By Camel to a Lost Obelisk
by Peter Tyson
March 18, 1999
Once a pharaoh's builders had quarried an obelisk, the next step—an
atrociously labor-intensive one—was to get it from the quarry to the Nile,
where they would load it on a barge for shipping to Thebes or elsewhere. As
daunting as it would have been to haul away the Unfinished Obelisk, at least
its movers wouldn't have had to go too far: The Nile lies only a few hundred
yards from the granite quarry. And it would have been all downhill, along a
series of road-like embankments the Egyptians built expressly for the
But what if you were pharaoh and you wanted your obelisk fashioned out of the
handsome red quartzite found in the Gebel Simaan quarry west of Aswan? Gebel
Simaan lies far out in the desert, on a plateau several miles west of the Nile.
How could your workers possibly convey such a gargantuan stone that far? To
investigate this question, I traveled yesterday to the quarry, where another
unfinished obelisk—this one the work of Seti I (1318-1304 B.C.)—lies
abandoned in the sand.
The only way to get to Gebel Simaan is by camel, so that's what I took.
First I hired a boat to take me across the river to a camel staging area on
the west bank. There, several dozen saddled dromedaries, the one-humped camels
of Africa, stood or sat gawkily in the hot sand, blinking away flies wallowing
in the viscous fluid of their enormous eyeballs. My camel driver was a Nubian
named Mohammed. (Nubians are the people of southern Egypt and northern
Sudan.) With a gesture from Mohammed, I threw one leg over the saddle.
Then, with a lurch that almost sent me cartwheeling over its head, the camel
heaved itself up onto its feet with a grunt, and I was off on my "ship of the
desert," as the Arabs call the camel.
Rambo—for that was the creature's name—immediately recognized that I was
a camel-riding ignoramus. Without the periodic "Hut! Hut!" of Mohammed, who
flopped along in his plastic sandals just behind us, Rambo would have come to a
stubborn stop. Sometimes he did anyway, voicing his anger with a phlegmy hack
like that of the Wookie in Star Wars. Now and then, I got back at him and his
insolence by clicking on and off my tape recorder while taking notes; the
unnatural sound spooked him a bit, I think.
Seti I's unfinished obelisk lies abandoned in the desert several miles west of Aswan.
Conceding, however, that we were stuck with each other for the rest of the
day, we got into a kind of rhythm. Rambo jolted me around like a mechanical
bull, but I quickly learned to move with him, gripping the saddle with my
thighs and keeping my back straight, like a skier on a mogul field. After
awhile I even stopped worrying about falling off.
The landscape grew steadily more striking. As soon as we got past the ruins of
the 6th-century monastery of St. Simeon, which overlooks Aswan from a sandy
ridge, great vistas of golden sand swept off uphill, broken only by occasional
outcrops of eroded rock. Here and there, a towering wave of dune, its smooth
sides rippled like the surface of a lake, hung in an eternal curl. Aswan
vanished behind us, swallowed by intervening hills.
With the sun hovering over my left shoulder like Big Brother, I fell into a
kind of a trance while watching Rambo's lengthening shadow slide along the
ground. I thought of that scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence slips
into his own trance while crossing the desert to Aqaba. Looking back at Rambo's
rounded footprints in the sand, I was surprised at how much each resembled a
pair of cartouches, the pharaohs' oval hieroglyphic nameplates. An endless
string of nameless cartouches. When Rambo stepped past a bone bleached white as
talcum powder, I said to myself, "Bones tell stories," then snorted at how
absurd that sounded.
Suddenly Rambo Wookied and jerked to a halt, startling me out of my reverie. I
had dropped the rein, the end of which had fallen under his feet. Handing it
back up, Mohammed shooshed Rambo back into haughty complacency, and we
Hieroglyphic carving on Seti I's fragmentary obelisk.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we reached the obelisk. It lay half-buried in
the drifting sands, a fragment of its former self. All that remained was the
pyramidion and a small part of the shaft. Even after 33 centuries of sandstorms
and wind, I could readily make out cartouches and figures etched into three of
its sides. The decorations are what fascinate scholars about Seti I's lost
obelisk. Before it was found, no one knew when it was during the process of
quarrying and erecting that the pharaoh's artisans set to work on its
ornamentation. The quasi-obelisk of Gebel Simaan shows that they carved at
least some monoliths while they were still in the quarry.
Not much else is known about Seti I's obelisk. Why was it abandoned? Where did
the pharaoh intend it to stand? What happened to the rest of the shaft? Was its
stone appropriated for other building projects, or perhaps reshaped into a
smaller obelisk? Musing on these unanswerable questions, I wandered about the
site, stepping amidst a pastiche of potsherds, bird tracks, and camel dung.
It was not until I clambered atop an outcropping that I noticed the road.
That's right, way out there in the desert, a broad, paved road of
rock-thickened sand. It swept in from the direction we'd come right up to the
obelisk, as if built just for it. How had I missed it? By walking right along
it as we approached from the east, I'm embarrassed to admit.
The ancient road at Gebel Simaan, with the broken obelisk in the foreground.
I immediately thought of Reginald Engelbach. In his 1922 book on the
Unfinished Obelisk, he suggested two ways quarrymen might have wrestled
obelisks out of a quarry: lengthwise on a track of wooden rollers, or
widthwise, by rolling it over and over like timbermen do with newly toppled
trees. At 35 to 40 feet wide, the road at Gebel Simaan would have been wide
enough to handle a large, rolling obelisk, which Engelbach calculated would
only need support along a third of its length. "[A]nd the tendency for the
obelisk to roll in a circle," he added, "would be to a large extent neutralized
if [the track] were of soft sand, where the heavy end would sink in to a
greater depth than the point end."
As we started home, I noticed that the road ended at the edge of the plateau,
not more than a quarter mile from the obelisk. Did it disappear beneath the
sand? Or would the Egyptians simply have rolled the obelisk down the sandy
hillside toward the Nile? Two miles lay between us and the river. How many
laborers might it have taken to move it that distance?
We have one clue. Records show that Ramses IV dispatched an expedition to Wadi
Hammamat in southeastern Egypt to procure some monumental stone. When it set
out, the party numbered more than 9,000 men:
High Priest of Amun, Ramses-nakht, Director
Civil and military officers of rank
Trained artificers and artists
Quarrymen and stonecutters
Men from Ayan
Dead (excluded from total)
One line from the list keeps jumping out at me: "Dead (excluded from total)."
The list reveals not only how many people were needed for such an
excruciatingly difficult enterprise, but also how many of them perished in the
undertaking. How many Dead (excluded from total) did the road to Gebel Simaan
claim, I wonder?
At dusk, we rounded the barren mountain Qubbet el-Hawa, or "Dome of the Wind,"
and descended the final slope to the Nile. The vanished sun still caught wispy
clouds high overhead. Before hopping on the boat for the trip back across the
river, I shook hands with Mohammed, paid him off, and cast a final sneer at
Will the NOVA obelisk stand upright on this granite plinth in a few days?
Update on obelisk-raising: The ramp and obelisk are now complete, and all the
anchor blocks, which will aid in slowing the obelisk's rotation, are now in
place. The team is still debating whether or not we'll use a counterweight to
help tip the obelisk upright. Tomorrow, Owain Roberts will lead the attempt to
load and transport a two-ton obelisk on the specially designed barge.