Gordon (An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, 2004) uses a history of the Washington Monument to present an enjoyable tale of Egypt’s obelisks, the nations who appropriated them, and how they moved them.
The author interlaces the story of the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, the “tallest structure, by law,” in Washington, D.C., with the tales of ancient Rome, Paris, and London, civilizations that collected as much of Egypt’s antiquity as possible. The book is stuffed with interesting facts, not the least of which are the ingenious methods used to lower, transport, and re-erect the obelisks. Napoleon, even in his military failure in Egypt, mounted a major scientific expedition responsible for finding the Rosetta Stone. It was the carvings on an obelisk that enabled Jean-François Champollion to utilize the stone to decipher hieroglyphics. From the time of Caesar Augustus to the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle in New York’s Central Park, humans have found ways to roll, float, tow, and tip these multiton objects in spaces public and private. One of the smallest obelisks was discovered by England’s great Egyptologist William John Bankes, and it stands today in his gardens in Dorset. Once construction began, Washington’s edifice took 40 years to build. Although it was originally proposed in 1783, actual construction did not begin until 1848. Attempting to secure private funding only held the project back until Congress finally agreed to support it with a grant in 1876. The design was decried as a factory chimney or a stalk of asparagus, but the finished product, with no ornamentation save for an aluminum (more fun facts here) pyramid atop to reflect sunlight, dominates the city and serves as a wonderful symbol of the United States.
A delightful book that is just plain fun to read, packed with all kinds of curious facts and oddities.