Erecting an Obelisk: A Monument of Egyptian Grandeur

From the lecture series: The History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, PhD, Long Island University

One of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s greatest achievements was the obelisks that she had quarried and erected at Karnak Temple. Consider how great an achievement it was in the ancient world. In some ways erecting an obelisk was harder than building a pyramid.

Image showing the two obelisk's in temple of Karnak, Egypt.
The last two standing obelisks in Karnak Temple, Egypt. (Image: By Bist/Shutterstock)

Before Erecting an Obelisk—Origins of the Structure

First, the philology of the word itself holds great importance. The ancient Egyptians called obelisks tekenu, but the modern Arabs call it masalla, “a needle”, and where we get “Cleopatra’s Needle.” Sometimes obelisks are called that. But our word “obelisk” comes from Greek. When the Greeks came into Egypt and saw these tall, pointed structures, they called them “obelisks,” which means a “meat skewer,” like for shish kabob. That’s what “obelisk” means in Greek, hence where we get the word.

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

In the Old Kingdom, there was a point at which a stone, a tall thin stone, was worshipped, called a ben-ben. We’re not exactly sure what it was. This is probably the origin of the obelisk, and the ben-ben then evolved into an obelisk. Obelisks, associated with the sun, were present in their sun temples. Also, if you think about it, every obelisk has a pyramid on top—a nice piece of symbolism.

Heliopolis—City of Obelisks

Photo of the last obelisk from Heliopolis. Now within Al-Masalla in Al-Matariyyah, Cairo
Al-Masalla obelisk, the last obelisk from Heliopolis. (Image: By Didia (David Schmid)/Public Domain)

The city that had more obelisks than any other in Egypt was Heliopolis, which is Greek for “sun city.”

Heliopolis currently has only one obelisk. Karnak Temple in Thebes, which grew to be the greatest temple in the history of the world, had a dozen. Two were erected by Tuthmosis I, the father of Hatshepsut. Under her reign, Hatshepsut ordered four constructed, and her nephew, Tuthmosis III, had six. Only two now stand in Karnak, one belonging to Hatshepsut, and the other is her father’s, Tuthmosis I.

What’s interesting is Tuthmosis III—Hatshepsut’s nephew and successor—had an official policy to erase any trace of her name. He went to Deir el Bahri and carved her name out of all the places he could find.

Yet Hatshepsut remained. She had an obelisk standing in Karnak Temple that was so large it couldn’t be taken down without destroying other buildings. To get around this, Tuthmosis had walled it in. Today, when you go to Karnak Temple, you can see the two obelisks that are still standing. One is Hatshepsut’s father’s, and the second is walled up— Hatshepsut’s obelisk.

Learn more about how quarrying, transporting, and erecting an obelisk is an even greater engineering feat than the building of a pyramid

Hatshepsut’s Pride and the Unlucky Sons of Ramses II

Portrait of Queen Hatshepsut inside the sanctuary. Temple of Hatshepsut.Luxor, Egypt.
Queen Hatshepsut (Image: By Maciek67/Shutterstock)

From ancient sources, it may be safe to say that Hatshepsut was most proud of the obelisks. She talked about having quarried two obelisks in seven months, transported them on a single barge, and then erected them at Karnak Temple.

On the base of her obelisk, she talks about the obelisks. The carving reads, “I erected them for my father Amun. They could be seen from the other side of the Nile, their tips gleaming in electrum.” Electrum was a mixture of gold and silver. So the tip, the pyramid part, was gold-plated, so to speak.

Hatshepsut used her obelisks as a form of propaganda, but you also gain insight. She wasn’t trying to pass herself off as a man. She calls herself the female Horus—female falcon—meaning she’s the king, but she’s female.

Image showing the obelisks at the entrance to Luxor temple.
The entrance to Luxor Temple showing the Obelisk of Ramses II. (Image: By agsaz/Shutterstock)

When Ramses’s obelisk was being erected, he had one of his sons tied to the top of it so the workmen would be doubly careful in erecting the obelisk.

Pharaoh Ramses II had more than a dozen obelisks. He had small ones in a city in the Delta, but he also erected two huge ones at Luxor Temple. One is still standing. There’s a story told by a later historian that says that when Ramses’s obelisk was being erected, he had one of his sons tied to the top of it so the workmen would be doubly careful in erecting the obelisk. As he had 50 sons, to Rameses, if he lost one, it wasn’t terrible. Ramses had constructed quite a few obelisks.

Learn more about how Queen Hatshepsut became King of Upper and Lower Egypt

How Do You Make an Obelisk?

Photograph of the unfinished obelisk of Aswan
The massive unfinished Obelisk at Aswan Quarry. (Image: By Olaf Tausch/Public Domain)

The quarrying, construction, and erecting of an obelisk is a fascinating topic. First, what’s the material? Pink granite. All obelisks come from the same quarry at Aswan. This was the major site of pink granite. We even call it Aswan granite. Granite was used in obelisk construction, especially large structures, because it is a stone material with an internal structural strength that can support its own weight.

When you pivot it, you don’t want it just to break like a piece of macaroni would. If you made it too long it would break, so it has to be granite. All the obelisks seen in Egypt are of granite from the same quarry. It’s hard to give a sense of just how big they are. There is an unfinished obelisk in the quarry at Aswan, weighing more than 1,000 tons. It’s as big as two jumbo jets. There were no mechanical devices or hydraulic jacks to move them.

Learn more about the basic elements and practices ancient Egyptian magic

Quarrying an Obelisk

Image of a dolorite ball used to quarry an obelisk
A dolerite ball (inside the square) used to quarry an obelisk from the Aswan granite (click to enlarge). (Image: By Steven C. Price – Own work/Public Domain)

To quarry the stone, they didn’t do it with chisels. They pounded it out with a stone even harder than Aswan granite: Dolerite. Now, this was a job that nobody wanted. It was probably used as punishment for prisoners.

Say you picked the piece of stone. A stonemason comes, the expert, and he chooses a site in the quarry that looks like it’s flaw-free. You’re not going to have any cracks. He probably marks it out in black ink where the obelisk is going to be and marks it out on the wall.

There’s no question about it, you’re going to get an awful lot of dust in your lungs, just breathing in pink granite dust.

Then you take your prisoners and you set them to work pounding out the obelisk. They would take their dolerite ball and just keep dropping it, boom, boom, boom, boom. Dropping it, picking it up. It would kind of bounce off the obelisk, and they would do this all day long. We can tell by the grooves in the unfinished obelisk that these workers were shoulder to shoulder, just pounding. There’s no question about it, you’re going to get an awful lot of dust in your lungs, simply breathing in pink granite dust. But that’s how they would quarry an obelisk—just pounding and pounding. It’s remarkable. There are no chisel marks on the unfinished obelisk.

It’s a marvel to look at. Often you learn more about an unfinished object than a finished one. You can see how it was built; it’s left in the middle and there are no chisel marks. What they must have done is, after they pounded it free on a few sides, you have to free it on the bottom. How do you get the thing free on the bottom?

That’s where the Egyptians had to dig caverns. They probably took these dolerite balls and then threw them against the granite, by horizontally dropping it against the side, chiseling out caverns. You can imagine the miner, so to speak, the guys working on the obelisk, going into a cavern underneath the obelisk. Once you have caverns carved out underneath the obelisk, you then kind of shore it up in a couple of places and carve the rest out. It’s an amazing job.

Learn more about Amenhotep III, “The Sun King and the XVIIIth Dynasty

Moving an Obelisk

Hatshepsut says she did two of them in seven months—erecting them, carving them, transporting them. Incredible. Now, how do you move it? They were pulled on rollers. They probably had hundreds of logs serving as rollers, and eventually, they would get the obelisk onto a roller and with ropes, roll it along. The rollers would move. Maybe you put the log in front as you’re using up the logs, keep moving them in the front, moving your obelisk. They’d haul it down to the banks of the Nile. Now, imagine the obelisk lying on its side on the bank parallel to the Nile.

What they next did was to carve a canal under the obelisk, according to what an ancient historian says. We have no record from the Egyptians about how they erected obelisks.

Image showing a theory on how an obelisk was transported
(Image: Zakaria Rabia (Own work)/Public Domain)
  1. Imagine the obelisk is kind of like a bridge across the canal. It’s going at right angles to the canal that’s been dug.
  2. Then you bring in a barge in this canal under the obelisk. The barge is loaded with blocks of granite, maybe equal to the obelisk in weight, and you start removing the blocks of granite from the barge. The barge begins to rise underneath the obelisk until finally, you get the obelisk floating on the barge.
  3. The obelisk is then pivoted onto the barge.
  4. You’re ready for transport.

Now, Hatshepsut, on her temple, shows the transportation of two of the obelisks on one barge. They’re end to end, towed by 27 boats for Hatshepsut’s two obelisks, with three pilot boats. One of the things that made this all possible is that the granite quarry is in the south in Aswan.

When you’re floating the obelisk, it’s going with the current, north to the worksite in Thebes, to the Delta, wherever it’s going. It’s much easier to move your obelisk with the current than against it. So that’s how obelisks were probably transported to the site.

Learn more about the role of mythology, religion, and philosophy in ancient Egyptian thought

Erecting an Obelisk

The hardest part is erecting an obelisk. It bothers egyptologists a lot that the Egyptians didn’t have any architectural papyri. We have no record of how they built pyramids, nor any instructions on how to build a temple or a tomb. How did they erect an obelisk? There are a couple of theories. The best of them is a ramp theory.

diagram showing how an obelisk was raised using ramps and ropes
(Image: By Olaf Tausch/Public Domain)
  1. You build a ramp right next to the site where you want the obelisk to be erected, and the ramp is, in a sense, a double-sided ramp. You can have it going up, and then you can have it going down.
  2. You pull your obelisk up the ramp.
  3. You pivot it using people pulling on both sides so you can control it.
  4. You slide it down onto its base where you want it to be erected. So the obelisk is lying on its side on a ramp. Its edge is on the base, but it’s still at maybe a 45-degree angle or something like that. It’s not upright yet.
  5. You pull it upright.

Although this is a theory, we are fairly certain that this was, in fact, how an obelisk was erected.

Common Questions About the Egyptian Obelisk

Q: What did the Egyptian obelisk symbolize?

The Egyptian obelisk was a symbol of a ray of petrified sunlight, thought to embody the sun god Ra.

Q: How many Egyptian obelisks were created?

There were probably more, but there are 21 Egyptian obelisks left in the world with only five still in Egypt.

Q: Where were Egyptian obelisks used?

The Egyptians usually erected Egyptian obelisks in pairs at the doors of temples.

Q: How were Egyptian obelisks raised?

While there are many theories, the most reasonable and widely believed theory for how the Egyptian obelisks are thought to have been raised is by slaves pulling the obelisk up a ramp made of dirt with rope, until the bottom came down the flat end of the ramp into a prepared hole in the ground and then pulling it upright. 

This article was updated on December 29, 2020

Keep Reading
Learn How To Write Your Name In Hieroglyphics
The Mask of Tutankhamun
Egypt and the Gift of the Nile

Images Courtesy of: