viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2014

The London Obelisk.


The London Obelisk.
Seven hundred miles up the Nile beyond Cairo, on the frontiers of Nubia, is the town of Syene or Assouan. In the neighbourhood are the renowned quarries of red granite called Syenite or Syenitic stone. The place is under the tropic of Cancer, and was the spot fixed upon through which the ancients drew the chief parallel of latitude, and therefore Syene was an important place in the early days of astronomy. The sun was of course vertical to Syene at the summer solstice, and a deep well existed there in which the reflection of the sun was seen at noon on midsummer-day.
About fifteen centuries before the Christian era, in the reign of Thothmes III., by royal command, the London Obelisk, together with its companion column, was quarried at Syene, and thence in a huge raft was floated down the Nile to the sacred city of Heliopolis, a distance of seven hundred miles. Heliopolis, called in the Bible On, and by the ancient Egyptians An, was a city of temples dedicated to the worship of the sun. It is a place of high antiquity, and was one of the towns of the land of Goshen. Probably the patriarch Abraham sought refuge here when driven by famine out of the land of Canaan. Heliopolis is inseparably connected with the[Pg 37] life of Joseph, who, after being sold to Potiphar as a slave, and after suffering imprisonment on a false accusation, was by Pharaoh promoted to great honour, and by royal command received “to wife Asenath, the daughter of Poti-pherah, priest of On” (Gen. xli. 45). Heliopolis was probably the scene of the affecting meeting of Joseph and his aged father Jacob. The place was not only a sacred city, but it was also a celebrated seat of learning, and the chief university of the ancient world. “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” and his wisdom he acquired in the sacred college of Heliopolis. Pythagoras and Plato, and many other Greek philosophers, were students at this Egyptian seat of learning.
On arriving at Heliopolis, the two obelisks now called Cleopatra’s Needles were set up in front of the great temple of the sun. There they stood for fourteen centuries, during which period many dynasties reigned and passed away; Greek dominion in Egypt rose and flourished, until the Ptolemies were vanquished by the Cæsars, and Egypt became a province of imperial Rome.
Possibly Jacob and Joseph, certainly Moses and Aaron, Pythagoras and Plato, have gazed upon these two obelisks; and therefore the English nation should look at the hoary monolith on the Thames Embankment with feelings of profound veneration.

In the eighth year of Augustus Cæsar, 23 B.C., the Roman Emperor caused the two obelisks to be taken down and transported from Heliopolis to Alexandria,[Pg 39] there to adorn the Cæsarium, or Palace of the Cæsars. “This palace stood by the side of the harbour of Alexandria, and was surrounded by a sacred grove. It was ornamented with porticoes, and fitted up with libraries, paintings and statues, and was the most lofty building in the city. In front of this palace Augustus set up the two ancient obelisks which had been made by Thothmes III., and carved by Rameses II., and which, like the other monuments of the Theban kings, have outlived all the temples and palaces of their Greek and Roman successors.” The obelisks were set up in front of the Cæsarium seven years after the death of Cleopatra, the beautiful though profligate queen of Egypt, and the last of the race of the Ptolemies. Cleopatra may have designed the Cæsarium, and made suggestions for the decoration of the palace. The setting up of the two venerable obelisks may have been part of her plan; but although the monoliths are called Cleopatra’s Needles, it is certain that Cleopatra had nothing to do with their transfer from Heliopolis to Alexandria.
Cleopatra, it appears, was much beloved by her subjects; and it is not improbable that they associated her name with the two obelisks as a means of perpetuating the affectionate regard for her memory.
The exact date of their erection at Alexandria was found out by the recent discovery of an inscription, engraved in Greek and Latin, on a bronze support of one of the obelisks. The inscription in Latin reads thus: “Anno viii Caesaris, Barbarus praefectus Ægypte posuit.[Pg 40] Architecture Pontio.” “In the eighth year of Cæsar, Barbarus, prefect of Egypt, erected this, Pontius being the architect.”
The figure of an obelisk is often used as a hieroglyph, and is generally represented standing on a low base. The bronze supports reproduced at the bottom of the London Obelisk never appear in the hieroglyphic representations, and were probably an invention of the Ptolemies or the Cæsars.
For about fifteen centuries the two obelisks stood in their new position at Alexandria. The grand palace of the Cæsars, yielding to the ravages of Time’s resistless hand, has for many ages disappeared. The gradual encroachment of the sea upon the land continued through the course of many centuries, and ultimately, by the restless action of the waves, the obelisk which now graces our metropolis became undermined, and about 300 years ago the colossal stone fell prostrate on the ground, leaving only its companion to mark the spot where once stood the magnificent palace of the imperial Cæsars.
In 1798 Napoleon Buonaparte, with forty thousand French troops, landed on the coast of Egypt, and soon conquered the country. Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aboukir Bay; and at a decisive battle fought within sight of Cleopatra’s Needle in 1801, Sir Ralph Abercrombie completely defeated the French army, and rescued Egypt from their dominion. Our soldiers and sailors, wishful to have a trophy of their Nile victories, conceived the idea of bringing the prostrate[Pg 41] column to England. The troops cheerfully subscribed part of their pay, and set to work to move the obelisk. After considerable exertions they moved it only a few feet, and the undertaking, not meeting with the approval of the commanders of the army and navy, was unfortunately abandoned. Part of the pedestal was, however, uncovered and raised, and a small space being chiselled out of the surface, a brass plate was inserted, on which was engraved a short account of the British victories.
George IV., on his accession to the throne in 1820, received as a gift the prostrate obelisk from Mehemet Ali, then ruler of Egypt. The nation looked forward with hope to its speedy arrival in England, but for some reason the valuable present was not accepted. In 1831 Mehemet Ali not only renewed his offer to King William IV., but promised also to ship the monolith free of charge. The compliment, however, was declined with thanks. In 1849 the Government announced in the House of Commons their desire to transport it to London, but as the opposition urged “that the obelisk was too much defaced to be worth removal,” the proposal was not carried out. In 1851, the year rendered memorable by the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the question was again broached in the House, but the estimated outlay of £7,000 for transport was deemed too large a grant from the public purse. In 1853 the Sydenham Palace Company, desirous of having the obelisk in their Egyptian court, expressed their wish to set it up in the transept of the Palace, and offered to pay all expenses.[Pg 42] The consent of the Government was asked for its removal, but the design fell through, because, as was urged, national property could only be lent, not given to a private company.
Great diversity of opinion existed about that time respecting its value, even among the leading Egyptologists; for in 1858 that enthusiastic Egyptian scholar, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, referring to Mehemet Ali’s generous offer, said:—“The project has been wisely abandoned, and cooler deliberation has pronounced that from its mutilated state and the obliteration of many of the hieroglyphics by exposure to the sea air, it is unworthy the expense of removal.”
In 1867 the Khedive disposed of the ground on which the prostrate Needle lay to a Greek merchant, who insisted on its removal from his property. The Khedive appealed to England to take possession of it, otherwise our title to the monument must be given up, as it was rapidly being buried amid the sand. The appeal, however, produced no effect, and it became evident to those antiquaries interested in the treasures of ancient Egypt, that if ever the obelisk was to be rescued from the rubbish in which it lay buried, and transported to the shores of England, the undertaking would not be carried out by our Government, but by private munificence.
The owner of the ground on which it lay actually entertained the idea of breaking it up for building material, and it was only saved from destruction by the timely intervention of General Alexander, who for ten[Pg 43] successive years pleaded incessantly with the owner of the ground, with learned societies and with the English Government, for the preservation and removal of the monument. The indefatigable General went to Egypt to visit the spot in 1875. He found the prostrate obelisk hidden from view and buried in the sand; but through the assistance of Mr. Wyman Dixon, C.E., it was uncovered and examined.
On returning to England, the General represented the state of the case to his friend Professor Erasmus Wilson, and the question of transport was discussed by these two gentlemen together with Mr. John Dixon, C.E. The latter after due consideration gave the estimated cost at £10,000, whereupon Professor Wilson, inspired with the ardent wish of rescuing the precious relic from oblivion, signed a bond for £10,000, and agreed to pay this sum to Mr. Dixon, on the obelisk being set up in London. The Board of Works offered a site on the Thames Embankment, and Mr. Dixon set to work con amore to carry out the contract.

Early in July, 1877, he arrived at Alexandria, and soon unearthed the buried monolith, which he was delighted to find in much better condition than had been generally represented. With considerable labour it was encased in an iron watertight cylinder about one hundred feet long, which with its precious treasure was set afloat. The Olga steam tug was employed to tow it, and on the 21st September, 1877, steamed out of the harbour of Alexandria en route for England. The voyage for [Pg 44]twenty days was a prosperous one, but on the 14th October, when in the Bay of Biscay, a storm arose, and the pontoon cylinder was raised on end. At midnight it was thought to be foundering, and to save the crew its connection with the Olga was cut off. The captain, thinking that the Needle had gone to the bottom of the sea, sailed for England, where the sorrowful tidings soon spread of the loss of the anxiously expected monument. To the great delight of the nation, it was discovered that the pontoon, instead of sinking, had floated about for sixty hours on the surface of the waters, and having[Pg 45] been picked up by the steamer Fitzmaurice, had been towed to Vigo, on the coast of Spain. After a few weeks’ delay it was brought to England, and set up in its present position on the Thames Embankment.
The London Needle is about seventy feet long, and from the base, which measures about eight feet, it gradually tapers upwards to the width of five feet, when it contracts into a pointed pyramid seven feet high. Set up in its original position at Heliopolis about fifteen centuries before the Christian era, this venerable monument of a remote antiquity is nearly thirty-five centuries old.
“Such is the British Obelisk, unique, grand, and symbolical, which devotion reared upward to the sun ere many empires of the West had emerged from obscurity. It was ancient at the foundation of the city of Rome, and even old when the Greek empire was in its cradle. Its history is lost in the clouds of mythology long before the rise of the Roman power. To Solomon’s Egyptian bride the Needle must have been an ancestral monument; to Pythagoras and Solon a record of a traditional past antecedent to all historical recollection. In the college near the obelisk, Moses, the meekest of all men, learned the wisdom of the Egyptians. When, after the terrible last plague, the mixed multitude of the Israelites were driven forth from Egypt, the light of the pillar of fire threw the shadow of the obelisk across the path of the fugitives. Centuries later, when the wrecked empire of Judæa was dispersed by the king of Babylon, it was again in the precincts of the obelisk of On that the[Pg 46] exiled people of the Lord took shelter. Upon how many scenes has that monolith looked!” Amid the changes of many dynasties and the fall of mighty empires it is still preserved to posterity, and now rises in our midst—the most venerable and the most valuable relic of the infancy of the world.
“This British Obelisk,” says Dean Stanley, “will be a lasting memorial of those lessons which are taught by the Good Samaritan. What does it tell us as it stands, a solitary heathen stranger, amidst the monuments of our English Christian greatness—near to the statues of our statesmen, under the shadow of our Legislature, and within sight of the precincts of our Abbey? It speaks to us of the wisdom and splendour which was the parent of all past civilization, the wisdom whereby Moses made himself learned in all the learning of the Egyptians for the deliverance and education of Israel—whence the earliest Grecian philosophers and the earliest Christian Fathers derived the insight which enabled them to look into the deep things alike of Paganism and Christianity. It tells us—so often as we look at its strange form and venerable characters—that ‘the Light which lighteneth every man’ shone also on those who raised it as an emblem of the beneficial rays of the sunlight of the world. It tells us that as true goodness was possible in the outcast Samaritan, so true wisdom was possible even in the hard and superstitious Egyptians, even in that dim twilight of the human race, before the first dawn of the Hebrew Law or of the Christian Gospel.”

Cleopatra's Needle A History of the London Obelisk, with an Exposition of the Hieroglyphics Author: James King 

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