The Impermanence of Obelisks.

On Thursdays from 8 AM-12 PM, the five undergraduates studying Egyptology at Johns Hopkins would gather in the Near Eastern Studies room—nicknamed “the Fish Bowl”—of Gilman Library’s basement for four rollicking hours of uninterrupted Middle Egyptian text reading. Presented here, in a fairly regular manner, will be some of my favorites from that class.

ABOVE ARE SOME PICTURES I took of the black siltstone obelisk of Nectanebo II, originally placed in the doorway at the Temple of Thoth at Hermopolis and now located in the Great Court of the British Museum. For the ancient Egyptians, obelisks were very heavy versions of the modern day political poster, their symbolism operating as a proclamation of the glory, power, and dedication of the pharaoh (truth be told, it didn’t really matter which pharaoh, because very few Egyptians knew how to read hieroglyphs); many obelisks contained inscriptions declaring that their permanence would ensure the might of their ruler. In Nectanebo’s case, this can be found in a passage that contains the s-causative verb/subject/object construction s‘h‘.n.f  thn (Detail 1), my very loose translation being:

  • ‘h‘ = verb “to set up,” therefore:
  • s + verb = “to cause to set up” or “to erect”
  • + n = past tense
  • + f = subject “he” ≈ ref. to Nectanebo II.
  • + thn = the noun “obelisk,” operating as an object
  •         ≈ … He erected the obelisk [beside his house of …]

Unfortunately for Nectanebo—and, for that matter, most obelisk-erecting pharaohs—these tall and pointy political statements seemed to make nifty little souvenirs for the British and French armies (the far more portable snow-globe had yet to be invented). There are ancient Egyptian obelisks in Central Park, Turkey, Poland, eight in Rome, and four in London—one of these being Nectanebo’s at the British Museum. Thus, an inscription on the base of Nectanebo’s obelisk reveals how it arrived in England. And, for those of you unversed in hieroglyphic languages, the inscription luckily doesn’t require any reading knowledge of Middle Egyptian, as it dates from the latter half of the seventeenth century CE (Details 2 and 3):

Presented by King George & Captured in Egypt by the British Army.

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Filed under Matters Archeological &. Egyptological//

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