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Raising 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."

More silence.

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.

Luxor Temple obelisk "Walk" around the obelisk of Ramses the Great in Luxor.

(Requires QuickTime)

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.

Rashwan 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 Cairo.

And here was Julia, dashing around Egypt scouting sites, securing permissions, inspecting equipment, handling logistics—all the while coughing up a sandstorm.

"It's the car exhaust billowing into our van," she assured me as we hung up, her final words accompanied by another staccato burst.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Obelisk Raised! (September 12)
In the Groove (September 1)
The Third Attempt (August 27)
Angle of Repose (March 25)
A Tale of Two Obelisks (March 24)
Rising Toward the Sun (March 23)
Into Position (March 22)
On an Anthill in Aswan (March 21)
Ready to Go (March 20)
Gifts of the River (March 19)
By Camel to a Lost Obelisk (March 18)
The Unfinished Obelisk (March 16)
Pulling Together (March 14)
Balloon Flight Over Ancient Thebes (March 12)
The Queen Who Would Be King (March 10)
Rock of Ages (March 8)
The Solar Barque (March 6)
Coughing Up an Obelisk (March 4)

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