The sun sets on a
hard-working crew during the filming of "Obelisk."
Coughing Up an Obelisk
by Peter Tyson
March 4, 1999
When I answered the phone, there was silence on the other end of the line, then
a fit of coughing.
The raspy voice broke into another round of dry hacking. In the background, I
could hear the blast of car horns.
"You need some information."
It might have been Deep Throat in a scene from All the President's Men,
but within moments I realized it was Julia Cort, a producer who sits two doors
down from me at NOVA. She was ringing up on her cell phone with an update on
"Obelisk II," the obelisk-raising project and accompanying film that she is
directing—at that moment from the backseat of a hired car creeping through the
streets of Cairo.
Julia didn't have to tell me how involved an affair raising an obelisk can be.
Particularly when the raisers plan to apply, to the extent possible, only tools
and techniques the Egyptian pharaohs who pioneered the form may have used. I
had seen "Obelisk," the NOVA film that documented a first, unsuccessful effort
to erect a monolith. I knew of the months of preparation that had gone into
this second attempt: drawing up plans at the London-based engineering firm of
Whitby Bird & Partners; quarrying a new, 66-foot slab of granite from a
quarry south of Aswan; building a wooden barge in Alexandria to test theories of
obelisk river transport; arranging a film crew to shoot the attempt; and so on.
I had even done my part, tearing around Egypt for a week in January to shoot a
series of 360° images (see Explore Ancient Egypt).
What I wanted now was that update. I hadn't spoken to Julia since she left for
Egypt ten days ago, and I'm leaving tonight to join her in Cairo. Between bouts
of that dry cough and pauses while she conferred with archaeologist Mark
Lehner and associate producer Mary Brockmyre, Julia gave me the low-down.
It seems the 66-footer broke in half during quarrying, so we now have two 33-foot
rocks. But they will be backups. Hamada Rashwan, king of the quarrymen, had already
had his men carve out a 43-foot replacement. It took 16 hours to load this new
contender onto a flatbed that would transport it the 130 miles to Aswan from
the quarries at El Allaqi, and once aboard, its tremendous weight—in the
tens of tons—caused several of the truck's tires to blow out. So Rashwan
had it trimmed down to about 35 feet. This rough megalith is now on its way
to Aswan, where a team of stonemasons will work round the clock to shape
it into a smooth-sided monolith.
Hamada Rashwan (R), king of the quarrymen.
Meanwhile, other pieces of the project have been falling into place.
Whitby Bird & Partners met with Arab Contractors to discuss the stone ramp
that will shoulder the obelisk during the attempt. Roger Hopkins
ordered 10,000 mud bricks, which he will use to construct a special sand
chamber to test the obelisk-raising theory outlined in First Attempt.
The documenters—the film and online crews—packed for their flights to
And here was Julia, dashing around Egypt scouting sites, securing permissions,
inspecting equipment, handling logistics—all the while coughing up a
"It's the car exhaust billowing into our van," she assured me as we hung up, her final words
accompanied by another staccato burst.