A Tale of Two Obelisks
It only took eight people to tip the two-ton obelisk upright.
by Peter Tyson
March 24, 1999
The contrast between our two obelisks today was striking. Within minutes of
arriving at the quarry around 7:30 this morning, we watched eight people
pull Roger Hopkins' two-ton obelisk upright. But the big obelisk refused
to go the distance despite a day of levering, pulling by as many as 120
people, and even the use of modern machinery. Here's how events transpired:
Instead of hanging in place as we hoped, the counterweight eases down to the
ground when we remove the stack of timbers beneath it. The ropes have
stretched overnight. "It will be very disappointing if we have to rebuild
the whole thing," Mark Whitby says of the stack. If only that was to be
our sole hitch.
To gain a better mechanical advantage, Wyle Brown and Iolo Roberts transfer
the swigging ropes—those tied to the middle of the main ropes coming down
off the timber framework and which groups of pullers will yank to either
side—onto the ropes holding the counterweight.
With a group of 40 pullers swigging on either side, the obelisk moves well,
but that overnight slack proves too great, and the obelisk merely bounces up
and down, with its crucial pivot timber refusing to settle down onto the end
of the ramp. Until the pivot timber does so, there's no hope of rotating the
Late in the morning, workers lever the counterweight.
After workmen have levered the counterweight back up on a timber stack
several times to continue taking that never-ending slack out of the ropes,
Whitby orders a crane brought in in the interest of time to lift the
counterweight. Once it's in place, he says confidently, "I think this next
go will do it." He has a flight to catch around six in the evening, and he
wants that obelisk vertical before he leaves.
As the crane lowers the newly retied counterweight yet again, six Egyptians
and I pull on the north-side rope to help realign the obelisk. The shaft
shifts our way, and Henry Woodlock cries out, "We've got touchdown," meaning
the pivot timber has finally engaged with the ramp end. Yet still more
stretch remains in the ropes, and the counterweight drops to the ground once
again. "The bloody rope slipped!" Whitby cries. After having pooh-poohed
Hopkins' sand-pit, Whitby now admits, "I'm beginning to like the sand
A tandem truck drives past our 25-ton obelisk bearing five enormous blocks
of granite on its two beds. The crane driver tells us the load weighs 90
tons. It is a sobering reminder of what modern machinery could do for us in
The rope holding the counterweight block breaks. "What did I tell you?"
Abdel Aleem said to Hossam Ali, one of our Egyptian fixers. Aleem claims
to have said all along that the rope was too weak to hold the counterweight,
but would anybody listen?
Sixty of our 120 pullers prepare to "swig" the ropes.
Two of the main ropes suddenly snap, sending the crane, which has been
holding the counterweight, bouncing back on its frame. Luckily no one is
hurt. Roberts, the man in charge of the ropes, throws down his hat in
We stop for lunch and a much-needed break.
As we finish our lunch, Whitby comments that the problem lies with the rope
knots. Roberts flies into a rage and storms off. Rick Brown points out that
if we succeed, we all succeed, if we fail, we all fail, and it's
counterproductive to lay blame. The fact is, no one really knows why the
The extra pullers we asked for at lunch arrive. We now have 120 men ready to
swig. With time running down, the team agrees to use a front-end loader to
serve as counterweight.
With the loader and two teams of 20 swiggers in place, the order is given to
proceed. The obelisk rises up to its highest point yet, but then the anchor
ropes near the loader begin giving way, and Whitby orders the obelisk
lowered back into its original position.
The small obelisk won an unofficial race to vertical.
Aligned along six ropes, three on either side of the obelisk, all 120
swiggers answer the "Hela hop" call with big heaves. The obelisk starts to
move, but instead of rising smoothly, it begins rocking from side to side,
causing the pivot timber to "walk" towards the ramp's brink. When Whitby
calls a halt, Mark Lehner asks him, "Is there a danger the pivot timber
will fall off the
end?" Whitby responds, "It's not a danger, it's a real reality."
After trying to move the pivot timber back from the edge by pounding it with
a giant wooden sledgehammer and "walking" it back by pulling on the side
ropes, the 120 pullers give it another go. But the pivot timber continues to
towards the edge. If it were to go over, the obelisk could fly out of
control. "All the work that's gone into this, and it might just defeat us,"
says an exhausted Roberts.
"Bring in the crane," Whitby cries. The team has decided to lift the obelisk
and reposition it with the crane. "What a behemoth," Lehner notes
unnecessarily as the giant crane, a leftover from the building of the Aswan
High Dam, lurches into view like a metallic Godzilla.
The crane hoists the obelisk while team members shift it. It is now in a
horizontal position; in fact, its nose points slightly downward. The irony
is especially thick, what with Hopkins' perfectly erect obelisk standing
Rick Brown assembles all 120 temporary workers near the butt end of the
obelisk and thanks them for their help. They do a rousing "Hela hop!" for
his camera, then begin dissipating. The NOVA team—including Whitby, who
to miss his flight—agrees to try one more time tomorrow. As team members
pile into our two vans, I take one last shot of Hopkins' obelisk, standing
small but proud against the setting sun.
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)
Explore Ancient Egypt |
Raising the Obelisk |
Meet the Team
Classroom Resources |
Site Map |
Mysteries of the Nile Home
Editor's Picks |
Previous Sites |
Join Us/E-mail |
About NOVA |
Site Map |
PBS Online |
NOVA Online |
© | Updated November 2000