(n.b. this essay was written in 2009 and not published. At the end i add a postscript about an excellent new article on the subject by Diana Muir Appelbaum).
Passover is coming, and as in each year, we celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in the Land of Egypt, where according Exodus 1:11: “they appointed taskmasters …to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses.” This brief mention of Israelite construction work is the first reference in the Bible to any Jewish architecture – and it was for buildings erected under duress (Noah and his Ark don’t count, he wasn’t Jewish). Still to come would be the triumphant accounts of the Divine-inspired and ritually circumscribed creation of the Desert Tabernacle (Mishkhan), and still later of the Jerusalem Temple. But in Egypt, architecture was a tool of oppression, not to redemption.
One would think then, that once across the Red Sea, Jews would put Egyptian architecture behind them, and leave it to memory – just a tiny facet of the greater story we are commanded to remember. And so it was for most of Jewish history, until the strange case of the 19th century, when in the wake of widespread European emancipation of Jews from Ghetto life and second class citizenry, the Egyptian style of architecture was taken up worldwide as an appropriate design for synagogues.
Today, when it seems that almost every congregation building anew wants their architect to supply a wall of Jerusalem limestone this link to Egypt is unthinkable, and almost forgotten – one of the many aberrations of the 19th century when Jews were groping in the dustbin of history to help fashion a new identity. Of the many Egyptian style synagogues only a few survive, and these are in Copenhagen (Denmark) and Riga (Latvia), hardly centers of modern Jewish taste-making.
In the early 19th century things were different. In the wake of Napoleon’s expedition to the Nile in 1798, Egyptomania took hold in France and from there influenced almost every aspect of modern European (and by extension, American) culture. French savants documented Egyptian art, architecture, topography, botany, geology and every other aspects of life and land along the Nile and though French rule in Egypt was very short, the influence of French research and the eventual publication of the massive 21-volume Description d’Egypte… beginning in 1809, was tremendous; one of the major cultural events of the Early Modern era.
Artists, architects and writers all embraced Egyptian themes, though ironically the vogue for Egypt was already dying out in France when the books began to be published. In architecture the massive grandeur of Egyptian forms, mixed with the inherent or implied mystical meaning of the decorations, were adapted to a wide range of building types. Freemasonry, which in this period reached the height of its popularity and power, incorporated many Egyptian elements into its ritual and symbolic language (that’s why we have the picture of the Pyramid on our dollar bill). Because of the excitement surrounding the discoveries of Egyptian tombs, the Egyptian style was particular popular for funerary art.
It was Napoleon who just a few years earlier had extended the rights of citizens to the Jews of France, and would do the same for the Jews in the lands he subsequently conquered. The walls of Ghettos of Italy and Germany fell before Revolutionary forces, and the Jewish use of Egyptian motifs began in Germany about the same time.
The first known use of Egyptian design elements in a modern Jewish building is the synagogue of Karlsruhe Germany from 1798, the year Napoleon was in Egypt. It’s not sure what sources the architect Friedrich Weinbrenner (1766-1826) used, but Napoleon was not the first to visit Egypt, and in Vienna in the same year Mozart had freely interpreted some Egyptian motifs in his staging of The Magic Flute. Weinbrunner designed the entire city of Karlsruhe, and the scenographic treatment of the approach to the synagogue through a tall gateway flanked with Egyptian pylons was part of the larger effort to give the city scenic focal points. But other synagogues, including the new Reform synagogue in Frankfurt am Main, and a small synagogue in Efringen-Kirchen (1831) had Egyptian influenced pylon entrances perhaps related to Karlsuhe.
Another attempt at creating an Egyptian style synagogue – which better demonstrates one way in which the style was imposed upon Jews in Germany - took place in Kassel, Germany, where Jews had received equal rights in 1807 after the city’s inclusion in the Napoleonic Kingdom of Westphalia, but where no decision was made to build a new synagogue until 1828, after the old synagogue was closed as being unsafe. In Kassel, the landgrave who provided the site for the new building, wanted something unusual, and various Egyptian designs were presented. But this time, the Jewish community and its favored architects – Auguste Schuchardt, and his young associate, A. Rosengarten, the first and most successful Jewish architect of the 19th century, objected to the theme, citing its incompatibility with Jewish history. The architects and the Jews held their ground, and eventually in 1836-39 an impressive new synagogue was built in the most widely used historic style of the time – a modified Romanesque. Rather than building a synagogue that recalled a time of slavery, and would have singled out Kassel’s Jews as exotic; the Jews of Kassel succeeded in celebrating freedom – by having architecture the fit in.
There seemed to have been no objections voiced by Jewish patrons in America, however, where the Egyptian style was popular among the young republic’s leading architects in the 1820s and following. The established Sephardi congregations were in the habit of choosing prominent architects, and in Philadelphia William Stickland was commissioned to design the second building for Congregation Mikveh Israel. Despite his widespread use of Greek classicism for public buildings such as the Second Bank of the United States, Strickland chose the Egyptian style for the façade and certain interior details of the synagogue, built in 1824-25.
This was the first Egyptian style building erected in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s centers of architecture. A contemporary guidebook stated that the dome is supported with “Egyptian columns copied from the temple of Tentyra…” And an engraving shows the sign of the winged sun placed over the Ark. Of course, the ancient Egyptians did not use domes, and the overall effect of the sanctuary would have been more English in style than Egyptian. In choosing the Egyptian style, was Strickland merely being fashionable, or for Philadelphia even avant-garde? Or was he seeing the Jews, like the Egyptians as a distant and mysterious people, alien to the Greco-Roman tradition? Mikvah Israel also used the style for the entrance building to their cemetery built around 1845. About the same time the Jews of Newport built an impressive Egyptian gateway to their cemetery, still a prominent landmark today (see photo above).
The most impressive and fully realized example of the Egyptian style, and one that is still in use today, is Copenhagen’s Synagogue in Krystalgade, designed by G. F. Hetsch. From the very start, Hetsch, who had studied in Paris with Charles Percier, made his intention clear. When chosen by the Committee of the Jewish Community, he wrote in his presentation remarks of 1829 “I hope that the Synagogue …would be distinguished form other public buildings in the capital and easily be recognized by the character of Oriental origin which I have essayed to give the whole.” Percier had designed Egyptian style stage sets for a French version of the Magic Flute in 1801, and Hetsch was already sketching Egyptian architectural fantasies in 1811. But it was the publication of the French Description that provided the archaeologically correct details that Hetsch used in Copenhagen. Similarly, Jean Baptiste Metivier used Egyptian style columns with palm leaf capitals in his 1826 synagogue in Munich.
In the 1830s, the Egyptian style was used in American for prisons. By the 1840s, the style was more widespread and used prominent civic structures such as the Essex County Courthouse in Newark and the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond.
A quarter century after Strickland designed Mikveh Israel, his pupil Thomas U. Walter, who had designed the Debtor’s Prison in Philadelphia, used a heavy Egyptian style for the façade of Philadelphia’s Crown Street Synagogue. By this time the style was well known, but still it is remarkable that it was chosen by Walter (or his clients) considering the architect was already well known for is classically deigned Girard College, and he would go on to achieve face as the designer of the dome of the Capitol in Washington. (Walter had used the style for a design for the gate for Laurel Hill Cemetery submitted in 1836).
Photo: Richard Carrott, The Egyptian Revival, pl.91.
The Egyptian style was popular across the globe. Examples were built as distant as Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania and in Sydney, Australia. But by the mid-19th century, interest in Egypt had faded, and now for those who favored exotic styles of architecture for the Jews new types of Oriental designs became manifest in the so-called Moorish style, influenced by Islamic decorative elements from Spain.
There is one impressive late example of the Egyptian style to be seen in the synagogue of Riga, Latvia, (of which I have written on this blog before), where the archaeologically exact elements preferred in the 1830s have now merged with elements of Art Nouveau design.
One, obviously, is the much deeper tie between synagogue architecture and Masonry that extends far beyond the Egyptian style. We know, for example that early American synagogues had their cornerstones laid with Masonic rites, and some of the first active Jewish architects in America - like Hyman Witcover (1871-1936) - were active Masons, and designers of Masonic Temples. Secondly, her work reminds up of the importance of imperial commercial, political and military routes aroused the globe in spreading Jews, and also news ideas to and for Jews. This is not unknown to scholars. There has been much work in recent years defining the "Atlantic World" of early modern Jewry - linking both sides of the Atlantic into one cultural, economic and even family matrix. We can look, too, at the spread of (mostly Sephardi) Jewish communities throughout South Asia and the Pacific, aided by the economic activity of leading commercial families such as the Ezras and the Sassoons, linked to British imperial interests.