How The Sphinx Came To Washington

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by William L. Fox, Past Grand Historian and Grand Archivist

As a historian and the son of a historian, much of my formative inspiration and training occurred naturally at home, long before graduate school. There, almost nightly at the dinner table, my father apprised us by example and conversation of what historians do.

Sometimes, they electrified the past into life, so as to instill an educated passion for history among imaginative students or readers. Other times, when historians failed to kindle even a weak spark, they had to laugh off their student's foibles as a small detail of the larger human comedy of miscommunication.

Most experienced classroom teachers of history, after awhile, keep a mental file of student bloopers and whoppers as a counterweight to the pleasanter triumph of enthusiasm over ignorance. It has been impossible, thus far in my career, for me to exceed my father's favorite short-answer reply once given by a 12 o'clock scholar on a final exam in modern European history. In this case, the class was asked to identify in a sentence or two the frequently referenced item from weekly lectures, "Rosetta Stone." At the critical moment to decide, the muses failed to show up for one forsaken and ill-prepared college examinee who, staring blankly at the page, desperately and creatively jotted down next to that monolithically puzzling pair of words in question, "Napoleon's girl friend"! Now housed in the British Museum in London, the Rosetta Stone was unearthed in 1799 by a group of Napoleon's troops stationed along the west bank of the western mouth of the Nile. Students of history not only need to know how to define a major event, idea or term, but why it is important, how it is significant, and what are its consequences. Simply, the Rosetta Stone, a basalt stele (from the Greek term for a commemorative pillar or inscribed cylinder) permitted the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean Franüois Champillion, the younger (1790-1832). He is regarded today as the founder of Egyptology. The

Rosetta Stone sets down a decree composed by priests assembled at Memphis who had a signal measure of political influence, for they were endorsing publicly the potentially doomed Ptolemy V Epiphanes (204-181 BCE). The message is chiseled in hieroglyphic and vernacular Egyptian as well as Greek.

Translating the Greek first, then working backwards, a small team of scholars discovered by the 1830s the solution to one of the oldest written languages in human history.

The dramatic moment also gave birth in the modern west to a deep popular fascination with all things Egyptian, particularly as decorative motifs in public buildings. Nineteenth-century Jews in western Europe and the United States, for instance, showed a remarkable affinity for Egyptian symbolism, while more typical building structures of the period derived clearly from Greco-Roman patterns. The American architect and Freemason William Strickland, a worthy successor to his teacher Benjamin Latrobe, also a Mason, designed Philadelphia's first large synagogue (Mikveh, Israel) which, surprisingly, had a front end sanctuary marked by a free adaptation of Egyptian ideas. Strickland's temple was dedicated in 1825.

Another of Strickland's many significant American buildings is the First Presbyterian Church (now called Downtown Presbyterian Church) of Nashville,

Tennessee, erected between 1849 and 1851. From the outside it appears to be another routine Neo-classical building of right angles and red brick, set between twin belfries.

But the facade's details, such as the recessed columns and door frames, gently suggest an Egyptian influence. Once inside, however, there is no mistaking the architect's and subsequent remodelers' readiness to depart from traditional Georgian styling. The interior walls and columns are vividly colored and decorated in Egyptianesque earthen hues and figures: serpent heads, zig-zags, stripes, lotus leaves, and papyrus capitals.(1) Although it was considered exotic to see such Egyptian revival architecture on the American cityscape prior to the Civil War, by the 1880s Victorian America acquired a taste not only for gingerbread lines and garish tracery fashioned in milled moldings or red sandstone but also a growing fondness for Egyptian architecture. One of the tallest steel-frame buildings in the nation's capital, which changed forever the District of Columbia's building code with regard to height restrictions, was put up in 1894 as a landmark, twelve-story hotel, named "The Cairo," just a few blocks from the Scottish Rite's House of the Temple. A more descriptive name for the building would have been "The Casablanca" as its design is an aberration of Moorish and Gothic artistry, but the association with Egypt, if only in name, is noteworthy for its apparent cachet.

As recently as 1995, a riverboat casino called the Empress in Joliet, Illinois, caught national attention as a commercial success, having suffered no loss of gamblers for its completely Egyptian theme and artifice.(2)

Similarly, Memphis, Tennessee, is home to a convention arena named the Memphis Pyramid whose main portal is guarded by a massive statue of Pharaoh Ramses II. Further, it is hardly unplanned that the George Washington Masonic

National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, replicates the architectural tour de force of early antiquity in Alexandria, Egypt, called the Pharos Lighthouse.

Cultural historians believe that the occasional popular attraction of a modified Egyptian building style found in a variety of public buildings is meant to be more than an entertaining novelty. Rather, the unusual, non-Western architecture is, indeed, sometimes a serious statement that can be attributed broadly in an industrial age to a long desire for eternity.

Certainly, the evocation of massive solemnity and ceremonial permanence appeals subliminally to the modern eye and offers a needed contrast to austere, merely functional buildings such as factories, warehouses, towering apartments, and government offices.

Adding Egyptian features in 19th and 20th century American public architecture also expressed a refined sense of mystery and intelligence, combined qualities of antiquity packaged in fresh outlines. The Egyptian religious ideas which centered on human mortality and death, in particular, inspired similar modern impulses manifested expansively in American funerary preoccupations. Cemeteries all across America a century ago exploited vague Egyptian preferences in the construction of mausolea, sarcophagi, elaborate memorial markers, and obelisk monuments.3 Then, of course, there is in our nation's capital the Washington Monument, a towering obelisk immortalizing America's first President and foremost Freemason. While the late Renaissance hermetic traditions of Europe had already placed great stock in Egyptian wisdom and religion as an "imperfect harbinger" of Christianity (controversial beliefs for which the Italian Dominican priest, Giordano Bruno, 1548-1600, was executed by the Inquisition), the seeds for a modern Egyptian revival sprouted more generically in the Enlightenment's scientific curiosity about ancient esoteric religion and allegorical legends.

Freemasonry was, consequently, one among several intellectual midwives to help deliver the rebirth of ancient Egypt into modernity. But only up to a point, which some Masonic Egyptophiles need to concede more strongly. According to architectural historian James Stevens Curl, reflecting on the rise of Freemasonry in this Enlightenment context of turning toward the Nile's delta, "a ceremonial setting using motifs from Ancient Egypt would seem to be logical, given Masonic belief in Egypt as the source of skill and wisdom, yet an Egyptianizing theme in Freemasonry does not appear to have surfaced much before 1750."4 Egyptian features in the design of continental Masonic Lodges, notably in France and central Europe, evidenced themselves much more frequently than in British Masonry. It was not uncommon that a French Master Mason's apron of 1801 included, besides a token likeness of Napoleon, delineations of an Egyptian temple, obelisk and pyramid.5 A century later in Edinburgh, Scotland, a major exception to the predominantly continental expropriation of Egyptian imagery appeared with the opening of the Chapter Room of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter in 1901. Therein, overt Egyptian decor was used for stunning effect.

The Egyptian influence on French Freemasonry of the Napoleonic era, obviously connected with the Emperor's Egyptian campaign, coincides with the development of the Scottish Rite in America, conceived in dual terms as a hybrid of British and continental Masonic innovations. Extreme caution, however, needs to be exercised in assuming too much about the Egyptian role in Freemasonry as carried through the French connection and transmitted to American Blue Lodge and Scottish Rite Masonry. It is true that continental Freemasons, who included almost every major thinker of the Enlightenment, frequently saw their Lodges as Egyptian temples and sometimes themselves as an Egyptian priesthood. It is no accident that Mozart's The Magic Flute (1791), for example, the first major opera in German (to which Goethe wrote a sequel in 1795), is chock full of concurrent Masonic and Egyptian references.(6) Cornell University professor Martin Bernal omments that "indeed, the Masonic admiration for Egypt has survived the country's [Egypt's] fall from grace among academics [preferring the primacy of ancient Greece and Rome]."(7) The Hall of Justice scene in the Scottish Rite's 31st Degree (in the Pike Ritual) represents more than a tepid tribute to Egyptian civilization.

But it is also true that widespread hostility to the concept of Egypt developed during the period of Romantic dominance from 1790 to 1890. Egypt was, at best, relegated to the footnotes. Henry W. Coil speaks with sympathy in behalf of the deceiver Alessandro Cagliostro whose pseudo-Masonic Egyptian ritual was soundly repudiated equally (and ironically) by both Roman Catholic officials and Freemasons: "Masonic writers still kick the dead Lion by denouncing Cagliostro for representing the Egyptian Rite as Masonic, but they do not make it clear what he did that had not been done by scores, perhaps hundreds, of degree fabricators on the Continent of Europe, some of whose works still circulate as Masonic!" (8)

The wider tensions between competing western cultural sources, creating an imaginary blood rivalry between ancient Greece and dynastic Egypt, made pyramids less fashionable with the rise of Romanticism. Keats's famous ode is about a Grecian urn, not an Egyptian mummy.(9) Also, economic forces may have fueled the growing sense of cultural competition, because by the 1830s Egypt was probably ahead of all other nations in industrial capacity (i.e., textiles) except for England.(10) Against this sweeping background, from the shaping of broad cultural tastes by the Rosetta Stone's discovery to the metaphorical continuities linking ancient master builders with modern Masonic Lodges, The Supreme Council's House of the Temple enters the picture. John Russell Pope, the Temple's 36-year-old architect, a devotee of classical and Beaux Arts arrangements, blended many Egyptian lines and details into his discerning plan. These are not the oddities that many Temple visitors at first presume as revealed by their most frequently asked question about the ornamentation and fixtures which project distinctively Egyptian sensibilities. In other words, to paraphrase the early Christian writer Tertullian, they ask, what do Athens and Jerusalem have to do with Memphis?

Pope's praiseworthy attempt to recapitulate the Hellenistic temple-tomb of King Mausolos at Halicarnassos (on the coastline of modern Turkey) could hardly ignore the greatest funerary works known_the immutable, triumphal pyramids. The matched sphinxes flanking the entry, symbolizing power and wisdom, are obviously Egyptian, but the building's roof, obscured by the shallowness of the building site itself, is a stepped pyramidal structure. The 33 fluted Ionic columns that call to mind Greece are capped by a tiered pyramid that echoes Egypt, whereas the architect's other well-known classical monuments, such as the Jefferson Memorial and the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, are always finished with a spherical dome on top. In the House of the Temple, Pope's genius is not only for classical symmetry, but also the balanced proportions of mixed masses and incongruous details of Plato and Pharaoh.

The Atrium is the boldest Egyptian component of the building. The charcoal polish of the eight Doric columns made from Windsor granite signify the ponderous ambience of the hall, common to all Egyptian sacred structures. The lighting is deliberately subdued, also typical of Egyptian interiors. The deep earth tones used to color the walls and adorn the friezes at the ceiling's edge are not Grecian, which would require a polychromatic scheme, but Egyptian. More than halfway to the vanishing point on the curved back wall of the Atrium, as bright natural light falls upon the central stairway leading to the Temple Room, two Egyptian block statues in black stone guard the passage. (See inside front cover.) Such statuary depicting either seated gods or humans is thought by scholars to have been "produced for afterlife use and the presentation of the deceased as a revered person." (11)

It is also noteworthy that the important hieroglyph for the Egyptian idea of cosmic order (maat) is always represented as a figure seated exactly as the two block statues appear in the Atrium. An arguable interpretation, therefore, is to view these two guards of the stairway as a three dimensional embodiment of maat.

Furthermore, in locating the block statues at the foot of a staircase, the staircase itself takes on embellished significance. It may represent to the viewer the raised platform upon which Osiris (Egyptian ruler of the underworld, with whom the dead person is symbolically linked) sits or, alternatively, the staircase may actually suggest a primordial return to the ascending place of creation.

On the stair landing above, two bronze and alabaster lamps are crowned by three serene faces of Egyptian beauty. From that point, the upper portion of the Temple takes on the architectural confidence of Imperial Rome. The dichotomy between two civilizations of very early antiquity has often kept them apart even in the heterogeneous modern world as the romantic tragedy of Antony (the Occidental) and Cleopatra (the Oriental) suggestively prefigured. That he transcended the genetic, artistic, and religious differences between eras and societies in successful, brilliant design in the House of the Temple is to John Russell Pope's lasting credit.

But the Scottish Rite Masons for whom the House of the Temple was built originally are also responsible for melding cultural diversities in so huge a symbol that today it stands as a major structure in America's capital city. The impetus to identify with Egypt and Greece simultaneously was not always popular. Together they mark a contrast of associations. Old Egypt represented life's harsh realities and dark uncertainty, while venerable Greece lived in the light of joyful possibility through its games and dramas. The fact that Scottish Rite Masonry could hold in mind two often contradictory worlds is a remarkable achievement.

Martin Bernal offers a congratulatory word because "with some degree of self deprecation, Masons have maintained [an admiration for Egypt] until today, [which must be regarded] as an anomaly in a world where 'true' history is seen to have begun with the Greeks."(12) One cannot enter or depart the House of the Temple, Pope's classical restudy of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, without also passing by the shadows and traces of other ancient wonders from Egypt. The mood of the pyramids of Giza or the inscrutable fascination of the sphinx are inescapable in such masterworks as the Scottish Rite's Washington, DC, headquarters. Nor can one fail to gain added appreciation for Napoleon's girl friend.


1. James Hoobler, "Karnack on the Cumberland," Tennessee Historical Quarterly (Fall 1976), 257-58, 260.

2. Kevin Sack, "Behind the Pyramids, a Modern Money-Making Marvel," news article, The New York Times, December 18, 1995.

3. cf., Richard G. Carrott, The Egyptian Revival: Its Sources, Monuments, and Meaning, 1808-1858 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978).

4. James Stevens Curl, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry: An Introductory Study (London: B.T. Batsford, 1991), 125. See also, James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival: An Introductory Study of a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, 1982.

6. Of related interest, Verdi's 1869 work, Aida, represents another phase of European perspective on Egypt.

7. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 26.

8. Henry W. Coil, Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia (New York: Macoy Pablishing, 1961), 112. See also, Henry R. Evans, "Cagliostro and His Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry," The New Age Magazine, 1919.

9. Romanticism, however, could not avoid and did not reject Egyptian interests. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley selectively offered "Ozymandias" (1817) and "To the Nile" (before 1822) as alternatives to the usual classical, romantic themes such as Prometheus and Adonais.

11. Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 30-31.

Aurum Solis Temple

The Atrium, spacious and inviting, sounds the first notes of light, life, and welcome which are characteristic of the building.

The Atrium is the central court of the Temple, where visitors are welcomed and given their first view of the majesty of the Temple's design and architecture. The Atrium is paved with Tavernelle marble, centered and bordered with verd antique marble. Eight marble benches, echoing the design of the central table, are located in recesses in the ambulatory formed by eight huge Doric columns of polished green Windsor granite. The limestone walls reach up to the ceiling beams.

Maxwell Mackenzie

Go to the Stairs

Photos ©Maxwell MacKenzie, Washington, D.C.

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    How the sphinxes came to washington?
    9 years ago
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    How the sphinx came to washington?
    8 years ago

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