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Unfinished Obelisk aswan

The Mystery of the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan

Lying like a sleeping giant on a granite bed, the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan, Egypt, is an incredible look into the construction methods of these monolithic monuments.

It would have measured around 137 feet (42 meters) if completed and weighed about 1,200 tons. Pharaoh Hatshepsut is believed to have commissioned the work during the 18th Dynasty, more than 3,500 years ago.

Thousands of years later, the Egyptian civilization, its culture, its lifestyle, and its impressive buildings remain a mystery, a true hieroglyph for historians and archaeologists who have developed hundreds of theories about it.

Theories based on the human and the divine try to shed light on how such an ancient civilization had the ability and talent to develop such complex and elaborate architecture. Did they have contact with intelligent extraterrestrial entities, perhaps?

What are Obelisks?

These four-sided conical monuments were called tekhenu by the ancient Egyptians, but we now know them as obelisks, taken from the Greek word obelisks. Typically located at temple entrances, they are the hallmark of old Egyptian ingenuity and engineering.

So beloved by successive civilizations, more than half of the ancient obelisks reside outside of Egypt, having been especially prized by the Romans.

Story of the unfinished obelisk in Aswan

Unfinished Obelisk

Queen Hatshepsut commissioned the construction of the unfinished obelisk in nearly 1,500 BCE. At that time, these monoliths symbolized the presence of the creator god Atum-Re.

Particularly attached to Amon-Rê, one of the forms of this divinity, the queen wanted to pay homage to him by erecting a monument commensurate with his greatness.

She then decided to build the giant obelisk ever made in Egypt and planned to erect it in front of the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, in the city of Thebes. The queen, therefore, requisitioned the Aswan granite quarry for the works.

Under the directives of the royal architects, the stonemasons chose the most homogeneous rock bench on the site. They began to tamp its surface to make it perfectly smooth. Then they dug trenches all around the rock. This part was to constitute the thickness of the obelisk.

As they began to carve out the lower part of the building, they suddenly heard a thud and a heartbreaking sound. A sound they knew too well. They all rushed to the surface of the monument.

Their concerns were then confirmed. A large crack had appeared on the cover of the forming obelisk, and the stone had cracked under the hammer blows. And instantly, all the workers’ hard work was reduced to nothing.

Informed of the tragedy, Hatshepsut saw it as a sign from the gods. His nephew and successor, Thutmose III, was to be the builder of the Karnak obelisks, a work he completed several years later. The queen’s project was therefore abandoned, and the obelisk remains unfinished.

The Tools used in the construction of this obelisk

Egypt’s highest quality granite was quarried in Aswan. The ancient quarries at Aswan stretched six kilometers along the Nile. The red granite of this rock deposit was the preferred material for building pyramids.

Sarcophagus chambers, paneling, false doors, interior corridor walls, pillars, columns, and door constructions were made from this hard rock.

The area around the First Cataract is full of large and small granite boulders, and this is how the upcoming granite became the export hit of the region.

On significant construction projects, shipping expeditions were sent to the Aswan area to transport high-quality material and bring it to the country’s construction sites.

In the granite quarries around Aswan, columns of workers were constantly active and broke the corresponding boulders and blocks from the surrounding rock formations as required.

The unfinished obelisk and the quarries themselves give a glimpse into the stone-working technique of the ancient Egyptians, as the marks of their working tools can still be seen on the rock surface.  

Some other lines were probably drawn to mark the places where the workers were to cut out the granite. The granite quarrying and the work on the unfinished obelisk were carried out with stone hammers from the basalt rock dolerite, which is more complex than granite and designed to cut through the rocks.

They used a unique technique to separate the granite from the bedrock, creating tiny cavities in the rock body along the line of desired detachment.

These cavities were then filled with wood shavings, and the shavings were thoroughly soaked with water. This soaking increased the volume of the wood, causing the stone to crack along the drawn lines and eventually detach from its base.

However, until recently, nothing could be found about their other technological tools used in architecture or hard granite sculpting.

The historical value of the unfinished Egypt Obelisk 

Today, the Aswan Obelisk is a natural outdoor museum that allows us to take a virtual journey into a distant world full of mysteries.

The original purpose of the work and who commissioned it remain unknown. This makes the unfinished obelisk, which is the pride of the city of Aswan, even more interesting because it is shrouded in mystery.

About the author

Egypt Planners Team is a highly experienced travel agency specializing in memorable trips to Egypt. The team comprises expert travel planners and tour guides with a deep knowledge of Egypt's history, culture, and top tourist destinations.