The Jewish Egyptian Revival
Passover marks the day on which God liberated the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s rule. So there is no small irony in noting that three millennia after the Exodus, emancipated Jews in Western countries expressed their unique national identity by building synagogues in the Pharaonic style.
The first Egyptian-style building of modern times was a synagogue with enormous pylons like those of the temple of Amon Ra at Karnak. It was built in 1798 in Karlsruhe, capital of the Grand Duchy of Baden. A considerable number of Egyptian synagogues eventually followed, in Philadelphia, Montreal, Sydney, Bordeaux, Frankfurt, and Sydney, precisely those parts of the world where Jews enjoyed the rights of citizenship. Even the two Egyptian synagogues built by convicted felons in the penal colony of Tasmania were constructed by Jews who would enjoy the same civic rights as Christians--once they served out their terms.
Egyptian synagogues like the one built in Philadelphia in 1822 were designed to be noticed. They boasted columns with exotic papyrus-bud capitals and carvings of the winged sun disc of the god Ra over the front door.
In the Bible, Egypt is the place of cruel, oppressive kings who enslave Jews and worship idols. The point of the Exodus was not just to obtain freedom from slavery, but to obtain freedom for the Israelites to leave Egypt and live in a country of their own. So why would Jews want to build an Egyptian-style synagogue?
The first Egyptian-style synagogues were built at the revolutionary moment when a wave of political ideas swept away the divine right of kings and replaced it with the conviction that all sovereignty resides in the nation. People who had been subjects of kings and princes now saw themselves as members of nations, peoples with unique identities. One way to express national identity was to erect buildings in the nation’s authentic, ancient, architectural style. For Jews, this was a problem.
A rabbi describing the dedication of Philadelphia’s second Egyptian synagogue in 1849 lamented, “Unfortunately for our reputation, there are no accessible remains of our ancient buildings, wherefore our style must be more in imagination than reality.”
The congregants were less circumspect, announcing that their new Egyptian building was constructed in “Hebrew” style. Similarly, Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation told the press that their new synagogue was in the ancient “Judeo-Egyptian style.”
Twentieth-century archaeologists have uncovered ancient Israelite buildings that could be models for a synagogue, with distinctive column capitals and carved detail. But 19th-century architects, faced with demand for buildings in the style of David’s royal city, had no buildings to copy. Some persuaded themselves that ancient Judea must have looked like the country next door to it.
The Egyptomania sparked by Napoleon’s invasion of that country was also to blame, especially the wildly popular images of sphinxes and temples sent home by the artists Napoleon took to Egypt with him. One of those lithographs apparently inspired an architect in Canterbury, England to provide the local Jewish congregation with a building modeled on the Temple at Dendur. The temple itself is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Canterbury also boasts a building that is, as far as I can tell, the world’s only Egyptian-revival mikveh.
Nineteenth-century congregations could choose to build in the national styles of the countries in which they lived--like the Jews of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, who built a Gothic-revival synagogue that sports a Welsh dragon on its front gable. They could also build in the ethnically neutral classical style. Or, if they wanted a distinctively Jewish building, they could choose Egypt. By the 1840s, however, the Moorish Revival style became fashionable among congregations that wanted distinctively Middle Eastern-looking buildings. At the turn of the 20th century, Moorish style was superseded by a wave of Byzantine-Ottoman shuls. A Byzantine-Ottoman synagogue still stands down the block from the Obamas’ Chicago home; it features a towering minaret.
Only a few Egyptian synagogue buildings survive. The 1906 Egyptian building of Boston’s Temple Israel is now an austere Boston University lecture hall. Something of the original dazzle can be glimpsed in the congregational museum, which displays a rabbi’s chair that looks like something Cecil B. DeMille commissioned for Yul Brynner as Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments.
The Great Synagogue of Sydney replaced its Egyptian building long ago, but it has a small museum in which visitors can see two Torah Arks, heavily carved with images of the winged disc of the Egyptian sun god. In 1822 a similar winged sun disc was carved on the Torah Ark of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, and another over the front door. A winged sun survives on the gate of the old Touro cemetery at Newport.
Champollion was just beginning to decipher hieroglyphics when the congregation of Mikveh Israel commissioned its sun disc. The winged sun was understood as a decorative motif, not as a jarringly inappropriate representation of a pagan god.
But the most remarkable Egyptian-inspired synagogue is probably the one built in Cairo, the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue of 1898. The synagogue stands about a kilometer from Tahrir Square, an improbable confection of Egyptian Revival falcons, Assyrian crenelations and art nouveau palm trees in what can only be called the Neo-Judeo-Pharaonic style.
Moses, after all, was a Prince of Egypt.
Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.