Iolo Roberts, middle, oversees final rope-tying late this morning.
Rising Toward the Sun
by Peter Tyson
March 23, 1999
Today we watched two obelisks begin rising toward the sun. First, Roger
Hopkins tried out his sand-pit method with the two-ton obelisk. He had it lowered butt-end down into a
five-foot-square box he'd had built out of mud bricks and filled with sand. As he and his helpers shoveled
sand out of the box through several openings, the obelisk settled slowly down onto its pedestal stone.
When we left it in mid-afternoon to begin rotating the large obelisk, the two-tonner had eased into the
pedestal's turning groove. Hopkins had successfully demonstrated the sandpit method, which a number of
scholars have suggested might have been the way the ancients raised even the largest obelisks. Tomorrow,
Hopkins hopes to pull the obelisk upright using ropes.
By 3:30, the rope-lashing crew led by Iolo Roberts had finished tying Spanish windlasses and other
fancy knots on the big obelisk, and we were ready to get underway with the attempt. Anticipation
ran high as 40 laborers brought from the town were split into two groups, 20 along each of two
"swigging" ropes. Attached midway along the main ropes sticking down off the timber frame at
the obelisk's butt end, the swigging ropes would do the chief work of pulling the pillar up.
(See Second Chance.)
With the NOVA camera running, laborers lever the small obelisk into Roger
Hopkins' sand pit.
The NOVA crew had a briefing, in which we decided on four simple hand signals—pull,
walk, hold, and release—and, in case of emergency, one final alarm: "Run!" It was not a
joke: No one knew how the obelisk would behave when it began rearing its monolithic head.
Well aware of that, the experienced timber framer Wyle Brown called for a moment of silence
before we began. Then we took up our positions.
Standing on the flat below the ramp, Mark Whitby
gave the order to begin. "Hela hop!" went the cry from the 40 pullers as they leaned back on the
swigging ropes. The timber beams creaked ominously as ropes cinched down on them, but the obelisk
lifted ever so slightly off its rollers. Standing below the butt end of the timber frame, Iolo
Roberts and Wyle Brown immediately tightened the main ropes, which the swigging had loosened.
As Mark Whitby, far left, gives the signal to pull, the "swiggers" lean
into the ropes, causing the obelisk to rotate ever so slightly.
At the same moment, near the pointed end of the obelisk,
Owain Roberts and Rick Brown
loosened ropes trailing down off the other end of the frame. I stood off to one side,
perpendicular to the obelisk, holding taut a rope that was lashed to the pyramidion,
the pyramid-shaped end of the obelisk. Helped by two quarrymen and matched by another
group on the other side, my job was to help keep the shaft properly aligned by pulling or
releasing the rope on command. Finally, as soon as the obelisk tip had climbed a foot or
so, Henry Woodlock and Rick Brown rushed in to prop it up with wooden blocks. Only then
did Whitby give the signal to release.
We repeated this process six or eight times before we ran out of time. It was about
five o'clock, and the sun was well on its way to the horizon. The call to halt went out.
Leaning back on the nearest chunk of granite, I suddenly noticed two things about our
obelisk that I hadn't noticed before. First, I was struck by its appearance. The Greeks
thought obelisks resembled small spits of land and so called them obeliskos, a Greek
diminutive that means just that, a small spit. The Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder
noted that they were meant to resemble the sun's rays. The Arabic word for them is Messalah,
which is a large patching needle. But to me, our half-raised obelisk looked like nothing so
much as a missile readying for launch.
The obelisk as it appeared at five o'clock this afternoon. We resume
tomorrow at seven.
The second thing I noticed was that the obelisk at that moment was pointing directly at
the sun. It seemed so apt, for the ancient Egyptians considered obelisks sacred to the
sun gods. Following a long tradition of dedicating obelisks to celestial deities, Ramses
the Great named his eastern obelisk at Luxor Temple "Ramses-Beloved-of-Amun [the rising
sun]" and his western one "Ramses-Beloved-of-Atum [the setting sun]." Hatshepsut sheathed
her two obelisks at Karnak with electrum so that, as she declares on the base of the
one still standing, "Their rays flood the Two Lands when the sun rises between them
as he dawns in the horizon of heaven."
Tomorrow at seven, we resume raising our obelisks toward the sun.
Will the gods favor us with success?