Ancient Egypt in Petersham: the Egyptian Room at the Masonic CentrePosted: November 18, 2013
Suburban Narnias are found behind plain brick facades, in buildings so ordinary they are barely noticed. Any building can contain one, and in even my most casual glimpses through open doors and curtainless windows I hope to spot something unexpected inside.
I’d heard the rumours of the Egyptian Room inside the Petersham Masonic Centre on New Canterbury Road, a room lavishly decorated with images from Egyptian mythology. I think of it every time I pass by and try to imagine it but the exterior gives away no clues. It is brick office building, a neat box that attracts no attention.
One night a year, on the second Friday in November, the Egyptian Room is open to the public. On my way there I wonder if there will be queues, but the building looks as quiet and forbidding as any other day. I half expect the door to be locked, but it yields when I push against it. There is no one to be seen inside, but I can hear the clink of teacups from a far room and I tentatively head up the stairs following the sign to the Egyptian Room.
Once inside the doors of the Egyptian room, the mood changes abruptly from 70s office building to gilded treasure chest. Gold columns, lotus flowers, pomegranates, and papyrus leaves decorate the walls, and around the perimeter of the ceiling is the story of the Book of the Dead, the journey of a man’s soul into the afterlife. It is a story populated by falcons, lions, human-headed hawks, Anubis the jackal headed-god, the eye of Horus, and Osiris, the god of eternal life to whose kingdom souls hope to gain admittance.
The Egyptian room was originally constructed in the Royal Arch Masonic Temple in the city. It depicts scenes from the Scroll of Ani, a funerary scroll from 1250BC that is in the collection of the British Museum. In the 1960s, the Royal Arch Masonic Temple building was demolished and the Egyptian friezes were dismantled and placed in storage. In 1977, the room was reconstructed in Petersham and since then has been used as the masonic meeting hall.
Sitting at one end of the room is the man who is waiting to give the presentation about the the translation of the scroll. As I pass him he asks “Are there any figures you want to know more about?” There was one, a creature on all fours with its green pointed snout, next to a scene with a set of scales attended by various gods.
“That’s the devourer,” he says, looking at me gravely.
“Ammit, a female god with a crocodile’s head. She is waiting to devour the man’s soul.”
The scene with the scales is a crucial moment in the story, in which the heart is weighed against a feather – if it is found to be heavier, Ammit gets to eat the soul, rather than it pass through to the kingdom of Osiris.
As he explains this, I watch a man taking a photo of his kids standing in front of the Funerary Stele, a frieze of Osiris and Isis being presented with cakes and wine. The kids smile but the faces of the gods are grave and watchful behind them.
It’s good news for the soul – it passes to everlasting life. I, however, must leave the Egyptian room and head back out to New Canterbury Road. I walk up past the water tower which, after my visit to the Book of the Dead, looks mythical, like a temple from another world.