Drawing of an obelisk.

Constructing an Obelisk: How the True Rocks of Eternity were Made

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Since Classical antiquity, the West has had a fascination with ancient Egypt. Even Roman tourists would regularly visit Egypt in droves and all but one of the Egyptian obelisks were removed at some point to be taken to Rome, Constantinople, and later Britain, the United States and other locations throughout the Western World. Despite our fascination with these monuments, it is still rather mysterious as to how they were built and erected. Although some evidence has been found that illuminates the process most likely used in carving the obelisks, how they were erected remains just as elusive as it has ever been.

Unique Attributes of Egyptian Obelisks

Although other cultures also built obelisk-like structures, such as the ancient Maya and the Aksumites, Egyptian obelisks are unique in that each one of them was made from a single block of stone, namely a block made from relatively common red granite in Egypt. Obelisks were usually erected near temples in honor of gods and kings and were usually constructed in pairs. Two would be built for either side of a temple doorway, for example. The reason for this was to reinforce the sense of harmony and balance between different elements of the universe which was so important to the ancient Egyptians.

Luxor Temple and its remaining obelisk.

Luxor Temple and its remaining obelisk. (Jerzy Strzelecki/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

In ancient Egypt, the obelisk had a variety of meanings. One of them, for example, was a representation of a petrified sunbeam since it was associated with the sun god. One of the reasons that obelisks were made with a tapering summit was so that the sun’s light would hit the uppermost point of the obelisk both as it was rising and setting. Another element of the ancient Egyptian belief system that the obelisk represented was the primordial mound of creation from which the creator god Atum is said to have formed the rest of the universe.

‘Obelisk--Karnak in 1900’ by Henry Bacon.

‘Obelisk--Karnak in 1900’ by Henry Bacon. ( Public Domain )

Constructing an Obelisk

Although the ancient Egyptians recorded a great deal about the meaning of obelisks, they left us little about the process by which obelisks were made. The conventional explanation is that the ancient Egyptians chiseled into granite blocks with copper tools and then inserted wooden wedges which were soaked with water.

As the wooden wedges were soaked they expanded - causing the granite to split apart. This is similar to how ice freezing in the cracks of boulders can cause the cracks to widen, forming fractures called joints. This process was probably used to carve out the blocks that would be made into obelisks. It was originally thought that the obelisk stone was also pummeled with diorite balls, which have been found all over Egypt, but now archaeologists believe that they were more likely used as ball-bearings in moving the obelisk instead.

The Unfinished Obelisk shows how the stone was carved out of the bedrock

The Unfinished Obelisk shows how the stone was carved out of the bedrock ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

After it was constructed, the obelisk was transported from the quarry by over one hundred laborers to the banks of the Nile, where it would be loaded onto a barge and transported to its intended destination. Once it reached the place where it was to stand, the obelisk would be taken up a ramp and inserted into a funnel-shaped hole previously filled with sand. After the insertion of the obelisk, ropes would be used to pull it to an upright position.

Experimental archaeology has confirmed that most of the traditional steps in this narrative are possible. The process of carving granite with wooden wedges and copper tools is still done today by Egyptian stone masons. Moreover, experiments in the 1990s showed that a typically-sized obelisk could be loaded onto a traditional ancient Egyptian barge. The only part of this story that does not hold up is the erection of the obelisk. So far, attempts to replicate erecting an obelisk simply using ropes and a wooden ramp have failed.

Using common tools to work stone in ancient Egypt.

Using common tools to work stone in ancient Egypt. ( Egyptraveluxe Tours )

The Issue of Erecting an Obelisk

Although there are some who disagree that the ancient Egyptians used the simple method used by traditional stone masons today to cut granite, it is generally agreed among archaeologists that the ancient Egyptians used this method in building monuments such as obelisks. The construction of obelisk bodies is thus considered non-controversial and well understood by experts and in mainstream academic circles, though there still are some outside the mainstream who disagree.

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