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"Secrets of Lost Empires: Obelisk"

PBS Airdate: February 12, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

__: Tonight on NOVA, they were the pharaohs of Egypt and in their honor stand massive monuments of stone. How were they raised? Then the Colosseum, it set the stage for mass murder. High above the blood and gore hung an enormous awning. How did the Romans erect such an immense roof? Tonight, we will push, pull, lever, dig our way back in time with archaeologists and engineers to unlock the secrets of lost empires. Tonight's two hour special begins with Obelisk. NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck Pharmaceutical Research—dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck—committed to bringing out the best in medicine. And by Prudential.

__: Prudential—insurance, health care, real estate and financial services. For more than a century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.

__: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you. Additional funding for this program is provided by the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Thirty-five hundred years ago, a glorious era dawned in ancient Egypt called the New Kingdom. With wealth pouring in from her conquests abroad, Egypt's builders and craftsmen achieved perfection in stone and gold. A line of pharaohs with memorable names ruled the land: Tutankhamun, Thutmoses, Amen- Hotep, and most illustrious of all, Ramses the Great. The pharaohs believed themselves to be God-Kings, and their greatest fear was to lose their place in the afterlife. In the quest for eternal life, the pharaoh had to insure the preservation of both his body and his name. The fear of being forgotten was so strong, that the pharaohs spent much of their lives creating memorials to themselves in stone. The most spectacular of these monuments were at Thebes, the heart of the New Kingdom. A thousand years earlier, the desire for immortality had led to the construction of the pyramids. But these mountains of stone were vulnerable to grave robbers. So the pharaohs of the New Kingdom hid their tombs in the isolated Valley of the Kings, below a pyramid- shaped hill. The passion for building on a gigantic scale was now directed to the creation of magnificent temples. The pyramid shape was not abandoned, just reduced in size and carved on top of a tall shaft of granite: the obelisk. These spires of stone represented rays of light. The pharaohs placed pairs of obelisks at the temple gate in praise of the sun god. Obelisks of a hundred feet were formed from a single piece of granite, one of the hardest stones to work. The base of the obelisk balances on top of a pedestal stone, supported by nothing more than its own weight. How the ancient Egyptians created these mighty obelisks weighing four hundred tons is a question that has mystified archaeologists for years. Cecil B. de Mille tackled the problem in his 1959 epic, "The Ten Commandments." Although he puts on an impressive spectacle, it's not clear how his several- hundred- ton- obelisk bounces so obediently into position without breaking. To explore the reality of obelisk raising, NOVA assembled a team with a variety of talents. Egyptologist, Mark Lehner...Stonemason, Roger Hopkins...Ancient technology buff, Martin Isler...and Aly el Gasab, Egypt's foremost specialist in the moving of heavy statues. Their plan is to test out theories of how ancient obelisks were made by raising one themselves.

MARTIN ISLER: There was a cut- away there, and there was no sand where it should—That obelisk went back and forth —

MARK LEHNER: There was no box. It couldn't contain any sand.

NARRATOR (KEACH): The team has come to Aswan, the granite capital of Egypt. Like the obelisk builders of old, Roger and Mark's first task is to find a decent piece of granite—one without cracks or fissures.

ROGER HOPKINS: It looks like we finally found a good solid piece here, Mark.

MARK LEHNER: Well, it looks like a nice piece.

ROGER HOPKINS: Look at this down here, Mark. We've got a natural fissure. On this end we've got it free and the top looks fairly flat, and we've got a good, square, perpendicular, solid face of stone here.

(ROGER HOPKINS): I didn't really bother putting it on when we started, it's on that point there, and then, yeah...

NARRATOR (KEACH): The next step is to sketch in an outline of the obelisk, and then separate it from the living rock. At a nearby quarry, the ancient stone cutters have left impressive evidence of how this was done.

MARK LEHNER: The Unfinished Obelisk is a great block of granite still lying on its bed in the quarry slanted from top to bottom and the entire obelisk had been defined by a, by a trench that ran around its perimeter.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Granite is an extremely hard rock. The copper and bronze tools used by the ancient Egyptians were too soft to carve it, and iron tools were not yet available. So how did the ancient quarrymen work the granite?

MARK LEHNER: This is the basic tool they used to separate the obelisks. It's made out of a stone called dolerite that's harder and denser even than granite. These were found all over the obelisk site when it was first excavated, and even today there are hundreds of them in the quarries of granite at Aswan. They simply took this in two hands and pounded the stone away, hour after hour, day after day.

(MARK LEHNER): We work to our right. We pound, we pound, we work the granite down. Lift! And we turn around; one foot in either depression and we work to our right...

NARRATOR (KEACH): With temperatures in excess of hundred and twenty degrees, it must have been a hellish experience. Ancient records tell us that up to ten per cent of the quarry workers died. After years of soul destroying work, this obelisk had to be abandoned, when cracks appeared in the giant shaft, making it impossible to separate in one piece.

MARK LEHNER: Because it was a failure, the pharaoh who commissioned this obelisk remains a total mystery. But whatever pharaoh it was, he was attempting to make a quantum leap in obelisks. This Unfinished Obelisk would've weighed something around 1160 tons. The next largest one that we know is only 440 tons. But this pharaoh was clearly asking more of nature than nature could deliver.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Not far from the Unfinished Obelisk, some local stonemasons try out the ancient pounders on the new obelisk that Roger is carving.

MARK LEHNER: Hey, Roger, how's it going?

ROGER HOPKINS: Well, welcome to the really unfinished obelisk. We're just starting here.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Work on the trench that will definite the obelisk began four hours ago, and they have hardly made a dent.

MARK LEHNER: ...and see how much it really helps out.

ROGER HOPKINS: Why don't you jump up here and take a look at it.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Roger has built a small fire to see if he can speed up the process.

MARK LEHNER: Man, it's hot when you get close to it.

ROGER HOPKINS: I've been sitting right next to this thing.

MARK LEHNER: So this really, uh, does this really accelerate the work all that much?

ROGER HOPKINS: ...ah, Sayed...

MARK LEHNER: ...These are pieces that you've just popped off.

ROGER HOPKINS: Yes —

MARK LEHNER: Wow, that's a —

ROGER HOPKINS: Remember how long it took to just pound a little square?

MARK LEHNER: Yeah, that's 2 mm, that's like 2- 3 hours work.

ROGER HOPKINS: Absolutely. We're in some pretty hard granite, because we've already gone over this once before. ...we're just knocking the really loose stuff off.

NARRATOR (KEACH): But Mark has another idea. He has noticed that the surface of the Unfinished Obelisk has rows of indentations on it. They have given him a clue as to how the massive task of pounding was made more manageable.

MARK LEHNER: You know, one thought I had is—when everybody's pounding like this, and it's so ill- defined, it looks hopeless, it looks infinite. At the Unfinished Obelisk you saw all those working patches, and they must have defined them very carefully so that each guy knew exactly what he had to do, I mean, wouldn't it be better if you drew a line here like this, and if that's all they had to worry about. And, if one guy sitting here had to worry about that much. That was his patch right there. Don't you think they would get at it?

ROGER HOPKINS: Nahh, I think—You know, they know where they're going.

NARRATOR (KEACH): The work goes on with precious little to show.

MARK LEHNER: So, Roger, how's it going?

ROGER HOPKINS: Well, slowly, very slowly.

MARK LEHNER: I can see your trench. I see you have these nice little working patches. So how many days is this, Roger?

ROGER HOPKINS: Seven days of pounding here.

MARK LEHNER: Where are you going to go from here now? You gonna pound—you gonna be here for a couple years, uh, putting this trench down, or are you going to speed it up a little bit?

ROGER HOPKINS: I hope to speed it up using more modern techniques.

NARRATOR (KEACH): It's clear that using ancient techniques, it will take Roger months to carve even a small, nine foot obelisk. A short cut is needed, and the owner of an Aswan granite quarry comes to the rescue. Mr. Hamada Rashwan generously offers to supply Roger with a forty foot long obelisk, weighing forty tons. Just half as tall as a full- size obelisk, raising it will still be a formidable task. Even with modern equipment, it's been tricky to move the obelisk out of the quarry without breaking it. Thirty- three centuries earlier, the young Ramses the Great was also supervising the production of granite monuments. He ordered numerous obelisks and statues, including this thousand ton likeness of himself, now toppled by an earthquake. Ramses was the New Kingdom's greatest builder. And nowhere is his larger- than- life style better exhibited than at Abu Simbel, where he transformed two sandstone cliffs into temples fronted by gigantic images of himself.

MARK LEHNER: Here he shows himself four times as seated statues on a colossal scale, merging with the gods. The whole temple facade seems to be saying to all who come from the south that as you enter the Nile corridor from this point on you're entering Egypt as a temple, indeed, you're entering, Ramses is saying, my household, which I rule as a God.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Only one of Ramses' obelisks is still standing in Egypt, at the Temple of Luxor. The pharaoh ordered his obelisks covered in deeply inscribed hieroglyphs praising him as, "a ruler great in wrath, so every land trembles before him." One of the great mysteries is how the ancient Egyptians carved these symbols without hard metal tools. First they would have to polish and smooth the granite.

ROGER HOPKINS: You know, I think they probably could've used different stones. You could've started off with the diorite and the real coarse sand, and then gone to a sandstone which is finer and ended up with a limestone.

MARK LEHNER: Let's wash it off and see how it looks. That's getting pretty smooth, Roger. It looks good, Roger. By God.

MARK LEHNER: One of the real vexing questions, Roger, is after you've polished it down, how do you inscribe these hieroglyphs with such nice detail? These are inscribed rather deeply—about almost an inch or so.

ROGER HOPKINS: That's a good question. The detail on these is so fine and so crisp, even after such a long period of time.

MARK LEHNER: Well, you've worked granite for many years ... and you've used steel tools...

ROGER HOPKINS: Even with modern tools and, you know, diamond wheels and all that, we would have, you know, we would have a tough time getting it to this kind of perfection.

MARK LEHNER: My idea is, you can begin to rough out big hieroglyphs like this with pounders. What you see here, I've done in only one hour. I've roughed out the hieroglyph using a larger dolerite pounder stone, and then I've come in with smaller fragments of dolerite to tap, to begin to tap out the nice edges and the finer detail. One tantalizing bit of evidence that this is the way the ancient Egyptians did it is a rare scene in an Egyptian tomb where craftsmen are putting the final touches on a granite statue. They seem to be sanding in the fine detail like the eyebrows and the eyelids with pieces of quartzite and sandstone such as we know that they had. They also seem to be tapping out smaller detail with hammerstones even using stones almost like a chisel with another stone as a kind of tapper to tap in the very finest elements in this hard granite statue. I've convinced that with their skill and their rapport with the stone and a great deal of time and patience, that this is the way they carved the fine details like the hieroglyphs on the obelisk.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Although Ramses the Great would have regarded the forty- ton NOVA obelisk as relatively small, it's nevertheless beginning to get Roger and company rattled. So, while Mr. Hamada struggles to load it on the sled, Martin Isler decides to get in some much needed practice with a much smaller, two- ton model.

MARTIN ISLER: Listen, don't do that. It's going to tip the sled up if you do that.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Today is the first time Martin and Aly el Gasab are on the job together, and things are a little tense.

MARTIN ISLER: Put something underneath it, and then lay it down! Tell him to put something . . .you're going to tip the sled right up and bust the end.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Aly's first job is to teach the men how to pull the obelisk over land.

ALY el GASAB: (Speaks Arabic)

MARK LEHNER: Yeah, he's going to tie it on. I don't know exactly how he's going to do it. He's got it in his mind.

ROGER HOPKINS: I think we're in agreement, here.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Aly's not very happy with his greenhorn crew.

ALY el GASAB: (Speaks Arabic)

MARTIN ISLER: I have never seen the like of this!

MARK LEHNER: Martin, you look flabbergasted!

MARTIN ISLER: I have never seen the like of this, and I'm really quite upset because these guys are either going to bust the obelisk or they're going to get hurt.

MARTIN ISLER: I don't think they've ever done this before in their lives.

MARK LEHNER: Well, let's see how they do in a couple more "Hela houps".

ALY el GASAB: (Speaks Arabic)

NARRATOR (KEACH): In ancient times, the obelisk builders had a short haul over land and then a much longer voyage to the great temple complexes down river.

MARK LEHNER: It was the Nile that made Egyptian civilization possible, as an artery that linked the entire length of the country. And it was the Nile that made it possible for the ancient Egyptians to quarry colossal statues and giant obelisks. It would have been much more difficult if they had had to transport this by land. But here at Aswan, the quarries are all located within close proximity to the Nile, so that they could be slipped down to the river, loaded on a barge and transported for the difficult journey to Luxor, where the giant temples to Amun Ra are located or even further, all the way to Tanis, as far as 700 miles to the North. But first, you had to solve the very tricky problem of loading the boat.

MARK LEHNER: Okay, so let's imagine that this is a 100 foot obelisk, weighing 440 tons and this is our barge. How do we load it up, Cheryl?

NARRATOR (KEACH): Cheryl Haldane, a nautical archaeologist, has a theory how heavy obelisks were loaded onto ancient Egyptian boats.

CHERYL HALDANE: If we bring the boat in, and pretty much packing it in place with earth.

ROGER HOPKINS: If you're down on river level here, you've got the water coming in underneath it. It's going to be squishier than hell. You know, we're talking about 400 tons in a boat that's virtually laying in mud.

CHERYL HALDANE: But your boat is a massive construction in its own right. The freight barge that was built to carry the obelisks would've carried a modern 747 loaded with forty elephants.

MARK LEHNER: What I'm curious is when you have, I don't know how many guys, 100 guys, pulling on this 440 ton obelisk bringing it down to the barge, so they walk onto the barge, some of them, to pull it up there —

ROGER HOPKINS: Where do they do from there?

CHERYL HALDANE: Well, I think that we can imagine them going out into the river, some of them.

ROGER HOPKINS: Man, I used to surf a lot and it's hard enough walking into shore, but pulling a line out there, forget it.

MARK LEHNER: What about this mushiness? Is that really a problem?

ROGER HOPKINS: Well, the reality in ancient Egypt, every time it flooded it inundated the Nile banks with silt. There would've been a lot muddier river bed back then than there is now.

CHERYL HALDANE: But not after the dry season, not at the end of the dry season.

MARK LEHNER: Well, what happens anyway then? You take away the, uh, you take away the coffer dam or the packing in front.

CHERYL HALDANE: Yeah, when the obelisk is secured down, then the earth around it can be removed. And it would be removed, perhaps, in this way from the back towards the front. So that when the water comes in, the boat can begin to float. And it would've taken a lot of people, and they would've been working very had, but moving the earth ...

MARK LEHNER: Well, moving earth like that. That's no problem for them. Here comes the water. ROGER HOPKINS: And now you're stuck on the sand.

CHERYL HALDANE: Now I'm stuck on the sand, because I haven't finished excavating!

ROGER HOPKINS: You know, you're missing a great aspect of hydraulics and navi... you know, in navigation by, uh, landlocking your boat and all that. There's no mechanical advantage.

CHERYL HALDANE: I think when you remove the dam, if the boat had been a little lower, you would've seen ...

ROGER HOPKINS: Now, Cheryl, in modern times do they ever load a boat in drydock? Never. I rest my case.

CHERYL HALDANE: Well, Roger, we'll have to see what your method does.

ROGER HOPKINS: Probably what they did was they built two stone piers. One here, one here. And they had a nice channel that came in between them. These were permanent structures. They had a nice flat—now this is—try to imagine this as a nice, flat, even surface on which to pull the sled down. They would've gotten it down to here probably on rollers. Now, I'm just gonna use two beams but they probably could've used several. They could've slid right over into the middle. Next, your boat comes in, and, of course, see, it's not low enough. All you do is you add a little ballast to it, nice and evenly.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Now that Roger has to go public with his theory, problems with the model barge begin to handicap his demonstration.

ROGER HOPKINS: Once we start to take ballast off—boy, this thing is leaking like a son of a gun.

CHERYL HALDANE: Well, this is exactly the kind of problem you would have with an ancient Egyptian boat because they weren't built to have loads down in the hull. Freight boats were built to carry their weights on the deck.

ROGER HOPKINS: The ballast would come out, and then it would float this, they would—of course, they would position it and then it would float out, without the aid of all this water. And once you got out there, it would probably sink, like that.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Understanding how the ancient Egyptians transported their huge obelisks is difficult. Their technique for building boats was unique and is now a long- forgotten art. No remains of an obelisk barge have been found. The only evidence we have was left by the pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut. On her magnificent mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri, there is a picture of a boat carrying a pair of obelisks on deck...perhaps to the great temple at Karnak. Hatshepsut's reign was a period of great architectural and artistic flowering. Only the third woman to rule as queen, she also ruled as king, often appearing in portraits with a pharaonic beard. She co- ruled with her stepson, Thutmosis the Third, but after she died, he systematically hacked out all references to her, even hiding her obelisk behind a sandstone wall that just left the gold- plated tip exposed. On the base of her obelisk, an inscription proudly states that it was built in the remarkably short time of seven months. Back at the quarry, the work is not up to Queen Hatshepsut's standards. Shaping the forty- foot obelisk is taking much longer than anticipated, even with modern tools. This means that Roger will only have a few days to raise the obelisk. And as yet, there is no consensus among the experts about how to do it. On the opposite bank of the Nile, Martin Isler is about to test out his method on the little nine foot model.

ALY el GASAB: (Speaks in Arabic)

MARK LEHNER: You have to do it exactly like Martin says.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Although he has no formal training in archaeology, Martin has developed a passion for ancient technology. Martin and Aly have bonded nicely. In preparation for raising the obelisk, Martin has carved a groove on the top of the base stone. He's convinced that this notch is an essential component of obelisk engineering. But does every ancient pedestal stone have a groove? To find out, Mark and Roger travel to Tanis, a major city during the final years of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Filled with monuments recycled from earlier dynasties, Tanis is an obelisk graveyard. There are twenty- three broken obelisks at this site.

MARK LEHNER: This is another one of these Ramses obelisks, toppled over. This looks like a pretty good example of a turning groove to me.

ROGER HOPKINS: It's, uh, about a foot wide—which is 30 cm, but a little more than half again as deep.

MARK LEHNER: Well, I don't see, I can't see how this is just a symbolic feature. I mean, this has gotta be integral to raising an obelisk. Somehow this was necessary to have this groove in here.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Everywhere they look, there are turning grooves. It seems that Martin is on to something.

NILE BANK - ALY's men: Hey la hoop! Hey la hoop!

NARRATOR (KEACH): As Aly's men lever up the obelisk, the bottom edge remains engaged in the notch. Without the turning groove to pivot on, the butt of the obelisk would slide off the pedestal stone. Martin believes that levering was the principle technique used by the ancient Egyptians. To support the rising obelisk, stone and earth are packed beneath it.

MARK LEHNER: I mean as you lever the obelisk up, you only get just a little, an inch or so.

MARTIN ISLER: You could lever anything up. If the lever is long enough.

MARK LEHNER: But what if it was a 400 ton obelisk? Or a 300 ton obelisk?

MARTIN ISLER: Then you'd be much more careful.

MARK LEHNER: But you're getting your lever underneath and you're getting about what? A couple inches of lift with each "Haya Hopa".

MARTIN ISLER: Whatever, but each little few inches of lift adds up.

NARRATOR (KEACH): When the obelisk reaches a forty- five degree angle, Aly calls a halt to the levering. The rest of the work will be done by the pulling team. The two- ton needle rises with remarkable ease, but will it be so simple with Roger's forty- ton obelisk?

ROGER HOPKINS: Well, it was a very small piece of stone. I've put stuff up that size by myself.

MARTIN ISLER: So, I did too!

ROGER HOPKINS: I know! But you know, what I—you know the reservation I have, when you're dealing with a 300 or a 400 ton—How are you going to space out your levers? How many levers are you going to use? What size levers? I mean are you gonna be able to—How many men can you get in a crowded area like that?

MARTIN ISLER: But this is something you learn by experience, don't you? I mean, you'll start perhaps with a two tonner, as we did here. Graduate to a ten tonner, learn from that. Go to a twenty tonner...

NARRATOR (KEACH): Despite Martin's success, Roger doesn't want to use levers to raise his obelisk. Back at the quarry, he has only four days to get the obelisk up. A lot of dirt is being moved around. But no one seems to know exactly what Roger has in mind. To clear the air, Roger has been forced to build a model to demonstrate his method to quarry- owner, Mr. Hamada.

ROGER HOPKINS: ...a lot of weight to pull. We have our ramp coming up onto a more level area. And as the sled comes along...

NARRATOR (KEACH): The pedestal lies at the bottom of a large pit which will be filled with sand. The obelisk is then dragged over the pit.

ROGER HOPKINS: ...til it reaches on this, along this ridge here, a pivot point—the center of gravity and it'll come down slowly...

NARRATOR (KEACH): As the sand is removed, the butt of the obelisk should slowly descent to the pedestal stone. At least that's the theory.

MARK LEHNER: When do you start lowering the sand? When do you start letting the sand out?

ROGER HOPKINS: Once we get this in place. I've calculated the center of gravity is approximately here on the obelisk. Alright, now let it come out fairly slowly, fairly slowly.

MARK LEHNER: Now, we're gonna see that thing tipping?

HAMADA RASHWAN: I think it is better to go more fast.

MARK LEHNER: You think it's better to go fast?

HAMADA RASHWAN: Yes, yes. Because to not give a chance for the sudden force to make the obelisk go right or left.

MARK LEHNER: So, a regular, very steady motion. Alright, so we're ...

HAMADA RASHWAN: Yes. The people, the people in this case stay here and they push from this side. Look, look, look...

MARK LEHNER: Right, so you have men in there pushing...

NARRATOR (KEACH): Mr. Hamada is worried that the men removing sand from the bottom of the pit may be injured by the descending obelisk.

HAMADA RASHWAN: Cause Roger has one aim: to fix his obelisk with a good position, with a good job.

MARK LEHNER: Yes, Roger can be very single- minded. I understand, Hamada. I have experience with this man. I know what you mean.

ROGER HOPKINS: I have no value of human life.

HAMADA RASHWAN: But for me, I hope to fix the obelisk with a good position. But number—this is number two. Number one for me: the safety of our people. And I think the ancient Egyptians worked by the same method, working by the same method, because they —

ROGER HOPKINS: Don't you worry, Hamada. I'm gonna be down in that pit. I'm gonna be down in that pit, so it'll be safe.

NARRATOR (KEACH): To put Mr. Hamada's fears to rest, Roger has to prepare another demonstration of his method, this time with the two- ton obelisk.

MARK LEHNER: You're gonna fill this box up with clean sand?

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah, I gotta do a little housekeeping here.

MARK LEHNER: You're gonna put the obelisk up here and tip it over onto the sand, and then scoop the sand out these tunnels.

ROGER HOPKINS: Right. We're taking the sand out from behind it, so it has to fall back. And actually, the sand that's piled up here is going to act as somewhat of a weight, keeping it in place. But then, it's gonna reach a point where we have to get in and control its movement, either forward or backward or off to the side.

MARK LEHNER: And as you take the sand out, the obelisk is going to flow down and fit right down into that turning groove.

ROGER HOPKINS: Exactly.

MARTIN ISLER: I think it's ridiculous. It's—it's just crazy to be thinking of putting this monster into a pit blindly, and then expecting to find a a groove, magically somehow, by pushing sand away from one side to the other. I can't conceive of it happening, and if it does, it's still crazy! It's impossible to me.

ROGER HOPKINS: Directly men. . .Quais! Very good. Come on.

MARK LEHNER: You got that obelisk where you want it, Roger?

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah! I mean, we're within an inch or two of dead on.

MARK LEHNER: You've cocked your gun. You're ready to shoot.

ROGER HOPKINS: Don't get in my line of sight.

MARK LEHNER: I'll try to stay out of it.

ROGER HOPKINS: Okay! Open!

NARRATOR (KEACH): With the mudbricks removed from the doors at the bottom of the sandpit, there's no turning back.

MARK LEHNER: They're all out.

ROGER HOPKINS: They're all out? Shwaya, shwaya.

MARK LEHNER: Here comes the sand.

ROGER HOPKINS: It can afford to come forward some. We got about twenty centimeters for it to come forward. Oh, good.

MARK LEHNER: They're moving. I think, don't you need more out of this side? So it goes down and bends back this way.

ROGER HOPKINS: I'm trying to get it to slide over this way.

NARRATOR (KEACH): After a promising start, the sand, filled with rocks and debris, flows unevenly. The descending obelisk is no longer on course to hit the turning groove.

ROGER HOPKINS: We've got a problem with this channel not clearing itself.

MARK LEHNER: Now, Roger, if this were a big one, maybe a bad time to ask, but you'd have room for men in there, right?

ROGER HOPKINS: Huh?

MARK LEHNER: If it were the full size, you'd have men inside there.

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN ISLER: They'd be volunteers, right, Roger?

ROGER HOPKINS: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

MARTIN ISLER: I'm glad we're doing it. I'd like to lay this to rest once and for all and be done with the sand method.

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah, but do you think just one experiment is gonna be enough?

MARTIN ISLER: No, it's not enough. But the whole concept is ridiculous. I'm sorry, Roger —

MARK LEHNER: Ridiculous?!

MARTIN ISLER: —nothing personal.

NARRATOR (KEACH): As time slips away, Roger is just about ready to give up on the sandpit method. A final attempt to remove sand from below the obelisk suddenly pays off. When the dust settles, there's a pleasant surprise for Roger.

ROGER HOPKINS: I hate to tell you this, Mark, but we're right over the turning groove.

MARK LEHNER: You're right over the turning groove?

ROGER HOPKINS: Right.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Roger hasn't scored a bullseye. The obelisk is a bit off center, but he hopes it can be lined up with the turning groove when Aly and his men pull it upright. Although Roger finally gets the obelisk up, he hasn't won over any of his critics.

MARK LEHNER: There's no way that they went down to that turning groove blind. The turning groove tells the story that the obelisk was carefully parked there, before it was set up. And they wouldn't have just gone down to it blind by pouring sand out of a tunnel. I though it was a fairly messy, complicated operation. I don't think that's how they erected the giant obelisks.

NARRATOR (KEACH): The next morning sees a flurry of activity at Mr. Hamada's quarry. Unfortunately, none of it is helping Roger get the forty ton obelisk up. Apparently, Mr. Hamada is expecting a visit from the Governor, at which he plans to unveil his method for raising the obelisk. The Hamada method for obelisk raising uses a massive block of stone as a counterweight. When sand is released from below the block, it descends, pulling the obelisk up.

HAMADA RASHWAN: We design this method, and they come with other method, but I think this way is better. I hope to success tomorrow...

NARRATOR (KEACH): Although Mr. Hamada's no- hands, self- raising model appears to impress the Governor, no one else believes that starting all over and constructing a massive counterweight is a practical way to use the remaining two days. Aly came to the project without any pet theories. But he has now come up with a solution that he believes could raise the obelisk with just a few modifications to Roger's half- constructed sandpit. It involves building a ramp down to the pedestal stone—then gently lowering the obelisk on a sled restrained by three ropes. Ensuring that the butt of the obelisk finds the turning groove is crucial. Once the obelisk is in the groove, it will be raised and stabilized by six teams of men on ropes attached to the top of the shaft.

MARK ISLER: You're seeking the groove in the most—I—it's crazy!

MARK LEHNER: Why can't it go down the guide walls? If we put in Roger's guide walls —

MARTIN ISLER: Guide walls or not guide walls, it doesn't matter if you could walk it over to the groove and place it there. There's all sorts of things that can be done.

MARK LEHNER: Well, unfortunately, Martin, given our change in plan here, given this dramatic change in plan, and the tension of only two days left, we have to deal with this big compartment that we've created, which we were going to use for the sandbox, but now we have a thirty degree ramp.

MARTIN ISLER: I wish you luck.

MARK LEHNER: Do you think we're in for a hard time?

MARTIN ISLER: I think so.

NARRATOR (KEACH): The obelisk hasn't been moved since it was positioned on the sled a couple of days ago. The dead weight has begun to crush the rollers, and it refuses to budge.

MARK LEHNER: We're trying to make the stone move, the obstinate, dumb stone hasn't budged an inch. It's moving! It's moving.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Aly has two hundred men on the ropes. At forty tons, this obelisk weighs less than a tenth of the biggest obelisks of ancient times. They would require two thousand pullers or more. In their enthusiasm to bring it to the top of the chute, the pullers almost derail the obelisk. Aly is not pleased. But, a quick nudge with a lever gets the obelisk back on track. Finally after seven hours of pulling, the obelisk is poised at the top of the chute. Tomorrow, it's do or die. The next morning, the last of the project, there is an air of great anticipation among the pullers. Will they be the first people in three thousand years to raise an obelisk using the tools of their ancient ancestors?

MARK LEHNER: Well, we're right here at the pivot point, and there's a good possibility that the obelisk could get out of control, crash down the slipway, and break into pieces. That wouldn't be a total tragedy for us, but can you imagine if it was Hatshepsut's obelisk. She had spent seven months quarrying it. Consider all the elbow grease, blood, sweat and tears that had been spent adorning it with hieroglyphs, polishing it so that it reflected the sun. If that finished obelisk, weighing 330 tons was now at this pivot point and crashed down and broke into pieces, it would be a tragedy indeed.

NARRATOR (KEACH): With the turning groove in his sights at the bottom of the chute, Aly is ready to launch the obelisk. The obelisk is teetering dangerously at its center of gravity. Aly now has to get the attention of the brakemen who will control its descent. Communication is proving difficult, as Hasham, the man he has put in charge, is quite deaf, and so is unaware of the urgency of the moment.

MARK LEHNER: (Speaks Arabic with Aly)

ALY el GASAB: Humdelallah.

MARK LEHNER: He's very, very happy, but he's worried now, because the obelisk is sliding as we speak. You hear noises. There it goes. And he wants to tend to his, to his job. Oh—there it goes!

NARRATOR (KEACH): Now everything's in the hands of the brakemen. Their job is to control the three ropes that keep the obelisk from smashing into the pedestal stone. Granite is brittle and will break if not seated gently. Can the brakemen control the obelisk, or will gravity have its way?

MARK LEHNER: Well, obviously it was a great relief, great celebration, but maybe celebrating a little too soon, because the butt end missed the turning groove, and now we have the tremendous task of raising it up from this angle of recline.

ROGER HOPKINS: No, we didn't miss the turning groove. They haven't released it off the sled yet. Once it's released off the sled, very easily it will come right into the turning groove.

MARK LEHNER: So, you think it will slide right in there?

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah.

MARK LEHNER: When they cut the sled off?

ROGER HOPKINS: Yeah.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Despite the celebration, the job ahead is enormous: To raise the obelisk from the thirty- two degree angle from which it now rests, in the few hours remaining. Like Martin Isler, Aly is going to use large levers as the primary method. Things get off to a good start. The two levers quickly raise the obelisk from an angle of thirty- two degrees to close to forty degrees. But as the obelisk rises, it becomes difficult to get leverage. With time running out, Aly orders two hundred pullers to try and speed the process. But it doesn't seem to help.

MARK LEHNER: Well, the problem Aly is having now is he's not getting any lift out of his pull. All the men pulling on the long ropes are simply pulling the butt end of the obelisk down into the turning groove. You can almost feel it grinding down in there. The only thing that's giving Aly any lift whatsoever are the men on the levers. But as you can see, the levers now, in order to get advantage, are really high. The men can hardly reach them. They're throwing ropes up around the end to get some kind of pull.

NARRATOR (KEACH): In the next six hours, they only manage to raise the obelisk a couple of inches. But Aly's not ready to throw in the towel yet. Everyone decides it's worth giving it just one more day. The final morning finds Aly wracking his brains at the stuck obelisk. Roger got up early too. He's already been busy.

ROGER HOPKINS: This is an A- frame. It works as a lever. You run your ropes, your pulling ropes over the top if it, and it helps redirect the force, so that you're pulling up, rather than pulling down.

MARK LEHNER: Your ropes are going from the obelisk up over the A- frame and down to increase the pull and gain some mechanical advantage.

ROGER HOPKINS: Right.

MARK LEHNER: Well, I can see your point, but you know Aly doesn't think this is going to work at all.

ROGER HOPKINS: Well, you know, at some point, you gotta take over.

NARRATOR (KEACH): In theory, the A- frame seems to be the way to go. But the obelisk still refuses to budge. The men on the A- frame ropes can not pull efficiently, because the ropes are too high.

MARK LEHNER: So, in order to use the A- frame as Roger suggests, we would have to both raise and lengthen our ramp, so that the men had a platform to stand on and still reach the ropes, in a long train of pullers as we have now.

NARRATOR (KEACH): Modifications will take time, and time is a commodity that has run out. Like any construction project, this one has a deadline.

ALY el GASAB: (Speaks in Arabic)

The men are working well. The real problem is that we don't have time. How many days and nights have I thought how to raise the obelisk more quickly? My God, my brains are splitting! But a heavy object like this takes time. You can't rush an obelisk.

MARK LEHNER: I think this is what the ancient technology comes down to: men like Aly with their skill and the enthusiasm of their men is probably the most important secret ingredient in all ancient technology.

NARRATOR (KEACH): But, even with all their enthusiasm and skill, our modern team cannot overcome the limitation of time. The ancient Egyptians faced no such constraints, as they raised obelisks for pharaohs whose concept of time was totally different from ours. After all, what's the rush when you're building for eternity?

__: NOVA's Secrets of Lost Empires will continue in a moment. In our next hour, enter a palace of spectacle and gore, a vast arena thrown open to the sky. But did you know it had a roof? How was it done? Journey with us to watch a modern team try to reconstruct this ancient wonder. Stay tuned for Colosseum.

__: You're watching PBS.

__: To order NOVA's Secrets of Lost Empires mini series on video cassette, call 1-800-949-8670. This five hour set is $69.95 plus shipping and handling. Individual programs are also available for $19.95 each.

 

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