How Were the Obelisks Built in Ancient Egypt?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

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

Ancient Egyptians did not only build tombs and pyramids; they also erected obelisks. Pyramids and tombs needed architects and willing workers, but the obelisks were a different story. Although they look easy to build, obelisks involve difficulties that are not apparent at first sight. Read on to find out why Hatshepsut was so proud of building two in seven months.

Ancient Egyptian Temple Complex at Luxor, Egypt.
The obelisks were an important part of the ancient Egyptian world as they were erected in honor of the gods. (Image: Robirensi/Shutterstock)

Obelisks were an inseparable part of ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, had two quarried and erected at Karnak Temple in seven months, and she took great pride in that achievement. But where did the obelisks and their importance come from?

The Origin of Obelisks

Philologically, “obelisk” comes from Greek, meaning “meat skewer”. The ancient Egyptian name for it was tekenu, and in modern Arabic, it is masalla, i.e., “a needle”. This is why “Cleopatra’s Needle” is called so.

The origin of building such a structure is religious. In the Old Kingdom, a tall and thin stone called ben-ben was worshipped. Eventually, ben-ben evolved into obelisks. All sun temples had obelisks since they were always associated with the sun, and had a small symbolic pyramid on top. Many of them were built in Heliopolis, the sun city.

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

Location of the Obelisks

Heliopolis used to have the highest number of obelisks until many of them fell down, and many were relocated. Today, only one is left in the city. Karnak Temple in Thebes used to have 12 obelisks, Tuthmosis I had erected two, Hatshepsut had four, and Tuthmosis III had six. Out of all these obelisks, only two remain: Hatshepsut’s and her father’s, Tuthmosis I.

Tuthmosis III tried to erase all signs of Hatshepsut and even had her name carved out from Deir el Bahri. However, he could not do anything to the obelisk as it was too big to tear down. Still, he did not want her obelisk around and decided to build a wall around it.

Hatshepsut’s Obelisks

Hatshepsut took great pride in her obelisks, so much so, that she wrote it in her tomb. How were her obelisks built? She had them quarried from scratch, transported them through the Nile, and erected them for Amun at Karnak Temple all in seven months. She wrote about how they can be “seen from the other side of the Nile, their tips gleaming in electrum.” Electrum was a mixture of gold and silver.

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Ramses II and His Obelisks

Ramses II had over a dozen obelisks in Delta and Luxor Temple. One of the two huge ones in Luxor is still standing. Legend has it that when the obelisks were being erected, Ramses had one of his 50 sons tied to the top of one, so the workmen would be doubly careful in erecting the obelisk.

But what were the obelisks made of, and how were they erected?

How Were the Obelisks Built?

All Egyptian obelisks are made from pink granite, coming from the same quarry at Aswan. Granite is a stone with internal structural strength and can support its own weight. Thus, it would not break when quarrying and erecting.

The unfinished obelisk at Aswan weighs over 1000 tons and shows how obelisks were made. The workers used a harder stone, dolerite, to pound out the granite. Since it was a daunting task, probably prisoners had to do it after the professional stonemason chose and marked the site for quarrying the obelisk.

Obelisk in Karnak, Luxor, Egypt.
Building obelisks was not at all an easy task since quarrying them was time-consuming and very difficult with dolerite balls. (Image: Marcin Sylwia Ciesielski/Shutterstock)

The workers had to take a ball of dolerite and drop it an infinite number of times until the obelisk was bounced off. The grooves in the unfinished obelisk show that the workers stood shoulder to shoulder, picked up, and dropped the dolerite ball all day long while breathing in a lot of granite dust.

No chisels were used, and the workers had to carve caverns around the obelisk to fully quarry it. After pounding it free on a few sides, they kept dropping the dolerite balls horizontally until they went into a cavern underneath the obelisk.

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How Were the Obelisks Moved?

Egyptians used many logs as rollers to pull the obelisks with ropes. They pulled the obelisk next to the Nile, parallel to it. Then they would dig a canal under the obelisk and insert a barge full of granite blocks underneath, in the canal. Next, the blocks would be removed until the barge rose up and lifted the obelisk. The workers would then pivot it onto the barge for transport.

Common Questions about How Were the Obelisks Built in Ancient Egypt

Q: How was an obelisk built?

Egyptologists spent a long time discovering how the obelisks were built. They found out that obelisks were built from pink granite and were carved using harder stones.

Q: What is the origin of the obelisks?

The origin of obelisks dates back to the Old Kingdom of Egypt. They were worshiped back then and always associated with the sun.

Q: How were Hatshepsut’s obelisks built?

She had them quarried from scratch, transported them through the Nile, and erected them for Amun at Karnak Temple all in seven months.

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