In Aswan, a “pilgrimage” not to be missed: the unfinished obelisk …

Unfinished Obelisk in one of Aswan granite quarries,
about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery

Let’s have a look at the forever magical land of Egypt and their philosophical relationship to the stones.


Marie Grillot

Marie Grillot Égypte-actualités with a great thank.

Translated from French.

To pay homage to a broken destiny, to hope of shattered greatness, you have to go to the quarries of Aswan, about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery…

In this place lies the one that could have been the highest obelisk in Egypt,… Wearing its sparkling pyramidion, it would then proudly bear the name and the cartouches of the pharaoh who ordered its execution…

But, “in Antiquity, at the time of the extraction, the team in charge of the operation discovered cracks on the block and tried several times to reduce its size. These attempts were unsuccessful and the monument was abandoned “(Nessim Henry Henein – BIFAO 109).

Cracks on the block of the unfinished obelisk in one of Aswan granite quarries,
about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery

Florence Maruéjol reminds us of all the symbolism of the obelisks: “Like most elements of religious architecture, they are loaded with symbols. They materialize the Benben, the sacred stone venerated in antiquity in the temple of Heliopolis. They also embody the primordial hill on which the sun landed at the beginning of the world. They are also assimilated to petrified sunbeams “.

Giving up all hope of embodying this, he remained forever “fused” connected by one side to this stone bench of Syene, name of the ancient city of Aswan.

Overview of the Aswan granite quarry,
located approximately 2 km south of the city near the Fatimid cemetery

Clot Bey informs us about the mineralogical and geological composition which gave it its name: “Around Aswan, there are these varieties of granite, so famous in antiquity, known as syenite. We find in this mineralogical bench syenites pink, porphyritic, pink and yellow, grey, white and black, grey and pink, veined and black; porphyritic gneiss, white and quartz granites. Most of the huge monoliths left to us by the Egyptians, the obelisks, the colossi, are red syenite; we also see many statues and emblematic monuments of a smaller volume in black or grey syenite “.

Unfinished Obelisk is one of Aswan granite quarries, about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery
Photo dated 1890
Aswan, half of the year obelisk in quarry – circa 1890

Jean-Jacques Ampère, in his “Travel and Research in Egypt and Nubia” published in 1848 describes his visit thus:

We wandered curiously in the quarries of Syene. These quarries are a plain of granite cut in the open air for the needs of Egyptian architecture and especially sculpture. Egypt offers, in fact, very few monuments built in granite, but all the obelisks, many statues and sphinxes are of granite and of this pink granite peculiar to Syene, from where it took the name of syenite. It is from here that these famous monoliths came out, which, after decorating Thebes or Heliopolis, now embellish the squares of Rome and Paris. We understand how these masses could be detached. Holes that can still be seen arranged along with a horizontal slit show how large pieces of granite were separated from the rock. In these holes, the corners were used to break the rock.

We even see in Syene’s quarry an obelisk which has not been entirely detached; it is there lying on the ground, to which still holds by one side. By contemplating this living testimony of a work which has stopped for so many centuries, it seems that we are witnessing this work and that we see it being interrupted. One can believe that the workers, after taking their nap, will come back and finish their work; the unfinished work still seems to last. “

For many years this notion of the use of “corners” persisted, even Marcelle Baud in his Blue Guide will echo it: “They (the old quarries) show the process used by the Egyptians for the extraction of These notches, which delimited the surface to be extracted, received wooden wedges which were then wet. The swelling wood caused the block to burst in the delimited places and this obtained roughly smooth surfaces ready for polishing”…

In the 1920’s, Reginald – Rex – Engelbach, Egyptologist English, devoted several seasons
to study the unfinished obelisk Aswan and restore its findings in three reference books

But the truth about the exact technique used will emerge from 1920 – 1921, thanks to Pierre Lacau, then head of the Antiquities Service, which entrusted the study of the unfinished obelisk to Réginald Engelbach.

In his Report on the works carried out during the winter of 1920-21, he made the following observation:

“In Aswan, all the tourists knew the unfinished obelisk which still lies in place in the granite quarry. The sand had invaded it and it had to be cleared again. I took the opportunity to try to clear it in a complete way, in order to examine closely the technical procedures of the Egyptian quarrymen. M. Engelbach, the chief inspector for Upper Egypt, was charged with the work and he was pleasantly surprised to see the enormous needle stretch out in a disproportionate way; the part currently cleared of the debris which covered it is already 36 meters long, and the work is not finished. It is therefore already the largest of the known obelisks (we have one of thirty and one meters only). One cannot help but think of the well-known text by Deir el Bahari which tells us about obelisks of fifty-two meters; this surprising figure is much less likely now to be only an exaggeration. “

Rex Engelbach, an English Egyptologist of Alsatian origin, remembers: “Although its existence has been known for centuries, the unfinished obelisk had never been cleared until the end of this winter of 1922 when my department allocated the sum of LE 75 to do it. In this work, I was assisted by Mahmûd Eff. Mohamed and Mustafa Eff. Hassan of the department of antiquities who supervised the workers”.

He initially trained as an engineer and finds there a very interesting subject of study: he seeks to understand why this immense long-form mass carved in granite, this monument of more than 1100 tonnes was abandoned there in the New Empire.

Unfinished Obelisk in one of Aswan granite quarries at about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery
Partially quarried “Unfinished Obelisk”; 18th Dynasty 1539-1292 BC gold.
(Underwood & Underwood Co .; entre pictures taken in 1900 and 1920).
These photos show the obelisk as it was when Engelbach began to study

He senses that what in antiquity might have appeared as a catastrophe, a waste of time for workers and sponsors, contains a wealth of information, a source of knowledge and understanding of the work and extraction of these materials. monoliths from the Pharaonic eras.

He devotes several seasons to exploring the site, he excavates, clears, clears the pit that surrounds the obelisk, drawing information, remarks and conclusions which he will reproduce in three works.

In “The Aswân Obelisk”, “he provides a complete and detailed description of the obelisk. Far from being limited to a description of the boulder, the trenches surrounding it, the wells and certain details which struck it on the site, he develops hypotheses and tries to elucidate the way in which the various operations relating to obelisks were to be conducted, from the marking on the surface of the granite hill of the quarry to their erection in front of the pylons of the temples. “

Dolerite balls made    near the obelisk incomplete in one of Aswan granite quarries
about 2 km south of the city, near the Fatimid cemetery

In “The Problem of the Obelisks”, “he explains the stages in the production of the obelisk in four points: – equalization of the upper layer of the block obtained by thermal shock; – use of Dolerite balls to equalize the surfaces; – drawing of the contours of the obelisk traced on the upper surface after levelling; – realization of the trench which surrounds it “.

He came to this staggering observation in particular: “We used neither scissors nor wedges to detach the obelisk from the quarry; the dolerite balls were the only tools used. In other words, the obelisk was not cut but excavated … Not only the sides but also the underside of the obelisk were detached by percussion. “

And finally, in “The Wonder of the Obelisk”, he summarizes all the knowledge acquired during his excavations.

If this obelisk did not illuminate a temple with its presence, it served many other functions. Thanks to Engelbach, he shed light on the “making” of his fellows. He also brought to our attention the excellent level of technicality enjoyed by tailors, and he always recalls the almost philosopher’s relationship that the ancient Egyptians had with stone…

Marie Grillot


BIFAO 109 (2009), p. 221-237 Nessim Henry HeneinNotes on the extraction of the Unfinished Obelisk in Aswan quarries© 2019 IFAO BIFAO online https://www.ifao.egnet.net100 questions about ancient Egypt, Florence Maruéjol, La Boétie, 2013

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