Goddesses, Obelisks and Dams, oh my!

Egypt feels like the Land of Oz at times…just one magical adventure after another!  Close on the heels of our amazing experience at Abu Simbel, we made our way to our next stop, Aswan.  Here we had the opportunity to see both ancient and modern marvels.

Welcome to Philae!

Temple of Isis at Philae

One of the archaeological sites we visited was the Temple of Philae found on the island of Agilkia.  This temple was built to honour the goddess Isis, who is known through the myths to have raised her slain husband Osiris from the dead and then produced his heir, Horus.  There are other temples to Osiris (Lord of the Underworld and judge of the dead) and Horus (falcon-headed god, seen as the protector) throughout Egypt as well.

As you can see, the entrance to the temple is appropriate to honour a goddess…

Impressive entrance to the temple.

The main courtyard is surrounded by columns, with the top of each column carved differently than the others.

The walls were intricately carved, and we saw virtually every surface covered with images and hieroglyphs.

Carving of Isis (centre) nursing her son Horus, receiving offerings from her husband Osiris.

Construction of the temple occurred around 690 BC and the temple is believed to have remained in use until around 550 AD.  The whole complex needed to be moved before the creation of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was completed.  The carvings throughout the temple were amazing, covering every surface.

In more modern times, the building of the Aswan High Dam and the resultant creation of Lake Nasser required the temple to be moved or be forever lost to the waters of the Nile.  The temple was moved in the late 1960’s prior to the completion of the dam with support from UNESCO.

The Unfinished Obelisk

Aswan was known as a key granite quarry in ancient times, particularly famous for construction of obelisks.  We have seen obelisks in our travels, most notably in Rome and Paris.  We learned that there are more obelisks scattered throughout the world than there are in Egypt today, and have seen many throughout our travels.

Obelisks were built to honour the sun-god, Ra.  The point of the obelisk would often be covered with gold or a silver alloy to reflect the sun’s rays to the people, as you can see from the photo below from our 2014 trip to Paris.

The Obelisk of Luxor at the center of the Place de la Concorde.

One of the most famous obelisks in Egypt remains incomplete in the quarry to this day.  It was to be the largest obelisk every created, and would have been 150 feet tall.

Unfortunately, as the excavation of the obelisk from the granite neared completion, a significant crack appeared and construction was abandoned.  If there’s to be a silver lining to this situation, it is that we are able to learn how the obelisks were likely constructed.

Here’s what we learned:

  • The granite was first tested to ensure it was solid by burrowing holes in it and lighting fires. If the granite cracked from the heat then the stone was not suitable.
  • The outline of the obelisk was then carved into the granite, resulting in a trench around the entire obelisk that workers could fit into.
  • Channels were chiseled out below the obelisk
  • All of the channels were filled with wood and water. The wood expanded from the water, which in turn put pressure on the obelisk.  By chiseling away the remaining rock, the power of the expanding wood was used to break the obelisk away from the rock.

For the unfinished obelisk, it appears that they only got as far as the second step before the granite cracked.

Note the channel around the obelisk for workers to continue to chisel away.

At this point the obelisk was ready to be transported to its final destination, though no actual carvings were completed on the surface at this point.  The final carving was done on site to ensure that the obelisk made it to the final destination without damage.

To transport the obelisk, a channel was dug from the Nile to the quarry and a dock of sorts was created.  The channel was flooded and a barge floated to the dock to accept the carved obelisk.  The water level was dropped so that the barge rested on the floor of the channel, and the obelisk moved on round logs, rolled to the dock and secured to the barge.  Once ready, the channel was again flooded, the barge raised with the water level, and the barge floated out to the Nile to be transported.

How would these giant obelisks be installed?  There were no cranes at the time.  One theory was that two ramps of earth and rock were built on either side of the installation point with a temporary platform between.  People would push the obelisk up the ramp using rounded logs underneath along with people on the opposite ramp using ropes to pull.  Once the base of the obelisk (perhaps ¼ of the length of the obelisk) was on the platform, the platform would be broken away and the obelisk would lower towards the installation point.  The people with ropes would pull to further raise the obelisk while rocks and earth were piled on the opposite side to help support the obelisk as it was being raised.  Once it was fully upright, it was fastened in place and the rocks and earth (and ramps) were cleared away.

Here’s a variation of this approach that was tested more recently.

Another theory was that pure brute force of people with ropes tied at the tip and base of the obelisk were used to raise them.

No one knows for certain…how would you do it without modern technology?

For your last test…can you find the giant unfinished obelisk in this photo?

Where’s the obelisk?!

Aswan High Dam

The Aswan High Dam was built between 1969-1969 and officially commissioned in 1970.  It was created as part of a partnership between Egypt and the Soviet Union. It is an earth-embankment dam which is 3,830 m long, 980 m wide, and 111 m tall.  The resulting Lake Nasser is 550 km long and 35 km wide at its widest point.

Panoramic view of the upstream side of the dam featuring Lake Nasser.


  • Helps to control the annual flooding of the Nile – protection from floods and droughts
  • Improved irrigation opportunities
  • Generates hydro-electric power


  • Over 100,000 people needed to be relocated
  • Silts and deposits usually brought by floods no longer fertilize the Nile so other means are necessary
  • Some archaeological sites were submerged, never to be seen again; others, such as the Temple of Philae and Rameses II temples at Abu Simbel were moved

The following short video from UNESCO shows some original footage from the moves of Abu Simbel and Philae due to rising waters of Lake Nasser.  Quite interesting to see!

The combination of old and new sites we visited in and around Aswan really gave us some good insight into the interactions between ancient and modern Egypt.  The building of the Aswan High Dam has had a variety of impacts to the people, monuments and ecosystem of Egypt and the Nile.  What really was amazing to learn about was the dedication to conserving the ancient temples.  The dam was commissioned in 1970, the same year I was born.  If Egypt had not moved these (and other) ancient sites, I would never have had the opportunity to visit them first hand, let alone our children.  The amount of money spent is staggering…but I am so thankful that the foresight was there to preserve these important sites. For us, our children, and our children’s children…

2 thoughts on “Goddesses, Obelisks and Dams, oh my!”

  1. JEnny says:

    Hi Oliver

    I enjoyed this blog immensely! Outstanding Photographs!

    1. Oliver says:

      Thanks Baba…I tried to keep it short, but there’s just so much interesting information to share!

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