As anyone knows who's been there, parking in Denver is like the world's most expensive game of
: your car is a single piece, and if you want one of those quickly-vanishing spaces for more than 30 minutes, it's going to cost you about $15. One day a few weeks ago, on my way to pick up a batch of samples downtown, I was diverted from my usual lot by some kind of parade or street festival and forced to park a few blocks off. I'm glad I did, because if I hadn't, I would not have seen this:
Look twice. I know I did. I'm not used to seeing buildings like this in downtown Denver. Downtown Cairo, maybe, but Denver, the Mile-High City, home of craft beer and the Broncos? But I shouldn't have been surprised. In an increasingly global world, you'll see KFC and Apple in Cairo, so why not Middle Eastern architecture in Denver? But as it so happens, there's a lot more Egyptian influence in America than you might think, and it shows up in some very unexpected places.
If you've been to Washington, D.C., you probably saw the Washington Monument. It's tough to miss, really.
The Washington Monument (photograph copyright David Iliff 2006).The tallest stone building in the world, it is not, like Egyptian obelisks, made from a single piece of stone. Is that cheating?
Washington's historical sites tend to be Neo-Classical--lots of Greek- and Roman-inspired columns--so why is this obelisk dedicated to the first American president so different? Because Robert Mills, the architect who drafted the initial design in 1836, drew inspiration from another, older culture.
Obelisks are a famous part of ancient Egypt's architectural heritage, beautiful and distinctive monuments to the power of ancient pharaohs. Several, like "Cleopatra's Needle" in London and the Luxor Obelisk in Place de Concorde, Paris, were actually relocated by Europeans during the 19th century, as Napoleon's spectacularly unsuccessful campaign in Egypt both redrew the map of the Middle East and reignited European interest in the Pharaonic past.
An Egyptian obelisk relocated to Paris (photo by David Monniaux, copyright 2005).
The blossoming "Egyptomania" of the 19th and early 20th centuries took many forms: a fascination with mummies and ancient Egyptian religion, art, and architecture principal among them. The strange thing about the Washington Monument is not how Egyptian it looks, but that it could have looked MORE Egyptian. The initial design (shown below) featured an Pharaonic-inspired sun design at the obelisk's base:
|Robert Mills's original sketch of the Washington Monument from 1836. Columns, yes--but just look at that sun image!
The building of the Washington Monument was an involved process that faced financial issues, public complaints, and a civil war. But when it was dedicated in 1885, Egyptomania was still underway, soon to inspire a new movement called
had its origins in France, but it took its inspiration from the ancient art of Mexico, Greece, Babylon--and Egypt. This distinctive style probably saw its greatest expression in William Van Alen's 1930 Chrysler Building in New York City, which housed the famous car company of the same name and is currently owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council.
|The Chrysler Building shows off the ongoing American love of obelisks and Egypt-inspired sun imagery (photo copyright David Shankbone, 2009).
Just a little bit of the legacy of the Pharaohs, transforming our modern skylines.
One of the first six-reel films to appear in the United States was the biopic
, billed as "The most beautiful motion picture ever produced." Granted, this was 1912, and there was much less competition, but feel free to judge for yourself on Youtube, where the film is available for free.
wasn't the first film made about Egypt; it wasn't even the first film made about
(there had been one made just a year before). But it did cement a fascination with the pageantry and mysticism of the ancient Nile in the minds of American viewers that just twenty years later would lead to a very famous film indeed.
(1932) transformed the popular notion of Egypt from one of Biblical mystery to one of horror. Directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff as a vengeful mummy returned to life, the film provided a memorable and chilling spectacle for audiences in the 1930s.
There's little in
derived from actual Egyptian belief or history, where mummies weren't monsters but the sacred remains of rulers intended for immortality. But for American audiences, the vengeful mummy became a horror icon right beside Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman.
But portrayals of Egypt weren't entirely confined to horror following the days of silent movies. From Elizabeth Taylor's
to Charlton Heston portraying Moses in
The 10 Commandments,
the Nile remained a land of sumptuous history and adventure, up through such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981),
Prince of Egypt
, and the recent
Gods of Egypt.
|"Cleopatra," starring Elizabeth Taylor.
In my junior year of high school, my class took a field trip to Washington, D.C. I grew up in Baltimore, so this wasn't too exciting until we got to the National Masonic Temple, with a great interior doorway flanked by images of Isis and Osiris.
The Freemasons aren't a secret society per se, but a charitable organization with roots in the social clubs that were once popular among Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these clubs drew inspiration from ancient mythology or Middle Eastern culture--and none moreso than the Shriners.
The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine is in fact neither ancient nor Arabic nor comprised of nobility. Rather, it is a branch off of the Freemasons created by a 19th century American named William J. Florence. Claiming allegiance to a fictitious "Caliph Alee," most early Shriner meetings combined a lot of drinking with poor imitations of Arab and Egyptian customs--especially wearing the classic Ottoman fez.
That building I saw in downtown Denver? Turns out it was a Shriner temple. They're still around, but they've become best known for their charitable work these days, running highly-respected free hospitals. But they still maintain a strong connection to the symbols of Egypt and the Middle East. Just look at their logo:
First, listen to this:
|"Misirlou," by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones
That's "Misirlou," as performed by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones. If you're a movie fan of a certain generation, you probably immediately thought of the opening to Quentin Tarantino's
. If you're a bit older, you probably thought of surfing, since Dale's distinctive and skillful guitar-playing helped launch the entire late 1950's-early '60s "surf rock" genre. But the roots of "Misirlou" go back significantly further than half a century, give or take a few decades. Want proof?
That was from 1927, performed by a Greek men's chorus. Like
, and other regional staples, nobody's sure where "Misirlou" came from, but Dale heard it from his Lebanese grandfather, who picked it up in Beirut (Dale would later himself claim to have been born in Beirut, though he's actually from Boston). Versions have been recorded in Arabic, Greek, Turkish, and Yiddish, though it seems to have had its origins in the Ottoman-dominated East Mediterranean. The song itself is about a boy's love for an unnamed Egyptian girl--"--
" being the feminine ending in Greek and "Misir" being a Turkish derivative of the Arabic word for Egypt, مصر (formally pronounced "Misr," but colloquially "Masr").
|"Ya Amal," by Maestro Clovis