Unraveling a Mystery: 7 Facts You Should Know About Ancient Egypt’s 1,000-Ton Unfinished Obelisk

Although the pyramids of Egypt are the greatest tourist attraction of Egypt, and despite millions of people travel to Egypt to see them, Egypt has more to offer. From incredible temples, and underground labyrinths, to massive stone pillars of immense size. Statues weighing thousands of tons quarried with extreme precision and lost cities that continue eluding archeologists. It seems that Egypt has it all.

But in addition to its majestic pyramids, which are certainly awe-striking—I find how Egypt’s obelisks are a wonder of their own. Throughout the years, the ancient Egyptians erected obelisks of different sizes. In ancient Egypt, obelisks were of great importance; they placed them in pairs at the entrance in temples and were meant to convey a message of power. Towering, as some of the obelisks were, the gigantic stones resemble pillars reaching towards the sky. In Egypt, the obelisk was a representation of the Sun, specifically their sun god Ra. In later times, around the region of controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten, the obelisk was considered a petrified ray of the sun-disk Aten.

The obelisk in Egypt is also deeply rooted in the Benben, the mound which, according to Egyptian mythology, arose from the primordial waters Nu, and upon which the greater god Atum settled. In pyramid design, the Benben is often regarded as the uppermost part of the monument, also known as the pyramidion. On top of the obelisk, we essentially see a pyramid or pyramidion.

Since the Sun god Ra was one of the primary deities in ancient Egypt, it is thought that both the obelisk and the pyramid are deeply connected to the Sunrise and sunset. In fact, both structures, albeit different in size, may have been used by the ancient Egyptians to convey a message deeply rooted in the Sun’s existence and movement across the sky. The ancients referred to them as tekhenu, which essentially translates into “piercing the sky.” Had the unfinished obelisk been completed, its tremendous size would certainly give off the impression as it was piercing the sky.

A 1904 stereograph of the obelisk, before sand was cleared away. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A 1904 stereograph of the obelisk, before the sand, was cleared away. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Many obelisks were erected in ancient Egypt, and a great number of them remain standing. However, in antiquity, several obelisks were taken from Egypt and transported to different parts of t world. Rome, for example, is home to the most number obelisks in the world, and eight of these were taken from Egypt. Rome is also home to the latest standing ancient Egypt obelisk in the world, which has an estimated weight of around 455 tons. It was commissioned by Thutmose II and transported to Rome via special cargo ships from the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt.

But there are far larger obelisks in Egypt. And perhaps no one rock speaks of the supermassive volumes that the ancient Egyptians quarried as the unfinished obelisks in Aswan.

The Unfinished Obelisk would have been the most majestic obelisk ever erected and was likely planned to be placed at the temple of Karnak. It is perhaps the greatest ancient stone wonder of the world, not only because of its height, weight, but because it bears evidence of long-lost stone quarrying techniques. O its surface, we still see the marks that the workers left behind thousands of years ago, with ochre-colored lines still visible from where they were working.

The unfinished obelisk offers an unprecedented view into the ancient Egyptian stone quarrying techniques and methods by which many of its largest stones were quarried in ancient times. The unfinished obelisk is a true wonder.

Egyptologists believe that it was commissioned by Queen Hatshepsut, and meant to stand at Karnak. The obelisk measures just over 43 meters in length and has an estimated weight between 1,100 and 1,200 tons, which would equalize to around 200 African elephants. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an average African elephant weighs about 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms), or around 5 tons.

Like many other obelisks and rocks, the unfinished obelisk was quarried directly out of the bedrock. But around halfway through the entire process, an unfortunate crack appeared on the granite, and the project was eventually abandoned, as the builders saw no means by which they could salvage the piece. This means that the massive rock is still attached to the bedrock below.

As with other similar structures, obelisks gradually reached their towering size. Through studies of various sites, Egyptologists have concluded that some of the most ancient Obelisks of Egypt were no taller than 3 meters, weighing a few tons. But just as with the pyramids, the ancients enlarged them over time, creating towering, sky-piercing monuments that left a deep mark in history.

Although we’ve learned much about Egyptian Obelisks, and obelisks in general, there are certain details that have not been answered. One of the biggest mysteries seems to be how these monuments were raised after they were successfully carved and shaped. Efforts to replicate the process and raise multi-ton obelisks have failed in modern-times, with experts failing to understand how this was possible thousands of years ago.

The Unfinished Obelisk: what you should know

  • The unfinished obelisk at Aswan is the largest known of its kind and was carved from the very quarries where some of the stones used in the construction of the pyramids were obtained.
  • The unfinished obelisk is a true monster obelisk; it’s up to 30 percent larger than any other ancient Egyptian Obelisk created in ancient Egyptian times.
  • Although it was perhaps one of the most daring obelisks envisioned in ancient Egypt, the massive monument was never actually finished. Carved directly from the underlying bedrock, around halfway during quarrying, the stone cracked and the project was abandoned after the works saw no methods by which the stone could be saved.
  • The unfinished obelisk was ordered by “the Queen, who would be Pharaohs; Hatchepsut, a ruler of ancient Egypt’s eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt.
  • The unfinished obelisk is one of the most unique obelisks in the world, mostly due to its tremendous size. Had it been successfully quarried and raised, it would have stood 42 meters tall, making it one of the tallest ever made.
  • Its weight was “out of this world.” Experts have estimated that the unfinished obelisk weighs between 1,100 and 2,000 tons, which is comparable to the weight of around 200 elephants.
  • Its importance resides not only in its incredible size but in the fact that the massive stone offers unpreceded insight into the stone-quarrying skills of ancient Egyptians. Many tool marks on its surface exist to this date, which tells us important details on how the ancients quarried massive stones. Egyptologists estimate that the ancients used tools made of metal, such as copper, and stone to carve the obelisk. Evidence of the use of diorite was found at the site. Diorite—a kind of volcanic rock—may have been used to loosen the stone holes that had been made with other tools.

The largest ancient Egyptian obelisk, although never finished, is still a wonder of its own. It tells us that more than 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptian engineers were developed to such an extent that they moved and raised with apparent ease, massive stones weighing more than 1,000 tons. Although the process of quarrying and transporting the obelisk is well-documented thanks to numerous drawing sand inscriptions, there are no specific mentions that tell us how the obelisk was raised to be placed in its designated position.

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