Among the remains of the great ancient civilizations, the obelisks of Egypt are undoubtedly more often seen and better known than any other monuments. Obelisks are impressive not only for their lofty size and graceful form but for their high polish and beautiful decoration. One cannot but marvel at the skill of the ancient Egyptians in producing such wonders with relatively primitive techniques.
Some of the smaller obelisks and fragments of larger ones are familiar to the numerous visitors of museums in various countries. Larger ones that are still on their original sites are admired by the millions of people who visit Egypt each year.
Still, others are seen by the crowds who pass through London, Paris, New York, Istanbul, and especially Rome, where there are more obelisks than in any other place, even Egypt, the original home of the obelisks in the world.
Meaning of the obelisk:
An obelisk is a four-sided single piece of stone standing upright, gradually tapering as it rises and terminating in a small pyramid. The obelisk was known to the ancient Egyptians as ‘tekhen’ and obelisks as ‘tekhenu’. Our modern term obelisk is driven from the Greek ‘obeliskos’. Obeliskos means ‘small pit’; it was applied to obelisks because of their tall, narrow shape.
In Arabic, the term is ‘Massalah’, which means a large patching need and again has reference to the object’s form. That’s why London’s obelisk is called Cleopatra’s Needle.
Most obelisks, especially the larger ones, are made of granite, although a few are quartzite or basalt. Granite, whether red or black, is found in Egypt only in the area around Aswan. It was quarried there in numerous places, but the most important quarries were those of the islands of Elephantine and Sehel, and near the Unfinished Obelisk.
Obelisks were considered by the ancient Egyptians to be sacred to the sun god, whose main center of worship was at Heliopolis near Cairo now.
A type of stone resembling the pyramidion of an obelisk was apparently considered sacred to the sun god. Such stones, known as ben or benben, were believed to have existed in Heliopolis from immemorial and were the fetish of the primeval god Atum (the setting sun) and the god Re or Re-Herakhti (the rising sun). The stones were also associated with the Benu-bird or phoenix.
The date at which obelisks were first erected is not known, but the kings of the 5th Dynasty (2494-2345 BC), who were fervent worshippers of the sun god, may have been the earliest rulers to decorate the facades of their temples with pairs of such monuments.
Obelisks were first erected at Heliopolis and the practice was continued throughout the pharaonic period. The majority of these obelisks have been removed or destroyed; the only one still standing there is that of Sesostris I (1971-1928 BC) at Mataryah.
In Thebes (Luxor) numerous obelisks were erected to honor Amun-Re. Of its obelisks, only three survive; some were destroyed and a few were taken abroad. Pi-Ramesses (the Domain of Ramses) was embellished with a score of obelisks but were smaller than those of Thebes.
Elsewhere, only rather small obelisks have been found. Two pairs of obelisks were recovered from the ruins on the Island of Elephantine near Aswan. A pair of Ptolemaic obelisks dedicated to Isis was unearthed on Philae Island. As well as a pair of obelisks was found at Abu Simbel.
An obelisk found at Minshah near Sohag. There were once two obelisks in Ashmunein, near Al Minya, were dedicated to Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom. A number of obelisks were also raised in honor of Atum in Sais, which was a political center in the Delta and capital of Egypt during the Saite Period (664-525 BC).
The kings who erected obelisks were usually described on them as beloved of various gods. On some obelisks, there are references to royal victories. Yet another reason for setting up obelisks is the celebrations of Jubilees. On the occasion of these jubilees, the kings up obelisks. The obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut, which still stands at the Temple of Karnak, describes her as “the one for whom her father Amun established the name (Maat-Ka-Re) upon the Ashed-tree (a tree of eternity) in reward for her excellent monument for her First Jubliee.
The positioning of obelisks followed a regular pattern. Ramses II gave names to the pair of obelisks at Luxor Temple. The eastern obelisk which is still in situ is called Ramses beloved of Amun, while the western one (now in Paris) is called Ramses beloved of Atum.
The Unfinished Obelisk:
The huge Unfinished Obelisk at Aswan provides an opportunity to study the various stages of quarrying granite for the production of obelisks. The Aswan obelisk is a piece of work that failed, not through any fault of the workers, but owing to an unexpected fissure in the rock. It must have been shocking to the Egyptians to abandon it after all the time and trouble they had expended, but today we are grateful for their failure, as it teaches us more about their methods than any monument in Egypt.
The Unfinished Obelisk still lies in its quarry, detached on all but its lower side. If it had been extracted, it would have been 42 meters high with a base of 4.2 meters on each side. The total weight would have been 1200 tons, heavier than any piece of stone ever handled by the ancient Egyptians.
The selection of the proper section of the quarry from which to extract the large obelisk must have presented difficulties. Test shafts were sunk to determine the nature of the rock and to ensure that it was flawless.
The detachment of the two sides of the obelisks was one of the most delicate stages of its removal. Large balls of dolerite were found near the obelisk. The balls were apparently attached to rammers and were used by being stuck vertically downward with great force.
Several thousand men can be imagined arranged about the obelisk in groups of three, two standing, holding and raising the rammer, and the third squatting and directing the blow to its proper place.
Problems plagued the work. A fissure near the base of the Unfinished Obelisk seems to have been discovered early. This caused a reduction in the project height. Other fissures began to appear near the top. The fissure in the middle of the shaft finally caused work to be suspended. After all the long labor, this must have been a great blow not only to the overseers but to the workmen as well.
If the obelisk was finished, it would be removed from the parent rock. Work will begin to raise it from the quarry to an embankment on which it could be dragged down to the Nile. It was suggested this could be done by 6000 men pulling on 40 ropes, each 7.25 inches (18.4 cm) in diameter.
The exact point at which the obelisks arrived at the river is not known. No indication has been found to suggest an obelisk could have been put on its barge. Once the barge was afloat the obelisk’s journey to its destination would start. Such journeys, usually undertaken during the annual flooding of the Nile.
Erection of the obelisk:
A ramp of earth or sand had to be extended from the point of debarkation to the place where the obelisks were to stand. The obelisks were then dragged to the location and the task of erecting them begun. The opinions of engineers, architects, and archaeologists on how this was accomplished vary considerably, and a number of different schemes have been suggested.
The French archaeologist suggests: A chamber would have been built, then filled with sand. A ramp will be settled to drag the obelisk on top of the chamber. The sand would have been taken through a hole in the bottom. The obelisk would then have been slid on the surface of the sand until rested at the angle of 34 degrees. At that point, it would have been pulled up in a vertical position by means of ropes.
Decoration of the obelisk:
The Unfinished obelisk gives no indication of when or how the decoration was done. An unfinished obelisk was found in the quarry of Gebel Simaan on the west bank of the Nile in Aswan provides answers. The obelisk was intended for pharaoh Seti I (1318-1304 BC). Its pyramidion is partly decorated, albeit on only three sides. This demonstrates that in some cases the decoration was begun while the obelisk was still in the quarry. When the decoration would have been finished is uncertain, since the obelisk was abandoned.
After the obelisk was extracted from the rock, it was fastened to a sled, and this sled remained in position until the obelisk had been erected on its pedestal. Thus only three sides were available for decoration at the quarry or in the royal atelier. It is unlikely that the decoration at all four sides would have been delayed until the obelisk was erected, but only then would the final, previously concealed side have been accessible.
While ancient Egyptians were the first people to fashion monuments in the form of obelisks, they seem to have influenced other peoples to produce or acquire such monuments. The Canaanites and the Phoenicians, through their contacts with the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom (2050-1786 BC), came to erect small obelisks. The kings of Kush built somewhat similar monuments for themselves.
The Assyrian king Assurbanipal sacked Thebes. Among the items, he reportedly carried off was two obelisks coated with bronze. In their turn, Roman emperors carried off obelisks to adorn Rome and Constantinople. In the 19th century, large Egyptian obelisks were acquired to adorn Paris, London, and New York.