Paris - The Obelisk Came From Egypt
( Originally Published 1921 )
It had been presented but not delivered by Mohammed Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, to France. And Louis-Philippe, had the doubtful honor of seeking a way to get it to Paris. For it measured seventy-six feet and weighed two hundred and forty tons, and this was 1831, when what few steamers there were in the world were small.
The engineer who was presented with the problem to solve was so short that his name defined him: Lebas. Before he had even seen the obelisk he was formally given an Arab steed by one of the Sultans he had to call upon, and when the equerries hoisted him to its back, his legs stuck straight out. Lebas was sure they had chosen the largest horse in the stables just to amuse themselves at his expense. But his brains were tall.
He went from Toulon to Alexandria, and from there to Luxor, where he found his calculation all to do over be-cause he had not known that two hills intervened between the obelisk and the point at which the boat would arrive to take it away.
Two hills, a tropical sun, forty French workmen to care for, and a populace totally unskilled in the work which must be done. They could cut a way through the hills, but the sand and dust they set flying very nearly drove the white men to madness. And added to that, the cholera had come here from Cairo.
Finally, however, on Oct. 23, 1831, the queer long boat was in readiness at the quay; and through the effort of the carpenters the obelisk was encased in its wooden box. It must now be swung off its age-old pedestal, this monolith, and so gently as not to rupture the stone or the case. It must be brought down to horizontal and slid along the runways prepared for it.
And the only machines they had, the primitive ropes, blocks and pulleys, were perhaps less effective than those which the Egyptians had used to raise it into position. For this obelisk was set up by that very Pharaoh who was compelled by the plagues to let Moses lead away his people.
Lebas himself has told in his book how the displacement, upon which his whole reputation depended, took just twenty-five minutes. And everything went as he had calculated, except that the runway having been made of odds and ends of boards (the Egyptians had failed to send the timbers they had promised), the case caught on a jutting plank and held there. To hollow out the sand underneath in order to discover the cause of the hitch was dangerous to the balance of the obelisk.
After hours of work they managed to raise it up. Then as it slid a little forward, the platform released was taken up and built in front of it for all that runway of one thousand two hundred and fifty feet. A single jolt, and the huge stone might crack.
On December 25th the obelisk reached the quay! And there was the boat, itself weighing only two hundred and twenty-nine tons, long and narrow, built so as not to sink under the weight of its strange cargo, lined with wood and not with copper. There it was in the narrow passage but wrong end to. And no place to turn !
So they sawed off the end where it touched the quay, sawed it clean and neat to the water-line, and all in one piece. After that it took only two hours to get the monster into the boat, after which they put the end piece on so well that no one could have guessed it had ever been off.
European granite was used for the base, for the obelisk itself is of red Egyptian granite; and designs were cut into the base to tell this story. In the Marine Museum at the Louvre you will see a model of the scene of putting the stone into the boat at Luxor. At the Arts et Métiers Museum you will see a model showing the apparatus Lebas used to raise it into position in the Place de la Concorde —still in its wooden case.