At Rashwan's quarry, Egyptian laborers await the call to have another go at
by Peter Tyson
March 14, 1999
It might have been the 20th century B.C. in our small corner of Hamada
Rashwan's Aswan quarry today. Eight or ten quarrymen squatted atop a long
sliver of granite, chiseling it into an obelisk. Others kindled small fires
atop other slabs of granite before trying to break off slices loosened by
the heat. Wood smoke hung in the air, as did the tap-tap-tap of dolerite
balls striking yet other blocks of granite, whose dimpled surface workers
sought to bring into a semblance of smoothness.
Most noticeably, a crowd of 50 Egyptian laborers, encouraging one another
with raucous cries of mutual support, yanked on ropes attached to a
truck-sized block of stone. Weighing perhaps 25 tons, the block rested on a
wooden sledge, which the workers were trying to haul along a patch of
ground. Earlier, they had firmed up the ground with embedded wooden sleepers
laid down crosswise like railroad ties, and had lubricated the sleepers with
greasy smears of tallow. The rock had not yet budged, but we were hopeful.
Why the 20th-century B.C.? Well, we know the ancient Egyptians chipped
granite, used dolerite pounders, and built embrittling fires to help shape
granite. And we know they designed wooden sledges to transport heavy
Stonemasons have been working round the clock to shape the NOVA obelisk.
In fact, our little scene looked strikingly similar to one depicted in a
relief from the 20th-century B.C. The 12th Dynasty scene shows a
gigantic statue of Djehutihotep lashed to a wooden sledge, which 172
laborers in four rows pull using ropes tied to the sledge's leading edge.
One man leans out over the statue's feet, pouring a liquid under the sledge
to lubricate the runners. Another man, apparently calling out orders or
encouragement to the pullers, perches on the knees of the statue, which
scholars estimated would have weighed 57 tons.
And why were we doing all this? Because our obelisk-raising team had
finally assembled itself in its entirety here in Aswan and had begun to
undertake various tests of how the ancients quarried, worked, moved,
shipped, and raised obelisks. The biggest test of the day, of course, was
We don't know if we had the particulars of the ancient technology exactly
right—we used tallow, they might have used water or oil; our ropes were
of sisal, theirs perhaps of halfa grass; and so on—but we came as close
as we could. The question now was, would it work?
Several of our resident experts felt that as few as 50 men could haul the
sledge along the designated path once they'd succeeded in releasing it from
the ground's grip. (The sledge had had 24 hours to settle down.) So we tried
50. No go. We tried 100. Still no go. In an atmosphere of rising tension, as
each expert tried to advance his or her theory on how best to proceed,
Roger Hopkins convinced the team to add levers. Workers soon had several
wooden levers as big as telephone poles wedged beneath the block, and as
they levered and the pullers pulled, the sledge came alive.
Actually, it moved only a few inches, and then a rope—perhaps weakened
by rubbing against the rock—parted, flinging chief foreman Abdel Aleem
and a bunch of others onto their backs.
A lunch break was called. It was now about 3 p.m., and we had managed to
move the sledge only about two feet. Mark Lehner told me that, to
symbolize the word for "marvel" or "wonder," the Egyptians used the
hieroglyph for sledge, indicating how well this device worked for them.
Would it do so for us?
At lunch, each of our experts had a different theory as to why it had
barely budged. "We weren't strong enough," Owain Roberts said with a
chuckle, adding that a few more pullers should do it. Hopkins, not
surprisingly, felt we needed more levers and better levering points. For
Mark Whitby, the problem lay in communication. No one seemed to be fully
in charge, he said, which proved especially troublesome with so many
nationalities involved. I couldn't find Aleem, but earlier he had said that
50 men alone could move it—if it rested on rollers. Finally, Mark
Lehner said he thought the pullers had simply not yet achieved the required
rhythm, which he said could conceivably take hours.
Roger Hopkins directs the tugging operation from atop the 25-ton block.
By 4:30, with no consensus but to continue doing what we'd been doing, we
went at it again. Like the presumed foreman in the Djehutihotep relief,
Hopkins hopped atop the block and, through yells in Arabic and deliberately
grandiose gesticulations, managed to get the men into Lehner's hoped-for
rhythm. And it seemed to work. With each Arabic equivalent of "Heave ho!"
the sledge moved forward a few inches.
But with the sun starting its descent to the dust-colored horizon, another
rope separated, then another. Each time, Roberts retied them with the help
of some of the quarrymen. Yet the day was quickly dying.
Finally, Hopkins called out:
"This is the last time!"
Then, from on high, he turned to 200-plus leverers and pullers, and yelled
at the top of his lungs,
"ALLAH AKBAR!! (GOD IS GREAT!)"
The sledge jumped and, for the first time, kept on going. One foot, two
feet, five feet. Only after about ten feet did it finally grind to a halt.
Jubilant workers celebrate a good day's work by giving Roger Hopkins a
Ten feet. All told, in a day's work, maybe 20 feet. Had we done justice to
Djehutihotep? Or did our attempt to recreate it in a fashion pale in
It may not sound like a great distance—and I did overhear one or two
experts express private disappointment and surprise that we had not achieved
greater—but you couldn't convince the workers of that. As soon as the
rock stopped, a cheer went up that I'd bet you could hear right across to
the Aga Khan Mausoleum on the other side of the Nile, and several of the men
lofted a beaming Hopkins high into the air.