"The Axum Obelisk, which has adorned a Roman piazza for the last 67 years, is waiting to be shipped back to Ethiopia."
A remarkable event will occur in April: the return to Ethiopia of the 1700-year-old Axum Obelisk. Seized by dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, this funerary monument a 78-foot-tall royal grave marker was one of the most important surviving artifacts of a pre-Christian site in northern Ethiopia; for years it has been decoration in front of the U.N.'s Food & Agriculture Organization headquarters, down the road from Rome's Coliseum. Its weight is a point of dispute: the BBC says it's 160 tons; ABC News says it's 200 tons; the more-scientific Ethiopians say it's 188 tons. NPR offers a wonderful audio interview with Richard Pankhurst, of the Committee for the Return of the Axum Obelisk, about its homecoming to Ethiopia, where a national holiday is being declared.
How do you move an obelisk that weighs close to 200 tons? The ever-ingenious Italians are busting it into three pieces. Ethiopia has had to build a special runway for the only aircraft big enough to carry the pieces, the U.S.-built C5 Galaxy. (The first segment is currently in a warehouse near Rome's Fiumicino airport awaiting transportation; the prerequisite Galaxy is not available.) The cost of moving it $450 million dollars will be borne by the Italian Government, perhaps to make up for their taking 60 years to fulfill their post-World War II pledge to return this national treasure to Ethiopia.
Like the Egyptian Pyramids, though, there was another design solution for moving such an artifact.
In the mid-1990s, I saw an exhibition at the New York Public Library of the greatest illustrated books of the 19th century, or some similar subject. One book stood out for me: a massive tome by Henry H. Gorringe, Lieutentant-Commander in the United States Navy, titled Egyptian Obelisks and dated 1882. It's in my design collection because of a dubious memory that it's the first book to document a from-start-to-finish design process, and through a range of appropirate media artotypes, engravings and chromo-lithograghs. Of course, the process it documents is how one moves an obelisk.
In 1879, His Excellency Chérif Pacha, the Governor of Alexandria, gave a 71-foot obelisk known as Cleopatra's Needle to the United States Government, to be elected in the city of New York. Funding for its transportation was provided by William H. Vanderbilt, to whom this book was dedicated. What follows is a geatly simpified rendition of how this 244-ton obelisk was moved, in over a hundred stages, over a two-year period and at a cost of approximately $100,000.
The Staging. November 5, 1879. Artotype.
Before it could be moved, it was "staged" with scaffording to protect the hieroglyphs, while its foundation was unearthed. It was then hoisted onto a mechanical contraction that turned it 90 degees, parallel with the ground. It was then moved horizonitally, much like pyramid stone, right onto a boat a steamer with a hole cut through its hull.
Embarking the Obelisk. May 10, 1880. Artotype.
The steamer then sailed to New York. After being unloaded, the obelisk was tranported on a special elevated railroad track built from the Hudson River to Central Park a distance of 10,905 feet that took 112 days to traverse.
Obelisk Crossing the Main Drive into Central Park. October 22, 1880. Artotype.
The obelisk was quite literally driven into its cradle, a mechanical turning device that could move it into an upright position on its pedestal, a 50-ton stone that had also been moved from Egypt.
Turning the Obelisk. January 22, 1880. Artotype.
On February 22, 1881, the obelisk was installed in Central Park in New York City.
The New York Obelisk. February 22, 1881. Artotype. Photograph by Bierstadt.
Today, over a hundred years later, Cleopatra's Needle stands near the Metropolitan Museum on Greywacke Knoll in Central Park. Thank god this particular obelisk was a gift to the United States and that there are no claims by the Egyptian government for its repatriation: after the genius it took to move it across land and ocean, it being broken into pieces to fit into a C5 Galaxy would be a sad fate.
Postscript. A couple of years ago, when the Washington Monument, an obelisk-shaped "mausoleum of American granite and marble," underwent restoration, its scaffolding was a major architectural commission won by Michael Graves. It's difficult not to think of "the staging" of 1879 in Alexandria when seeing his design.
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