Erecting an Obelisk: A Monument of Egyptian Grandeur

From the lecture series: The History of Ancient Egypt

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

One of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s greatest achievements were the obelisks that she had quarried and erected at Karnak Temple. Let’s talk about just what a great achievement it was—how difficult it was to quarry an obelisk and to erect it. 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 Obelisk’s in Karnak Temple, Egypt. (Image: By Bist/Shutterstock)

Before Erecting an Obelisk—Origins of the Structure

First, something about the word—a little philology. The ancient Egyptians called obelisks tekenu. That was the ancient Egyptian word. But the Arabs, the modern Arabs, call it “masalla,” “a needle.” That’s where we get “Cleopatra’s Needle.” Sometimes obelisks are called that. But the real word, our word “obelisk,” comes from the Greek. When the Greeks came into Egypt and saw these tall, pointy things, they called them “obelisks,” which means a “meat skewer,” like for shish kabob. You know, that’s what you put meat on. That’s what “obelisk” means in Greek, so that’s 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 early days, the Old Kingdom, and 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. The ben-ben evolves into an obelisk. Obelisks were always associated with the sun, and sun temples had obelisks. Also, if you think about it, every obelisk has a pyramid on top. So there’s a kind of nice little symbolism there.

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.” “Helio” means “sun”; “opolis” means “city.” That’s the Biblical On, the On of the Bible. It had more obelisks than any other city. There’s only one left now, only one. Let me tell you where the obelisks are because they’ve moved quite a bit.

Heliopolis has only one left. Karnak Temple in Thebes, which grew to be the greatest temple in the history of the world had a dozen. There were two that Tuthmosis I erected. He was Hatshepsut’s father. Hatshepsut had four, and her nephew, Tuthmosis III, had six. But there are only two standing now in Karnak, only two. One is Hatshepsut’s, and one is her father’s, Tuthmosis I. Only two obelisks.

You know what’s interesting? 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.

Well, she had an obelisk standing in Karnak Temple that was so big you couldn’t take it down—you’d hit other buildings. So he walled it in. He built a wall all the way up, walling in Hatshepsut’s obelisk. Today, when you go to Karnak Temple, you can see the two obelisks that are still standing. One is Hatshepsut’s father’s, and then there’s one that’s kind of walled in pretty much. That’s one of Hatshepsut’s obelisks.

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)

As I said, I think she was really 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, and she says, “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.

I mean, she was really quite proud. You know, Hatshepsut used her obelisks as kind of propaganda, but you also get insight. She wasn’t trying to pass herself off as a man. She calls herself the female Horus, the female falcon, meaning she’s the king but she’s female.

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.

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)

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—and, by the way, we have no records of how they were erected. I’ll talk about that in a minute—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. Well, he had 50 sons, so I guess if he lost one it wasn’t terrible. Anyway, Ramses had quite a few obelisks.

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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)

What I’d like to talk about now is how to quarry and erect an obelisk. 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. The reason you need granite is, if you’re going to do a really big obelisk, you need a stone with 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 you see in Egypt are granite from the same quarry. It’s hard to give you a feeling of just how big they are. There is an unfinished obelisk in the quarry at Aswan. It weighs more then 1,000 tons. It’s as big as two jumbo jets. Incredible. No mechanical devices—you know, no hydraulic jacks to move these things.

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Quarrying an Obelisk

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

But let me tell you how they quarried it. They didn’t do it with chisels. They pounded it out with a stone that’s even harder than Aswan granite, dolerite. Now, this was a job that nobody wanted. I’m quite sure of it. 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, no flaws. You’re not going to have any cracks. And he probably marks it out in a black ink where the obelisk is going to be. He 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 it 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. I’ve tried these things. It would bounce off the obelisk, and they would do that all day long. We can tell by the grooves in the unfinished obelisk that these guys were shoulder to shoulder, just pounding, and there’s no question about it, you’re going to get an awful lot of dust in your lungs, just breathing it 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. You know, I love unfinished things, as I said, because you learn more about an unfinished object than a finished one. You see how it was built. It’s left in the middle. There are no chisel marks, as I said. 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 they had to dig caverns. They probably took these dolerite balls and then threw it against the thing, kept kind of horizontally dropping it against the side, chiseling out caverns. So you can imagine the miner, so to speak, the guys working on the obelisk, going into a cavern underneath the obelisk. So then you’ve got little caverns carved out underneath the obelisk, and then you kind of shore it up maybe in a couple of places and carve the rest out. I mean, it’s an amazing job.

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Moving an Obelisk

And Hatshepsut says she did two of them in seven months—erecting them, carving them, transporting them—all in seven months. Incredible. Now, how do you move it? They were pulled on rollers. They probably had lots 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. And they’d move it down to the side of the Nile, 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—and this is what an ancient historian says. We have no record of the Egyptians about how they erected obelisks—they next dug a canal under the obelisk.

Image showing a theory on how an obelisk was transported
(Image: Zakaria Rabia (Own work)/Public Domain)
  1. So 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. So the barge is starting to rise up underneath the obelisk until finally you get the obelisk floating on the barge.
  3. Then you pivot it onto the barge.
  4. You’re ready for transport.

Now, Hatshepsut, on her temple, if you’ll remember, shows the transportation of two of the obelisks on one barge. They’re end to end, and there were boats towing them: 27 boats for Hatshepsut’s two obelisks, with three pilot boats. I think one of the things that makes this all possible is that the granite quarry is in the south. It’s in Aswan.

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

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Erecting an Obelisk

Now for the hard part—erecting an obelisk. You know, it bothers us a lot that the Egyptians didn’t have any architectural papyri. We have no record of building pyramids, how they built pyramids. We don’t have any instructions on how to build a temple or a tomb. How did they erect an obelisk? There are a couple of theories. I’ll tell you the best that I think is good. It’s 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 really, 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 side so you can really 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: Did exactly 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 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 12/14/2019

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