Before continuing with the pyramids I would like to dwell for a moment on another monument that has played a fundamental role in the religion of ancient Egypt, the obelisk.
Among the remains of the ancient civilizations of the past, from the Egyptians to the Sumerians to the Mesopotamians, the Greeks and the Romans, nothing stands out like the Egyptian obelisks.
Forty centuries ago a civilization so remote, with often primitive techniques, carved, extracted, transported by land and by water, sculpted and decorated colossal granite monoliths, which then rose to the sky with the top covered with gold.
They were the Greeks to define them with the word “Obelos” or spit, “Obeliskos” is the diminutive word that means “skewer“, interesting is the fact that also the correspondent in Arabic “Messalab“, which means big darning needle, is also it alludes to the elongated and tapered shape of the monument.
The obelisks form the shape of a long square-section pyramid trunk on top of which is the pyramidion, a pyramid-shaped cusp, generally lined with sheets of gold, electro or copper to shine as bright as a sunbeam.
The Benben stone
The Pyramidion, in Egyptian mythology, identified the Benben stone, in the cosmogony of Heliopolis, (Ennead), it was the primitive hill that emerged from the chaos of the primordial ocean, the Nun, on whose top the creator god, Atum, generated himself and the first divine couple.
In the texts of the pyramids, it is the same Atum to be identified as the “hill” that turns into the small pyramid, located in Annu, his residence.
The Benben stones were believed to have existed from time immemorial in Heliopolis and were often associated with the bird “Benu” (the phoenix).
It told the tradition that Benu was self-generated and from the East, it reached Heliopolis where it lived for five hundred years, then returned to the East where it rose from its ashes to return to Heliopolis.
In many tombs, the phoenix is represented as it is associated with the god of the dead. Again the Pyramid Texts tell us: << ……. O Atum, Creator. You raised yourself above the hill, you raised yourself like the Benben stone in the home of the phoenix in Heliopolis …… >>.
Pliny the Elder, (23-79 AD), confirms that the obelisks symbolized the rays of the sun, the confirmation we find in an inscription dedicated to the sun god: “Ubenek em BenBen“, (“You shine like stone Benben“).
The Pyramidion form
We do not know when the first obelisk was built, but we know that the solar temple of the pharaoh Niuserra of the fifth dynasty, (about 2450 BC), discovered by Perring at Abu Gurab, in 1837, but already known as the “pyramid of Reegah”, was dominated in the courtyard by a mighty base in the shape of a truncated pyramid about 20 meters high on which towered a squat brick obelisk about 36 meters high, all in white limestone, the cusp of the obelisk was formed by a pyramidion in granite covered with sheets of golden copper to reflect the rays of the sun.
Until recently it was thought that the first monolithic obelisks had appeared around 2300 BC and this was deduced from an inscription positioned at the entrance of a tomb in the necropolis of Qubbat-al-Hawa which reads: “…… the greatness of my Lord (Pharaoh) sent me to build two ships to the country of Ouaouat (Lower Nubia) to transport two obelisks to the north of Heliopolis ….. “.
It was only in 1972 when Eliopoli was discovered in the city of God Ra, the upper part in quartzite, about three meters high, of a monolithic obelisk with a dedication to the Pharaoh Teti I, Dynasty VI (2.350 – 2.340 BC), this is therefore considered the oldest monolithic obelisk of which we know.
The obelisk itself symbolized the same god Ra. This symbolism derived from an ancient propitiatory rite that had the extra-empirical function of guaranteeing the fertility of the land and the goodness of the crops.
During the religious parenthesis of the reforming pharaoh Akhenaton the obelisk was identified as a petrified ray of the sun god Aton.
The obelisks were also a symbol of power, as they had to remind the subjects of the existence of a link between the pharaoh and the divinity.
When an obelisk was erected, the event was often commemorated by issuing stone scarabs that depicted the pharaoh kneeling in adoration of the monument.
The unfinished obelisk
When we ask ourselves how did the Egyptians to extract from the quarry, sculpt, transport, lift tens of meters high and install, in an extremely perfect way, blocks of hard granite weighing about 70 tons, (pyramid of Cheops), is immediately to ask what they invented to do it with a monolith weighing about 1,200 tons.
Perhaps it was not a problem for them, it is enough to look at the unfinished Aswan obelisk.
The colossus lies stretched out in a large pink granite quarry located about 2 km south of the city of Aswan, in Egypt; the extraction was probably not completed due to the appearance, during processing, of large cracks in the rock which occurred during the operations of the detachment of the lower side.
The unfinished obelisk measures 42 meters long and if it had been erected it would have been the highest in the world.
Obviously one wonders how they did it. The hypothesis advanced by some is that the workers used diabase or dolerite rock balls, a harder stone than granite, and with it they struck the rock, slowly consuming it.
The thing would be deduced from the concave traces present all around the monolith and from the finding of some of these balls.
I dare not comment if indeed the method used was that I believe that the workers would still be working on it today (a completely personal and non-binding opinion).
I close by recalling that Rome is also the capital of the obelisks, given that in all of Egypt there are only 9 erected while in Rome there are 13 of them.\
By: Piero Cargnino
Sources and bibliography:
Erik Iversen, “Obelisks in exile”, Vol. I, Copenhagen 1968
Labib Habachi, “The Egyptian obelisks”, Big Pocket Newton & Compton, Rome, 1977
Cesare D’Onofrio, “The obelisks of Rome”, Rome 1967)