In the half-century between 1831 and 1881 three massive obelisks left Egypt for new lands. Prior to these journeys, the last large obelisk moved was the Vatican obelisk in 1586 – one of the great engineering achievements of the Renaissance. Roman emperors moved more than a dozen, but left no records of how they did it. The nineteenth-century engineers entrusted with transporting the obelisks across oceans had to invent new methods, and they were far from certain that they would work. As the three obelisks, bound for Paris, London and New York, sailed towards their new homes, the world held its breath.
This turbulent era, caught up in obelisk mania, is recreated by Bob Brier. Amid astounding tales of engineering dexterity and naval endurance, the individuals involved in transporting the obelisks and receiving them in their future homes are brought to life through their letters and diaries, newspaper articles and illustrations.
The first chapter gives us a brief explanation of our understanding of quarrying and erecting obelisks, which is very little. The information provided, though, is quite interesting.
I love Brier’s reflection that while the mechanisms to transport these monuments have become more complicated the closer we get to modern times, in ancient times, these feats were so commonplace that they were not even recorded on tomb walls or documents. Apparently, erecting, taking down, and moving an obelisk was “just another day at the office” for the ancient people of Egypt and Rome. Kind of hilarious when you think about the difficulties modern people have had moving these items (hint, hint - they shouldn’t be moved!).
It should be noted that this book isn’t about admonishing the people who have moved the monuments; it’s about how they were moved and how little we know about ancient engineering. Similar to the Nefertiti bust, these monuments will not be returned. However, you will definitely hold a greater respect for the ancient people and their wisdom in building and erecting marvels that have stood for thousands of years.
The ending came rather abruptly. I was left thinking, “wait… that was the last paragraph?” There were also a few grammatical errors in the book. Maybe the editor had a few days off before the book went into print? So a few formatting issues. However, overall, I enjoyed the read and found it very intriguing with its information clearly laid out and easy to follow. Brier’s explanations coupled with historical photos helped to explain the complicated engineering feats for us non-engineer-minded people.
Of course, the book also confirmed my belief that Rome was the evil empire of the ancient world. Brier writes: "...today Rome has more standing obelisks than any city in the world--more than Cairo, Alexandria, and Luxor combined." That fact makes me very sad.
"Descendants of Avalon"
Released via Inklings Publishing
("The Forgotten" volume 2)
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse