It’s the 15th century B.C., and Pharaoh Hatshepsut rules over ancient Egypt. For her greater glory, a large team of artisans are chipping away at a 137-foot long slab of red granite in the Northern Quarries of Aswan. Carving what is planned to be the largest obelisk ever seen is hot, laborious and dusty work. But the project comes to an abrupt halt. A problem has emerged, and it’s one that will never be solved. The 1,200-ton lump of stone is left unfinished – marooned in the bedrock it was hewn from.
That unfinished obelisk still sits in the Northern Quarries today and has become a major tourist attraction. Yet visitors must wonder why this massive stone column was never finished. The quarry where the unfinished obelisk lies is set in the city of Aswan – a bit less than a mile from the River Nile’s eastern bank. Originally covering nearly 60 square miles, much of the ancient quarrying area has disappeared since the 1960s with the development of modern Aswan. But the site of the unfinished obelisk is preserved.
Such is the scale of this massive obelisk that you can actually take a look at it on Google Maps satellite view. But viewing it from above doesn’t answer the question: why was it never finished? You also get a real sense of the scale of this huge column of granite in pictures that show people walking along its length. And it’s weight is nothing to be sniffed at, either. According to the Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, it weighs the equivalent of 200 average-size African bull elephants.
It was a British Egyptologist who cleared the rubble that had partially covered the obelisk over the millennia. Apparently, when Reginald Engelbach started work in 1922, there were only some 60 feet of the obelisk’s 137 feet visible. Though once the obelisk was revealed in all its glory, it soon became clear that it was a unique opportunity to learn more about how the ancient Egyptians constructed these monumental stone towers. Then there was also the question of why it had never been completed.
For the unfinished obelisk is just one of many that were carved and erected. They were constructed predominantly during the period known as the New Kingdom, which lasted from around 1570 to 1069 B.C. That timescale includes the reign of Pharaoh Hatshepsut – the woman who commissioned our unfinished obelisk. And the fact that the work was never completed can hardly have pleased her. We can only wonder whether her likely wrath took a toll on the craftsmen tasked with carving the obelisk.
So just who was this Hatshepsut? Well, thanks to hieroglyphic inscriptions on various ancient monuments, we know a surprising amount about her succession to the Egyptian throne some 3,500 years ago. Yet female pharaohs were not unheard of. After all, there were at least seven altogether – including the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt some 1,400 years after Hatshepsut. But when the latter became leader, there had only been two or perhaps three female rulers in the preceding 15 centuries.
Hatshepsut was the eldest daughter of Pharaoh Thutmose I and Ahmose. And the former had an incestuous marriage – like many of the ancient Egyptian royal class. At the age of about 12, she wed her half-brother Thutmose II, who shared her father but had a different mother: Mutnofret. It was Thutmose II who took the throne when his father died around 1492 B.C. But Hatshepsut’s day was yet to come.
In 1479 B.C. – some 13 years after Thutmose II became pharaoh – he died and was succeeded by a son. Interestingly, though, the latter was not a child of Hatshepsut, but of a woman from the Pharaoh’s harem: Isis. Hatshepsut had only given birth once – to a girl called Neferure. The new pharaoh Thutmose III was still only an infant and too young to rule, so Hatshepsut took on the role of regent.
Speaking to Smithsonian Magazine in 2006, Egyptologist Peter Dorman said, “I think it would have been pretty much the norm for Hatshepsut to step in. But it’s also quite clear that Thutmose III was recognized as king from the very start.” Yes, it seems that for the first years of her role as regent, Hatshepsut played the part in the expected way.
Hatshepsut simply acted as a proxy for the young Thutmose III, who retained his position as sole pharaoh. But around seven years after the start of her regency, the former was elevated to the position of pharaoh. So now Egypt had two rulers. Yet Hatshepsut and Thutmose – who was both her nephew and her stepson – were apparently not equal partners.
Hatshepsut, it’s said, was the dominant partner in the ruling duo. And something strange was happening. In the early years of the regency, Hatshepsut had been portrayed in carvings as conventionally feminine – dressed in women’s clothing and with a female physique. But this changed dramatically in later representations of her.
Portraits of Hatshepsut began to show her in male dress and wearing the strange fake beard that male pharaohs sported. So what can we make of this apparent cross-dressing? Well, these representations strongly suggest that she had taken on the full role of ruler rather than merely continuing as regent. Why had this happened? Mid-20th-century scholars perhaps betrayed more than a little of their underlying prejudices in their analysis of the situation.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, in the 1950s William C. Hayes of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum called Hatshepsut the “vilest type of usurper.” He continued, “It was not long before this vain, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman showed… her true colors.” But a more recent interpretation of events during Hatshepsut’s rule has been rather more generous in its judgment of her – and, we might think, a lot less sexist.
Another Metropolitan Museum staffer – Egyptian art curator Catharine Roehrig – told the publication in 2006, “Hatshepsut may have had to declare herself king to protect the kingship for her stepson.” She reasoned that some kind of national emergency – such as an attempted coup – might have prompted the queen to take the reins of power. Perhaps it was then that she started to commission massive public works. And this may have included the puzzlingly unfinished obelisk.
Roehrig also said that what we know of the way Hatshepsut treated her co-pharaoh Thutmose contradicts the idea that she grabbed power. What’s more, once she had taken on the role of pharaoh, giving that up when her stepson was old enough to rule simply wasn’t an option. As Renée Dreyfus of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums put it, “Once you took on the attributes of kingship, that was it. You were a god. It’s not queen for a day, it’s king for all time.”
In any case, one thing that Hatshepsut is well remembered for is the ambitious program of construction that she launched during her reign. There were various major projects dotted around her realm. But the most impressive buildings, roads and temples were established around Thebes. This was the religious and royal headquarters of the house of Thutmose. And that incomplete obelisk was likely bound for Thebes until work on it stopped for some reason.
Hatshepsut’s best-known building is the massive temple and funerary building she commissioned at Deir el-Bahri – just across the River Nile from Thebes in the Valley of the Kings. It’s on a massive scale, with rows of columns set around sweeping open spaces at the base of soaring limestone cliffs. This huge public building was intended as a guarantee that the goddess Hatshepsut would live on forever after death. Yet unlike that ill-fated obelisk at Aswan, it was actually completed.
As we know, Hatshepsut also commissioned obelisks. There’s the one we’ve already described that was never completed after work was abruptly abandoned. But the pharaoh had more success with other obelisks that she ordered her artisans to create. She had four obelisks made, which were erected at Karnak – the temple complex at Thebes. And one of those remains in place to this day.
According to CBS, this surviving obelisk stands 97 feet tall – making it the tallest in modern Egypt. That also makes it some 40 feet shorter than the unfinished obelisk. Its base includes 32 lines of hieroglyphics, which reveal a surprising amount about this female pharaoh. It seems that Hatshepsut had a penchant for self-doubt – perhaps surprising in a woman who was regarded by her subjects as a living god. Or maybe not, given the likely stress of being both a national leader and a goddess.
An article published in National Geographic in 2009 quotes the translation of some of the text carved into the base of the obelisk at Karnak. It reads, “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” Yes, she may have had one doubtful eye on how posterity would regard her.
Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for 21 years and died in around 1458 B.C. Though she was not fondly remembered after her death. In fact, it seems her stepson and co-pharaoh Thutmose III – who now ruled alone – did his best to wipe her memory from history. Alternatively, a number of researchers believe that various acts of vandalism happened some time after Thutmose III’s own death.
Whoever attempted to expunge Hatshepsut’s legacy from the record did their best to make a thorough job of it. Monuments and statues commemorating her were defaced or destroyed altogether. But the curiously unfinished obelisk was left to its fate. And it begs the question: why was the pharaoh’s heritage demolished? Well, it’s not clearly understood, although one theory is that Thutmose wanted there to be a clearly unbroken line of male succession. Perhaps having a female pharaoh in the lineage was just too far beyond the pale.
This attempt to eradicate Hatshepsut from the historical record seems to have succeeded for many centuries. Amazingly, it was not until 1822 that the hieroglyphs at the Dayr al-Bahri tomb were finally deciphered. Only then did the full story of this female pharaoh emerge. Yet it took some time for experts to figure out that although Hatshepsut was often portrayed in a masculine way, she was in fact a woman. They also had the puzzle of why the obelisk was never finished to tackle.
We’ve seen that one part of Hatshepsut’s legacy is the 3,500-year-old obelisk that still stands at Karnak – the largest left in Egypt today. Perhaps that is something of a consolation to the pharaoh if she is indeed enjoying eternal life after death. Though it’s easy to imagine that there is one thing which must be a constant source of regret to the goddess in her eternal after-life.
If the obelisk that was abandoned at the Aswan Northern Quarries had been completed, it would have been the most splendid she erected, according to Atlas Obscura. The unfinished obelisk, it’s believed, would have been the tallest ever seen in ancient Egypt. But it was not to be. One day, the workmen apparently walked off the job – leaving their task unfinished.
Any of you who have had your home remodeled knows that builders are not always 100 percent reliable. But just why did those ancient Egyptian artisans leave their handiwork incomplete? Since they were working for an all-powerful pharaoh, it’s unlikely that they downed tools without a very good reason. After all, no sensible person likes to be on the wrong end of an absolute monarch’s displeasure.
Yet it turns out that there was a simple but devastating reason that work shuddered to a halt. Cracks had appeared on the red granite slab from which the obelisk was being fashioned. Obviously, the structural integrity of an obelisk depends on the stone being in one piece. The cracks meant that it would probably have fallen apart when it was erected. And there was no way to alleviate the fissures – especially a large one in the center of the stone.
PBS quoted some words written by Reginald Engelbach in a 1999 article. This was the English archeologist we met earlier who excavated and studied the obelisk in the early 1920s. He wrote, “The Aswan Obelisk enables the visitor to look with different eyes on the finished monuments. And [it helps us] realize… the heartbreaking failures which must sometimes have driven the old engineers to the verge of despair before a perfect monument could be presented by the king to his god.”
This misfortune denied Hatshepsut her magnificent obelisk and we can imagine may well have caused the workers much grief. Though it has its positive side, too. It’s allowed researchers to learn an enormous amount about just how these massive monuments were constructed 3,500 years ago. Remember, it was a feat they achieved without the benefit of modern power tools.
Author Rosalie David wrote in her work Handbook to life in Ancient Egypt, “Evidence at Aswan indicates that to remove the stone the masons probably chiseled holes into the rock to a depth of about six inches. [They] then forced wooden wedges into these holes before moistening them with water so that the wood swelled and caused the rock to split.”
Amazingly, the pressure of expanding wet wood is enough to split solid granite. Who knew? According to experts, once the block had been separated from the bedrock, hand tools were then used to give the obelisk its final shape. These tools were made from copper or dolerite – an incredibly hard rock. Yet there is some doubt about the exact nature of the tools that those ancient Egyptian stone masons used.
One brave researcher called Peter Tyson tried out the technique of hammering away at solid granite with a lump of dolerite for himself for a show on PBS’ NOVA series in 1999. Though it turned out to be a thankless and disagreeable task. Describing the experience, he wrote, “Cupping a greenish-black dolerite ball in my hands, I brought it down with a crack onto a block of granite. Over and over, I bounced it on the same spot, [until] I thought I’d scrape the skin off my palms.”
Tyson’s ordeal continued, “After ten minutes, my wrists hurt from trying to guide the 12-pound rock in at an angle – the better to break the granite – and stabs of pain began shooting up my arms. I did it for only 20 minutes, and all I had to show for it was a baby’s palmful of granite dust. And the granite’s surface looked no different than when I’d started.” Yep, rather him than us.
Perhaps those ancient Egyptians were stronger, more skilled or had greater endurance than the unfortunate Tyson. Then again, maybe they were spurred on by fear of their ultimate boss: Hatshepsut. In any case, we know that they were capable of hewing these incredible monuments from the bare rock. And though we can’t be exactly sure how they managed to complete these masterful examples of masonry, there’s no doubt about their achievements.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, they were capable of completing an obelisk project – including transporting it to its final destination and raising it – within seven months. That is a tremendous feat, but it raises more tricky questions. The Northern Quarries at Aswan – where many obelisks were made – lie far from the most likely final destination of the stone works: the Valley of the Kings at Thebes.
As the crow flies, the distance from Aswan to Thebes is well over 100 miles. That’s a long way to lug 1,200 tones of granite. Yet there is a handy way of transporting large items between the two places – the River Nile, which flows between them. The Ancient History Encyclopedia online quotes a description of this process from historian and author Margaret Bunson.
Bunson wrote, “When the pillar was carved to satisfaction, ropes were slung around it and the stone was raised and placed on a heavy sledge. It took several thousand workmen to pull the sledge to the banks of the Nile. There, vessels waited in dry docks specially designed to allow safe loading of the pillars.” It sounds like an extremely arduous, but doable job.
After the obelisk had been loaded aboard its transporting vessel, the dock gates would be opened and the ship with its cargo would float out onto the Nile. Once on the river, Bunson explains, “Nine galleys, each with more than 30 rowers, towed the vessel and the obelisk to Thebes where a ceremonial ritual and vast crowds awaited their arrival.” Yep, that sounds like some tough rowing.
So we can be fairly confident that we – mostly – understand how those ancient Egyptians in the time of Pharaoh Hatshepsut built and transported huge obelisks. But we’re left with one last puzzle. You’ve hauled the obelisk to its final destination on its side. How on earth do you now raise it from the horizontal to the vertical? Modern researchers have tried to replicate how this might have been done without success. It remains an unsolved mystery.
Yet Hatshepsut’s loss was a gain for modern Egyptology. We can only imagine how angry she might have been when her project manager explained that the job was a complete write-off because of those cracks. On the other hand, perhaps she was philosophical – seeing it as just another example of the capricious will of her fellow gods. But we can be thankful that this fascinating artifact with so much to tell us about ancient Egypt has survived for 3,500 years.