The Ancient Quarry of Aswan and the Unfinished Obelisk

In this destination trip report we visit the unfinished obelisk of Aswan in one of the ancient Egyptian quarries.

Aswan

After a fun train ride on the Ernst Watania night train I found myself in Aswan, Egypt’s most southern city. In Aswan I would start my cruise on the River Nile, taking me downstream towards Luxor.

I had arranged the entire cruise package through Luxor & Aswan Travel Agency, a tour agency which I can wholeheartedly recommend as I had nothing but good experiences.

Included in my cruise package were visits to almost all the sights along the route with a private guide, whom I would meet at the station in Aswan.

Indeed, my delightful guide Mohammed Badawy was waiting for me in front of the station building and warmly welcomed me to his hometown of Aswan.

Mohammed explained that first we would visit two major ancient Egyptian archaeological sites in Aswan and that around lunchtime we would check in at the riverboat. To visit the sights in and around Aswan we would have our private car, a comfortable SUV which was well-stocked with cold bottles of water.

aswan station ernst watania sleeping train
The Ernst Watania Sleeping Train has arrived from Aswan after making the overnight journey from Cairo. ©Paliparan
aswan railway station
Aswan Station, the far southern end of Egypt’s passenger railway network. ©Paliparan

Stone quarry

Our first stop for today was the ancient Egyptian quarry of Aswan where stonemasons carved all kinds of obelisks and statues from granite.

In ancient times, there were many different quarries in and around Aswan for a simple reason. The rocks were of good quality and it was easy to transport the finished obelisks and statues downriver by boat as all quarries were just a short distance away from the banks of the Nile.

Although the quarry is one of the lesser-known ancient sites in Egypt, it turned out to be a fascinating visit. That was certainly in big part due to the expertise of my guide Mohammed, who had studied archaeology at university and is a great source of knowledge about ancient Egypt.

In an interactive and imaginative way, Mohammed explained how the ancient Egyptians were able to create giant, perfectly shaped obelisks well over 3,000 years ago.

quarry aswan
The ancient Egyptian quarry in Aswan. ©Paliparan
granite rock
Mohammed showing how the Egyptians used to carve and smoothen the surface of the granite rock using special stones. ©Paliparan

The unfinished obelisk

Without a doubt the highlight of the Aswan quarry is the unfinished obelisk. This large obelisk has only been partially carved out of the rock as the project was abandoned when the stonemasons discovered a huge crack down the middle which couldn’t be fixed.

Thanks the unfinished obelisk, archaeologists have learned a great deal about stone carving techniques in ancient Egypt.

The unfinished obelisk is certainly an impressive sight. Although it may not be as evocative and internationally known as the Pyramids at Giza or the temples and tombs at Luxor, it certainly is as interesting if you want to learn more about Egyptian history.

To do justice to the quarry and the unfinished obelisk it is however highly advisable to have a quality guide with you, and I was certainly happy that I had Mohammed with me to show me around.

I doubt a visit to the quarry would be as interesting without someone who can actually tell you the technical story behind ancient Egyptian stone carving and construction techniques and bring it all to life.

unfinished obelisk aswan
The unfinished obelisk of Aswan. ©Paliparan

Making an obelisk

As you can see from the unfinished obelisk, these giant objects were carved out of the rock vertically. The sides of the unfinished obelisk – 42 metres long – have been partially and crudely carved out. The bottom face of the obelisk is however still attached to the bedrock.

To separate the obelisk from the bedrock, the stonemasons used several techniques. Perhaps the most interesting technique involves drilling holes into the rock along a line.

Wooden spikes were then placed into these holes, after which they were wetted with water. The wooden spikes would then expand and crack the rock around the hole, basically creating one rudimentary crack along the side of the would-be-obelisk.

After this, the rock could be carved out much more easily with chisels and other tools. The rough surface of the rock was smoothened by rubbing special stones over it.

unfinished obelisk
The unfinished obelisk of Aswan. ©Paliparan
unfinished obelisk
Although the unfinished obelisk was separated from both sides, the bottom face was still attached to the bedrock. In this passage, the stonemasons would stand to carve out the obelisk. ©Paliparan
unfinished obelisk aswan
The unfinished obelisk of Aswan. ©Paliparan
koen aswan
Your truly standing in front of the unfinished obelisk. ©Paliparan

Craftsmen

As an interesting side note, contrary to popular belief most of the work on large-scale construction projects in ancient Egypt did not involve slave labour.

At a site like the quarry of Aswan, skilled stonemasons and other craftsmen would work year-round and would get paid for the job, benefiting as well from free food and lodging.

Of course, to create the massive temples and pyramids, also a lot of unskilled labour was needed. For this, the ancient Egyptians just used local peasants.

As these peasants were not able to cultivate the lands on the banks along the River Nile during flood season, many would take seasonal work in service of the Pharaoh.

They would get paid with food, beer and even clothing – and would benefit as well from free lodging during the time they spent working away from home. After the flood season, they would simply return home again to raise the crops on their farms.

Conclusion

Although the unfinished obelisk was perhaps on paper one of the least interesting stops on the itinerary of my river cruise, it turned out to be one of the most insightful.

At the old Egyptian quarry of Aswan, the craftmanship and construction techniques used in ancient times really come alive – although you really need a good guide for this.

I was certainly happy I had Mohammed at my side to explain in detail how the Egyptians were able to create the most fine and exquisite sculptures and objects more than 3,000 years back in time.

The unfinished obelisk is certainly not as pretty to see as the Giza Pyramids or the the tombs and temples of Luxor – but that is not the point.

By visiting the Aswan quarry and the unfinished obelisk, you learn so much about the old construction methods being used that you really start to appreciate all the ancient Egyptian sights you will see afterwards even more.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian: A Grand Tour of Egypt‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Red-Eye Ramblings of a Late Night Flight to Cairo
2. A Visit to the Pyramids of Giza by Camel
3. Review: Sofitel Nile El Gezirah, Zamalek, Cairo
4. Exploring the Medieval Old Town and Islamic History of Cairo
5. Visiting the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo
6. Mar Girgis: The Churches of Christian Old Cairo
7. Review: Ernst Watania Sleeping Train Cairo to Aswan
8. The Ancient Quarry of Aswan and the Unfinished Obelisk (current chapter)
9. A Boat Ride From Aswan to the Temple of Isis at Philae
10. A Visit to the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser

** rest of the chapters to follow soon **

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.