Gifts of the River
Our two-ton obelisk goes for a ride.|
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by Peter Tyson
March 19, 1999
Herodotus, the father of history, said famously that Egypt was the "Gift of
the River." The same could be said of obelisks, that they are a gift of the
Nile, for without the river, the task of shuttling these massive pillars of
stone hundreds of miles from quarry to temple would have been orders of
magnitude more challenging. Today, our team set out to investigate such
river transport of obelisks using a one-tenth scale model of the obelisk
barge pictured in relief at Hatshepsut's mortuary temple (see The Queen Who
Would Be King).
While the First Cataract at Aswan has always hindered boat traffic south of
here, the Nile north of Aswan is a conveyor belt that runs unobstructed some
750 miles to the Mediterranean. As a measure of how vital the north-flowing
river was to the Egyptians, the hieroglyph for traveling north is a boat
with no mast, while that for heading south is a boat under sail. Fortunately
for the obelisk raisers, the granite quarries lay upstream of the major
capitals, so those in charge of shipping obelisks could harness the Nile to
do most of the work of conveying.
As we've seen, scholars have one significant clue as to how the Egyptians
transported obelisks on the Nile. The obelisk barge pictured in Hatshepsut's
relief has two obelisks on it, laid end to end, and is thought to have been
over 200 feet long. Other evidence for such prodigious size exists.
Aneni, an high official under Tuthmosis I who saw to the erection of his two
obelisks at Karnak, claimed in his tomb that he "built the 'august' boat of
120 cubits (207 feet) in length and 40 cubits (69 feet) in breadth for
transporting these obelisks." Indeed, one scholar has estimated that such barges might have
reached over 310 feet in length, exhibited a beam of 105 feet, and displaced
7,300 tons. For sheer size, obelisk barges were the Pyramids of ancient
Some scholars have suggested that the two obelisks in the relief actually
traveled side by side on one barge, but in order to show both, the artist
had to depict them end to end. Owain Roberts believes the relief merely
indicates that two obelisks were moved by boat, and he designed his model to
carry one. Mark Lehner, for his part, likes to think that "what you see in
Hatshepsut's relief is what they used."
While the relief is open to wide interpretation—it is only, says
Reginald Engelbach, "an impressionist view"—scholars generally agree
that it portrays a boat with three separate sets of crossbeams for added
strength, as revealed by three levels of what might be deck beam ends poking
through the hull. The barge also had several hogging trusses, rope-and-wood
structures arching over the deck that prevented the bow and stern from
collapsing under the monoliths' enormous weight. Roberts designed his model
with these aspects in mind.
When we arrived on the west bank of the Nile this morning, the model was
moored bow-first against the shore, wavelets lapping against its yellow
plywood hull. A ramp of mortared stones, with a track of buried timbers sunk
in its upper surface, extended from the ground up to deck level. On the
track rested a wooden sledge with a two-ton granite obelisk tied to it.
"The power of rope" could easily have been our motto today.
The plan called for testing one proposed method for how the Egyptians
loaded obelisks aboard barges: pulling it lengthwise up a ramp and onto the
deck. Experts have suggested other ways the Egyptians might have done it
(which, like so much else about their engineering achievements, remains a
mystery). One of the most prevalent theories is that they dug a channel
inland from the Nile and floated the barge directly beneath a spot where the
obelisk waited on its sledge. As the Nile rose during its annual flooding,
the barge would rise, too, eventually shouldering the sledge and obelisk,
which then could be shipped downstream. (In his Natural History, Pliny
describes how King Ptolemy Philadelphus transported an obelisk to Alexandria
using this method.)
Roberts and his son Iolo rigged an elaborate system of ropes, with which a
group of pullers standing on either side of the ramp could haul the obelisk
sledge up the slope and onto the barge. Hopes were high as Roberts spaced
about 20 hired students along ropes stretched out on each side of the ramp.
With the NOVA film crew at the ready, a wiry, mustachioed man named Moustafa
began yelling out the cadence:
"Hela hop! ... Hela hop! ... Hela hop!"
Some scholars believe this chant, which doesn't mean anything in Arabic,
may actually be a surviving pharaonic work chant. Each of Moustafa's cries
rose in a crescendo, with the emphasis falling on "hop!," which served as
the mens' cue to lean back on the rope with all their might.
Moments before the tugging began, Moustafa had greased the track's surface
with moistened tufla, a clay that becomes very slippery when wet, just as
his forebears might have done. And it paid off: With each "Hela hop!," the
sledge glided forward a few feet. When it settled on the barge deck, a great
cheer went up among the Egyptians. It was Pulling Together all over again,
albeit on a smaller scale.
Later, to see how the barge moved with the obelisk on it, we towed it
behind an Aswan riverboat. Hatshepsut's relief indicates that three rows of
nine or ten boats apiece towed her barge, with another boat, presumably
holding the pilots, leading the way. Nearby floated three more boats, on
which priests performed ceremonies celebrating the wondrous event. Think how
many thousands of villagers would have lined the riverbank to watch that
football field of a barge pass on its way north.
The "unity of Egypt" emblem on the seated statue of Ramses II at Luxor
Temple, shot after dark.
In Hatshepsut's day as in ours, the key element in successfully
manipulating obelisks was rope. Lehner today kept stressing the "the power
of rope," and the father-and-son Roberts team demonstrated the truth of his
statement over and over. They repeatedly relied on "swigging," a means for
tightening rope that the ancient Egyptians clearly knew and that we might
also use to help raise the big obelisk. They expertly lashed the obelisk to
the sledge and rigged the ropes for the ramp pull and for the hogging truss,
which they assembled prior to the tow. And they gave a demonstration of the
role rope played in holding together the 4,600-year-old Khufu boat (see The
In the midst of the action this afternoon, Lehner reminded me of the
so-called "unity of Egypt" emblem. New Kingdom pharaohs liked to inscribe
the emblem on their monuments; I've seen at least two on this trip, one on
the seated statue of Ramses the Great before Luxor Temple, and another on
the Colossi of Memnon. In the emblem, the droopy-breasted Nile god Hapi
stands on either side of a post, pulling tight the long stems of a papyrus
reed and a lotus plant, which signify northern and southern Egypt,
respectively. Striking in its simplicity, the emblem symbolizes the
country's unification under the pharaohs.
It strikes me that obelisks, brought from Aswan in Upper Egypt not only to
Thebes but as far as Heliopolis and other archaic capitals in Lower Egypt,
might have symbolized that unity for the pharaohs as well. A unity that is
yet another "Gift of the River."
Update on obelisk raising: The fully shaped obelisk now rests on the earthen
ramp, ready for the wooden assembly, which timber-framers Rick and Wyle
Brown will attach to the butt end and which will aid in rotating the obelisk
into an upright position. Tomorrow, we will test several theories of obelisk
raising using miniature models.
The NOVA obelisk at its new resting place atop the ramp.
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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