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Series: Concerning the Aksum Obelisk
Dr. Vincenzo Francaviglia, and the Re-Erection of the Great Aksum Obelisk
Last week we put forward for consideration the general question of the possible re-erection of the Great Fallen Obelisk at Aksum. This remarkable structure crashed to the ground in ancient times, was shattered, and consists today of six major fragments.
A project for re-erecting the obelisk has recently been proposed by Ato Gebru Asrat, President of the Government of the State of Tigray, and has therefore entered the realm of practical politics.
A Question of Feasibility
We turn this week to the question of feasibility.
To do so, let us draw attention to an important, but little-known, technical study by four Italian scholars. They are Dr Vincenzo Francaviglia, who was one of the pioneers of the movement for the return from Rome of the Aksum obelisk looted on the personal orders of Mussolini. Francaviglia is joined in his study by three other experts: Luciano Cessari, Roberto Orazi, and Paolo Salonia. Their study originally appeared in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Volume XXIII, November 1990, and, because of the current discussion on the re-erection of the obelisk, has now acquired topical interest.
Dr Vincenzo Francaviglia and his colleagues, we should explain at the outset, are fully convinced that it is entirely practical to raise the Great Fallen Obelisk. They declare further that the Institute for Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritages, in Rome, would be willing to carry out the re-erection work. This would involve making a photogrammetic survey of the stele, and the present position of its different pieces; deciding on the best method of its re-erection; raising the necessary funds; and (last, but of course not least) actually executing the plan.
The Obelisk is larger than those of Egypt.
In their study Dr Vincenzo Francaviglia and his colleages explain that the Great Fallen Ethiopian Obelisk is the largest ever worked by humanity anywhere in the world. They cite information collected by the German archaeological expedition of 1906. This shows that the obelisk: was originally more than 33 metres tall and lies on the ground broken into six pieces. Because of the slope, the top pieces are lower than the basement fragments. The head of the obelisk is almost totally buried… the whole obelisk could be reconstructed up to its head, a portion of which has to be found.
… the pieces at present on the ground have a total length of 30.5 metres… given that the head was 2.8 metres long, the total length of the obelisk was 33.3 metres.
The obelisk has 13 stories, one front and one rear door at the ground floor, one smaller floor and 8 window rows.
The largest obelisk in Egypt, by contrast, is that of Queen Hatasu, at Karnak, which is 29.83 metres tall, while that of Tutmosis III, now in Rome, is 32.83 metres tall.
The Great Fallen Aksum Obelisk is thus around a metre taller than the largest Egyptian obelisk ever produced, and was thus, before it broke, the tallest in the world.
Turning to matters technical, the Italian experts discuss four possible ways in which the obelisk can be re-erected. Whichever method is adopted, they emphasise that attention must be paid to the steles base: to ensure that the structure is permanently stable, and that its re-erection will not disturb the areas archaeological environment.
Vertical or Horizontal Solutions
The various solutions discussed by Francaviglia and his colleagues may be divided into those based on reassembling the broken pieces in either a vertical or a horizontal position.
Vertical solutions are based on superimposing each of the six major fragments, one on the top of the other. This would require the initial preparation of the foundation base, and the subsequent lifting of the six fragments, one by one, with the assistance of huge cranes capable of raising weights of up to 200 tons to a height of up to 30 metres. Such cranes exist.
In one solution discussed by Dr Francaviglia the pieces of the obelisk would be pre-tensioned with internal steel wires. In another solution they would be glued together, with an exceedingly strong type of cement.
In a fourth solution the entire obelisk would be reconstructed in an horizontal position, on a steel structure, which would subsequently be converted into a cradle. This latter contraption would then be tilted to a standing position on to its concrete base.
Each of these solutions, according to Francaviglia, has advantages and disadvantages. His favoured solution is, however, the latter, that of the steel cradle, which would hold the obelisk snugly until the time of its final re-erection.
The idea of gradually raising the entire stele from a horizontal to a vertical position is incidentally the solution most reminiscent of the manner in which the obelisk was originally erected. Except, of course, for the steel cradle!