king as the Sun's offspring, and thus a divinity on earth. The Pharaohs erected the obelisks in honor of the sun-god and of themselves. The sun-god Horus was symbolized by the sparrow hawk; and this is the figure which appears at the top of each column.
The name of
the king consists of a group of signs enclosed in an oval, called a cartouche; the names of kings, which appear on the Obelisk, may be identified as here shown. The inscriptions on the several faces are very much alike; those of the east face still stand for all.
The central column, beginning at the top, reads: The heavenly Horus, the powerful and glorious bull in Thebes, the lord of the Vulture and Uraeus diadems, whose kingdom is established as the sun in the heavens. He whom Turn, the lord of Heliopolis, has begotten; the son of his loins whom Thoth has brought forth; who was created by them in the great temple in the beauty of their limbs, who knew what he would do to establish an eternal kingdom. Thothmes III., the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, beloved of the great god Tum and his circle of gods, who gives all life, stability and strength now and forever.
Thus Thothmes. Then in his turn Rameses:
The heavenly Horus, the powerful bull beloved of Ra. The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Rameses II., the Sun, the child of the gods. Master of two coun¬tries, the Sun's offspring, Rameses II., a youth glorious, beloved like Aten when he shines in the horizon. The lord of the two countries, Rameses II., the Sun's offspring, Rameses II., the glorious image of Ra, who gives life.
Across the base, repeated four times, is the inscription: Long life to the gracious god—Rameses II.
And then five hundred years after Thothmes and three hundred after Rameses, Osarkon added his name:
The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Osarkon I., the Sun's offspring, Osarkon I.
Knowledge of the hieroglyphic writing was lost in the early centuries of the Christian era, and for more than a thousand years the world could not read the Obelisk inscriptions. In 1779 there was discovered at Rosetta, in Egypt, a slab of basalt which bore an inscription written in hieroglyphics, and also in demotic and Greek, so that it was possible to interpret the hieroglyphics by the corresponding Greek, and this afforded the first clue to a reading of the Egyptian characters. Further research gradually recovered the en-tire language, and thus the Pharaonic inscriptions of the Obelisk have been made intelligible to the modern world. The famous Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum; a cast of it may be seen in the Museum of Art (No. 59, Hall 6), where we shall find a large collection of Egyptian antiquities.