“How did they do it?” is a common question posed by millions of visitors in Egypt. It is asked about the building of the pyramids, the engineering feats achieved in many tombs and monuments, the development of their many forms of art and culture, the scientific and medical discoveries they made, and of the making and raising of obelisks. Not all of those questions have answers. The good news is that one of those questions can actually be answered by paying a visit to the “unfinished obelisk” site near modern-day Aswan.
EXPLAINING THE UNFINISHED PART OF THE UNFINISHED OBELISK
Just why is the obelisk unfinished? There is one basic answer to the question – it cracked. Yet, experts tend to agree that it cracked not because of any failure on the part of the artisan’s carving it from the native granite of the Aswan area. Instead, as one architectural expert wrote of the unfinished obelisk “Perhaps they got a little greedy with their capabilities, as it would have been 1/3 larger than any previously erected obelisk had the work gone to completion. Instead, a huge crack appeared as it was being freed from the bedrock, causing it to lay abandoned.”
Yet, it is entirely possible that it broke due to the method of quarrying used, and with the unprecedented size and scale of the unfinished obelisk, it would not be surprising if typical procedures failed. After all, it was going to stand at more than 135 feet in height and weigh more than 1200 tons when done. Carving it, transporting it and erecting it into position would have been an amazing set of accomplishments.
From above, it seems complete, yet the entire bottom of the obelisk (the entire length of the structure) is still part of the native bedrock.
WHO COMMISSIONED THE UNFINISHED OBELISK?
And as interesting as the unfinished obelisk is on its own, it is also of interest to most travelers to learn who may have ordered such an epic monument. It is believed to have been commissioned by one of the few female pharaohs. Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1508 to 1458 BCE (and who’s amazing mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor) seems to have ordered the obelisk’s creation to honor her 16th year of rule.
Others are unsure if that is the case and feel it may have been commissioned by Hatshepsut’s coregent (her stepson) Thutmose III. Known as the “Napoleon of Ancient Egypt” he expanded his empire through at least 17 campaigns, and conquered many lands outside of Egypt’s traditional borders. It is thought that the monumentally large unfinished obelisk was intended to stand in complement to another obelisk at Karnak (now located at the Lateran Palace in Rome) that remains the largest in the world at more than 120 feet in height.
Either way, it was never freed from its native bedrock and serves today as one of the most intriguing “open air” museums for those eager to learn as much as possible about this area of Ancient Egyptian engineering.
TOURING THE UNFINISHED OBELISK
As most travelers might imagine, a visit to the unfinished obelisk is a popular choice. This is in order to see and touch (you can even walk on the prone obelisk) this ancient marvel, but the site is not limited to the incomplete monument alone. It also allows a unique insight into the processes used, the tools, and the methods that would have been used to eventually lift it from the stone in order to transport it to its final destination.
As that same architectural expert said, “One of the more interesting aspects of the Unfinished Obelisk is that it allows us to see just how they would have liberated the mammoth structure from the bedrock had it not cracked. It sounds unbelievable, but wet wood was the answer.” Visitors to the site can see the carvings done around the perimeter of the obelisk, shaped as oblong wedges, they would have been filled with sun dried wood wedges that would continually be wet and dried. The processes of expansion and contraction would have been used to finally free the obelisk.
Smoothing it was another process, and at the unfinished obelisk site, travelers can see the sort of dolerite balls used to accomplish this goal. One of the only stones harder than granite available to Ancient Egyptians, they stones were shaped as rough balls and would be used to pound and flatten imperfections in the stone. Visitors see these stones scattered around the area, demonstrating how they were a common tool in making smooth and impressive obelisks.
PAYING A VISIT
The site is home to more than just the one obelisk, and miniature obelisks were also found on the same premises, so give yourself time to explore the entire site. As you make plans to visit the site of the unfinished obelisk, you should know a few key issues. The first is that it is the northern area of the quarries (close to the famous Fatimid Cemetery) in southern Aswan. There is an entry fee to gain access to the site, and it takes at least one hour to get the most out of a visit.
You will have to hike up the hill to reach the actual setting, and there are wooden steps (in addition to native granite steps) to make the climb easier. There is a single path in, and a different path to exit. Because Aswan can be very hot at any time of the year, be sure you bring water, wear a hat and sunglasses, sun block and loose and protective clothing. Good shoes are essential for the walking and exploring.
To date, less than 30 obelisks have been found in Egypt (erected and fallen). Sadly, only eight of them remain in Egypt. Apart from the wonderful, incomplete obelisk there are giant obelisks at Karnak Temple (three are on the site including one by Tuthmosis I, one by Seti II and a fallen obelisk by Hatshepsut). There are two at Luxor (both by Ramses II), one at Heliopolis (by Senusret I), one at Gazira Ilsand (near Cairo) and raised by Ramses II, and one near the Cairo Airport which was also raised by Ramses II.
Obelisks are a fascinating form of monumental art and something the Ancient Egyptians perfected. How they accomplished it all remains a bit of a mystery, but at the incomplete obelisk site near Aswan, you can find a few answers!