Ancient Egypt is all around us

Talk about job perks – earlier this week a group of us from the Egyptian section and the Conservation department took a little field trip to downtown Philadelphia to visit the old Wanamaker building (first department store in Philadelphia, now a Macy’s) and the Masonic Temple. These two buildings may not immediately make you think of Egypt or mummies, however, if you have been keeping up with the blog you’ll know that one of our mummies was donated to us by John Wanamaker, founder of Wanamaker’s Department Store. You can read more about that in a previous post by following this link.

But the Egypt connection we were exploring on this trip is the fact that both the old Wanamaker’s building and the Masonic Temple have Egyptian architectural elements. The Egyptian room at the Masonic Temple is something that more people may be familiar with.

A shot from inside the Egyptian Room at the Masonic Temple.

A shot from inside the Egyptian Room at the Masonic Temple.

The Egyptian Room is an incredible, ornately decorated meeting space in the Temple. It was completed in 1889 (apparently the interiors took over 35 years to finish, and you can really appreciate this when you’re standing inside those rooms-it’s impossible to take everything in during 1 visit). The room is flanked by 12 huge columns and both the columns and the walls are intricately painted and ornamented to depict scenes similar to those found the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples.

A detail of one of the columns depicting the face of Hathor, goddess of love and motherhood.

A detail of one of the columns depicting the face of Hathor, goddess of love and motherhood.

Nothing in that room was left undecorated, including the ceiling, which it is painted blue and has a solar disk placed on the east end, representing Aten, the sun. Emanating from the disk are rays tipped with little hands each holding an ankh (the symbol of life).

A detail of the sun disk on the ceiling

A detail of the sun disk on the ceiling. Note that the intersections of the ceiling crossbeams have ancient mason-marks – these are some of the only non-Egyptian motifs in the room!

Our curator Dr. Jen Wegner has spent some time in this room AND translated all of the hieroglyphs, so she can attest to the fact that it is all very authentic. It is really quite a wonderful space, and the best part is that the Temple offers tours to the public and virtual tours on their website (although as I said, these photos really don’t represent the rich colors and details very well – you should really visit in person if you can).

Much less accessible to the public, and virtually forgotten by many at this point, is the Egyptian Hall in the old Wanamaker’s Building. I learned about the Egyptian Hall from Rick Seifert, who visited the Artifact Lab recently and we immediately made a connection. Rick is the Historian of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and when he found out that our mummy PUM I came to us from John Wanamaker, we exchanged information and he extended this special invitation for us to see what’s left of the Egyptian Hall. Built in 1910, unfortunately only remnants of this room remain-much of it has been dismantled and built into/over since the store changed hands in the 1990s.

Before entering the Hall, signs of it are visible – here we see Hathor again, adorning the top of a column just outside:

Hathor wanamakersThen Rick led us into the Hall, essentially at the mezzanine level – the lower level is sealed off with a drop ceiling and any elements that may be remaining below are obscured. But what we could see gave us an idea of what the Hall may have once looked like:

It is possible to see the tops of the columns which surround the room. The details were more recently repainted, but you get a sense of what the colors may have been.

It is possible to see the tops of the columns which surround the room. The columns were recently repainted, but you get a sense of what the colors may have been.

There are also some gorgeous details in the ceilings:

The ceilings are decorated with winged sun disks and empty cartouches. The original glass set into the ceilings is now gone.

The ceilings are decorated with winged sun disks and empty cartouches. The original glass set into the ceilings is now gone.

And in the railings:

railingsIt is unfortunate that so much of the Hall has been dismantled – and so recently! To get a sense of it’s former glory, there are some nice images in this old postcard and this photograph from the 1920s.

So just in case you think that we might get enough of this stuff at the Penn Museum – it’s impossible. We were eating this up! Special thanks to Rick Seifert and to John at the Masonic Temple for these opportunities to explore ancient Egypt right here in Philadelphia.

 

  • Ray B.

    Egyptian Hall has not really been dismantled. It is merely obscured by various structures built inside and around it. Some day, perhaps, some future Howard Carter will break through a wall and discover “wonderful things” afresj/