Moments in History

Installation Is The Reverse Of Removal

Worthy of a painting.

I was lucky enough to be in Paris last year. Wandering around unsupervised, a group of us stumbled on the Egyptian obelisk in Place de la Concorde. We stared not for the majesty or heritage, but in disbelief; as engineers, our first instinct was to try to figure out how to move such a monument with appalling 19th-century technology. [1]

Thoughtfully, gilded illustrations on the pedestal show the methods M. LeBas used to lower, transport, and raise the obelisk. These blueprints, however, are difficult to decipher on the spot. The technologies of sailing ships and wooden construction are now as unfamiliar as the Egyptian hieroglyphics. And an explanation of the figures was difficult to find on the traditional internet, so I turned to books published when Egyptology was the equivalent of the space race. [2]

Even in the midst of the industrial revolution and the enlightenment, kings, robber barons, and excitable parts of the public were eager to be associated with the power and lost secrets of ancient Egyptian empires. And in that contemporary age of empire, Egyptian rulers allowed the removal of treasures to balance the goodwill and egos of world powers. By 1880, there was an Egyptian obelisk in Paris, London, and New York.

French ambassadors first negotiated for Cleopatra’s Needle in Alexandria, which was granted during the reign of Charles X. In 1829, as naval architects began to think about moving it, the legendary Champollion, who performed the first translation of the Rosetta stone, suggested asking for a Luxor obelisk instead, due to the beauty and complexity of the hieroglyphics.

The Luxor Obelisk is the smaller one of a pair from the Luxor Temple. Started by Rameses II in the 1200’s BC, two slightly different cartouches were found on the underside of the obelisk, leading to speculation that a later Pharaoh finished the installation. Sculpted from a single piece of red granite, its weight is estimated between 225 and 280 tons. [3]

There were some snags. The British already had a claim on the Luxor obelisks, but accepted the Alexandrian monument as a trade. Then Charles X abdicated, and French negotiators had to explain that the obelisk was clearly a gift to the French nation, not the person of the king. There was a cluster of buildings built up around the base that had to be purchased and demolished. And finally, a hammer tap by a master Italian stonecutter suggested an enormous crack running down the center, which was revealed when the obelisk was finally lowered away from vertical.

Undeterred, construction began in France on a barge named The Luxor to carry the stone along two rivers, under bridges, and across the Mediterranean. To support the entire weight of the monument while beached, five keels were fitted. The Luxor arrived on site in August of 1831.

By September, the obelisk was fully encased in protective scaffolding, and ready to begin the two-stage lowering process. A notched log accepted the pivoting edge, and rode in rounded wooden bearing surfaces. One series of tackles started the rotation, the other caught the weight. The obelisk was lowered 60 degrees in 25 minutes to a second pivot at the center of gravity. This was at the level of the ramp, elevated above the base. The process of incrementally shoring up and slowly dropping the monument the final 30 degrees took another 18 days.

Steps A, Two, iii, and next (b).

All this, as well as transport over 400 yards to the river, was done with a great shortage of timber. For loading, the original plan was to tear down and rebuild the bow of The Luxor. Instead, it was carefully sawed off and lifted clear. Then, with the obelisk secured on board, it was painstakingly reinstalled. The ship’s carpenter was able to replace half the cut boards by scrapping the lowering derricks and sliding tracks.

Then there was a nine month wait for the Nile to rise and float the barge. It was another nine months before the weather allowed a Mediterranean crossing, and finally there was a month’s quarantine when they arrived in France. A slow chain of command meant The Luxor missed the high point of the Seine, and it was more than a year later in Paris when the bow was again opened up so the obelisk could be removed. This was August, now 1834.

This end up. I’m serious.

A workers’ strike prevented changing the banks of the river. LeBas was forced to remove the obelisk at an angle and build a sharp turn into the sliding tracks. Only then was a 236 ton pedestal commissioned. [4] For this reason and other causes “lost to history”, it was October 25th, 1836 before the obelisk was in place at the top of the ramp, ready to be raised into position. A battering ram was used to nudge the edge to exactly the right position. A rotating notched log was again used to protect the corner. Ten beams perpendicular to the casing were used to create a moment from the force of the capstans [5]. 300 artillerymen [6] spent two and a half hours heaving the bars in front of a crowd of 200,000 Parisians. At 45 degrees, when peak loading was reached, the entire structure started to vibrate from the compressive forces. But the obelisk passed safely to within 10 degrees of vertical, when two forgotten chains had to be detached before it dropped perfectly into place.

It took five years and a day to lower, move, and raise the Luxor Obelisk. The cost was rumored to be 2.5 million francs, or $500,000. A later British account “subtly” mocks this, forgetting the advances in metallurgy that quickened the transport of the London and New York needles. And today we’re lucky to have innumerable alloys, plastics, and composite materials. We think we’re pretty smart.

But we still don’t know how the Egyptians did it.

[1] No disrespect meant, not to Fontana’s 16th century transport of an obelisk from the Vatican, nor to the ancient Romans’ frequent transplanting of Egyptian monuments, nor especially the original constructors who truly built for posterity. On the contrary, I extend my compliments.

[2] This was the first time I was not frustrated by Google Books, since just enough time has passed since 1836 for these books to pass into the public domain. If you get me going on freedom of information, you might want to stand back, especially after I’ve spent a day in the patent database.

[3] I almost gave up then and there, just for a moment. Then I remembered I wasn’t the one who had to move it.

[4] The ithyphallic baboons removed from the original pedestal were too inappropriate for public display, but not too inappropriate for the Louvre.

[5] Winches. Huge rope winches.

[6] Rated at 22lbs continuous, there is an encouragement power-up that allows them to provide 40lbs each for several hours. And pulleys, of course, are multipliers.

Sources, Images, and Further Reading:

François Dubois via Wikipedia

Remi Jouan via Wikipedia

Remi Jouan via Wikipedia

Gratuitous Baboon Image, via The Louvre

Egyptian Obelisks, by Henry H. Gorringe, 1885

On The Obelisk Of Luxor, George Godwin, The Architectural Magazine Volume IV, 1837

Cleopatra’s Needle, Benjamin Baker, Minutes Of Proceedings – Institution Of Civil Engineers (Great Britain), Volume 61, 1880

  • FЯeeMan

    These days, one of these:
    and one of these:
    Would get the job done with capacity to spare, and at the road speed of the hauler, would do it in significantly less time. Kudos to the 19th Century Parisians who moved it, and to the 19th(ish) Century BC Egyptians who built it in the first place.

  • Mike England

    I love this picture of the skycrane with what most people would call a tank.
    It is actually an M551 General Sheridan Amphibious Assault Vehicle.
    Thanks for posting this picture.
    This is the smallest armored vehicle and has the largest main gun of any armored vehicle, before or since, regardless of nationality.
    But it only weighs about 26K with a combat load. What does the obelisk weigh again?

  • The Professor

    Excellent article skitter! I've read bits and pieces about how the various Egyptian obelisks were moved, but never about a complete move like this. What incredible work done by all parties.
    Very nice.

  • Deartháir

    Geez, that was a hell of a good read. The rest of you lot are making me look bad.

    Fortunately Techie still phones it in. Thank goodness for that!

  • CaptianNemo2001

    I have known this for years… But then I am a 19th and early 20th century history guru.

    • skitter

      I'd apply for a card at your library, but your bookmobile's route is nowhere near me.

      • CaptianNemo2001

        My library is top secret…

        In other news just found a FREE ww1 submarine simulator. That chronicles the voyages of the E Class submarine AE2. You can get it in 3-D or 2-D and read through all of the interesting history. Plus the sub is, for the most part, still as solid as a rock on the sea floor where it has been sitting since 1915. Wish silent hunter would make a WW1 version with oogles of ships. What a challenge it would be to the sink the sub from the surface or sink a ship from the submarine…

        Here it is: