The secret of the obelisk

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 31 May 2022

Howard Carter,1922
Howard Carter,1922

“June may be busting out all over” — Egypt is in greater rapture.

It is the year of 2022, and a recurring ‘Egyptomania’ is penetrating the world once again as in 1789 with the Napoleonic invasion of this ancient land. Its influence continued through the 19th  and 20th century.

A most fascinating event took place in 1922 when British Egyptologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun. The mania for all things Egyptian reached its peak and was fondly referred to as the Tutankhamun mania.

 The enchantment and appeal has never faded, but that is a story for another day.

This year, 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of this amazing discovery, the golden tomb of king Tut in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

The pharaoh’s story and artefacts have captivated the hearts and minds of people around the world, since the tomb’s discovery.

To say it was the most spectacular event of the century, is a grave understatement.

Interest in Egypt is now heightened by the expected opening of the biggest museum in the world, to house 100,000 treasures from the ancient world, to open its doors later this year.

There is more. The breathtaking deciphering of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-Francois Champollion, took place in 1822, 200 years ago. This gave us the key for understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.  What a year for Egypt.

 Suffice it to say that the international interest in Egypt has suddenly exploded. The world media is practically residing in this ancient land, besides the courthouse in Virginia with Johnny Depp an Amber Heard, of course.  Compare that to the astounding civilsation, culture, and superb architecture that has baffled many a scholar to this day.

Among the myriad achievements is one that seems to get less attention than it deserves. It is the Egyptian obelisk. Named ‘obelisk’ by Greek historian Herodotus, (Gk. for spit), its Egyptian name was ‘tekhenu’, meaning to pierce, the sky.

This sleek and slender monuments adorns many capitals around the world. It has been imitated, replicated, copied and borrowed the world over, but the astonishing architecture started here in Egypt, in the same era as the Great Pyramids of Giza during the 5th and 6th dynasties, (2494-2184 BC).

Technically, building the pyramids has been unraveled and understood, miraculous as that might be, however the obelisk is still a puzzle.

Carved out of granite from the Aswan quarries as one single block of stone, weighing several hundred tons, with a square base, this four-sided, rectangular column gradually tapered to a pointed top reaching the sky, is unparalleled. Carving and decorating it is impressive enough, but raising it from the ground to stand straight and tall, pointing to the heavens, remains an unsolved mystery.

Modern day efforts and trial tests were performed by archaeologists and engineers to replicate the raising of such a massive block, using ancient Egyptian methods, to stand in an upright position, have failed.   

British engineer Mark Whitley spent six years calculating height, weight, position, ropes, human help but finally gave up, finding it too dangerous an experiment. He figured the ancients probably kept trying again and again until they succeeded. What a lesson to learn.

If you have never noticed an obelisk, this tall structure tapered four-sided column with a pointed top, it is time you should.   

Only 23 or 30, of the original obelisks remain. Italy has more obelisks than Egypt —11 of them. Egypt has 5. Others adorn prominent sites in London Paris, Istanbul, UK, the Vatican and Poland.

Do not confuse the Washington monument, a modern day structure to honour George Washington, founder of the nation.

 The Egyptian monument represented a given pharaoh, expressing the fusion of earthly and divine power, a solar symbol of creation and regeneration.

With a square base, the structure gradually tapered high up in a pyramid shape, called pyramidion.

 One could say it was a replica of a pyramid, only taller, more graceful, more slender, a spectacular monument dedicated to the solar gods.

To create this monolithic structure from one single piece of stone is impressive enough. How they got it to its designed spot without today’s modern technology is an unsolved mystery, one of the many mysteries of this astounding civilisation.

An ancient Egyptian monument adorns several world capitals.

It is a bittersweet affair. On the one hand it reminds the world of the greatness and durability of this land; on the other, we realise that they were either stolen, bought or offered as gifts by foreign rulers of Egypt who had little regard for its ancient culture.

As an example of the importance of ancient Egyptian treasures, the two obelisks, standing in front of the Luxor Temple, were offered to King Charles X of France in 1830.

 The journey took six years. A special ship was built to accommodate the load.  Operated by 350 gunmen and sailors — 200,000 people watched at the Place de la Concorde to see the obelisk rise.   

France never went back to pick the second Luxor obelisk.

Adorning the elegant Place de la Concorde, the Egyptian obelisk is the oldest monument in France. It is not French, Roman or Greek.

 Western civilisation originated in Greece or Rome, so they say. Think again.

Greece and Rome invaded Egypt for hundreds of years.  

They learned from Egypt, mother of all civilisation.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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