Ancient Egyptians and Theories of Erecting Obelisks

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Ancient Egyptians built impressive structures, including the pyramids and the obelisks. The obelisks were more difficult to put in position and maybe even to build. Erecting obelisks without engines seems to be the impossible that ancient Egyptians made possible.

The picture shows obelisks in Luxor, Egypt.
Erecting obelisks was an extremely difficult task, and putting them in the right position and angle needed unlimited attention as nothing holds them but their weight. (Image: Bist/Shutterstock)

Obelisks in ancient Egypt were built from pink granite and all quarried from Aswan. The workers used no chisels but dolerite balls, which were harder than granite. Carrying them was also difficult as they had to use logs as rollers and bring them next to the Nile for transport.

Hatshepsut shows on her temple how she had her two giant obelisks transported: 27 boats for the obelisks with three pilot boats. The boats always went with the stream, and that made it easier. However, there was no stream to help in erecting the obelisks once they arrived in Thebes, the Delta, or wherever the destination was.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

How were the Obelisks Erected?

Egyptians had no architectural papyri. Unfortunately, there are no records on how the pyramids, tombs, temples, and obelisks were built. Thus, everything about erecting obelisks is at the level of theory. The best one is the ramp theory.

They would build a ramp, a two-sided one that goes up and then down, next to the place they wanted to erect the obelisk. They would put the obelisk next to the base, lying on its side on the ramp. The angle might be 45 degrees at this point. Next, they would tie ropes to the top of the obelisk and pull it until erect.

Egyptians did not use draft animals even for such heavy work. They preferred human attention and understanding. Is this theory possible in practice?

Learn more about Sneferu, the pyramid builder.

The Ramp Theory in Practice

The unfinished obelisk at stone quarries of Aswan, Egypt.
The most logical theory is that they used a two-sided ramp to first put the obelisk in a better angle, and then pull it up. (Image: emel82/Shutterstock)

An Egyptologist called Mark Lehner tried, for a TV show, to erect an obelisk using the steps described in the theory. The obelisk he used in the TV show was significantly smaller than a big Egyptian one, and he had 100 men pulling it. The show had a deadline, and Lehner and his crew could not manage to get the obelisk standing.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptians used more men and had more time to do the same thing. The theory is still the most probable one, even though its execution did not work in one TV show. The ancient Egyptians not only built and erected the obelisks, but they also moved them around by means other than the Nile.

Erecting obelisks had other difficulties, too. They are not pinned to the ground with anything but their weight! This means an obelisk must be erected at just the right angle and position, otherwise it could fall down, like the ones in Rome. Some Egyptian obelisks did fall as well, but some survived earthquakes and tremors and still stand strong today.

Learn more about the beginning of the New Kingdom-the fabulous XVIIIth Dynasty.

Transferring Obelisks in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian obelisks are seen in different countries today. For example, Roman Emperor Augustus moved two in 10 B.C. to Alexandria, where they stood in front of Caesarion, a temple for Julius Caesar. Rome now has 13 obelisks that were used for their circus, the round area where horses or chariots would race. Many of these obelisks fell, but in the 16th century, they were dug out again. Re-erecting them was so difficult they had to run an architecture contest for it. Finally, they used winches pulled by many men.

In the 1830s, France got the Obelisk de Luxor as a goodwill gesture from Mohamed Ali Pasha. Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphs, told the French to get the left one at Luxor as it had no cracks. Today it is in Place de la Concorde, where it was erected back then.

London’s obelisk was not as easy. In 1877, they got the fallen obelisk in Alexandria, which was easier to carry at first. Waynman Dixon, the British engineer, designed a caisson like a giant cigar tube. As they were carrying it toward London, a storm broke the obelisk free of the tube, six men were killed, and it was lost in the sea. The next day, another ship found it and claimed it. The British government simply told the other ship to keep the obelisk, but as they had no interest and did not know what to do with it, they just got a recovery fee and gave it back. Today it is on the banks of Thames.

In all the other destinations, erecting obelisks was a huge problem, many centuries after the Egyptians had done it with almost no tools. It is fair to say they were even more difficult than the pyramids to build.

Common Questions about Theories of Erecting Obelisks

Q: How did Egyptians erect obelisks?

There is no solid evidence on how Egyptians erected obelisks, but a probable theory is that they used a ramp next to the place where they wanted the obelisk to stand. Next, they put the obelisk inside and would pull it up with numerous ropes attached to the top.

Q: What was the purpose of obelisks?

Erecting obelisks in ancient Egypt was religiously important since they honored gods. Pharaohs took pride in the number of obelisks that they had erected.

Q: Did Egyptians use animals for erecting obelisks?

Most probably, no. Erecting obelisks was a delicate job and had to be done meticulously. Animals cannot work as carefully as they should, and they could have endangered the obelisk.

Q: Did the Romans move obelisks?

Yes. Romans went to Egypt and got some obelisks to transport to Rome. After the long and exhausting journey with no steam engine, they began erecting the obelisks. However, they were not as successful as Egyptians, and many of their obelisks fell.

Keep Reading
Religious Order of Ancient Egypt
Social Life in the Ancient Egyptian Society
Marriage in Ancient Egypt: Egyptian Family System