When it comes to Freemasons, we often imagine all sorts of mysterious stories, full of plots, secret symbols and fabulous treasures. The premise of these stories is often the same: the Freemasons, by means of symbols and secret rituals, preserve the secret of a millennial treasure (just watch the Da Vinci Code or National Treasure movies to understand the kind of stories that the Freemasons inspire).
I admit, I know that these stories are exaggerated, but I still have a fascination for Freemasons. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia offered guided tours of its facilities. I was certainly not going to miss the opportunity to visit the headquarters of a mysterious organization!
And I was not disappointed. The Masonic Temple is stunning. Located across the street from Philadelphia City Hall, the building covers a full block. Its construction began in 1868 and cost $1.8 million (which for the time was a huge sum!). The exterior (designed by a 27-year-old architect) was completed in 5 years, but it took another 15 years to complete interior decorating. This is not at all surprising after you see the opulence and richness of the details of these rooms.
The interior of the temple is a tribute to the architectural know-how of ancient cultures. Each room is decorated according to a particular architectural theme. The first room we visited, the Oriental Hall, copies the Moorish style of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Another room reproduces the Gothic style (it is the room where the modern Templars meet … yes, you read correctly, the Templars still exist), another, the Ionic style, another still, the Norman style. A room is inspired by the temples of the Luxor Valley in Egypt (when the room was decorated, all the details were scrutinized by Egyptologists to make sure everything was in order). The two huge rooms on the upper floor reproduce Greek style and Renaissance style.
The most striking thing is the details in each room. From floor to ceiling, walls, paintings, furniture and clocks, nothing was left to chance. Each room is breathtaking. The Masonic Temple in Philadelphia is the largest in America and one of the largest in the world (it seems that only the temples of London and Stockholm can compare to it) and it is still used today.
And the millennial treasure in all this? Our guide kindly mocked all the rumors surrounding the Freemasons. He reminded us that Freemasonry appeared in the 16th century in Scotland with the aim of working for the progress of humanity. Although there is a multitude of rites, obedience and traditions, the principle behind Freemasonry remains the same: once recruited and initiated within a Masonic Lodge, members must defend the values of fraternity and tolerance and help society, often through charities. There is therefore no question of protecting any treasure.
Our guide, himself a Freemason, told us that today, very few secrets had not already been revealed about Freemasonry. The public has access to the temple library and its many archival documents. But after seeing the majestic halls filled with mysterious symbols, my fascination for Freemasonry is still present. The real treasure is perhaps the one that was before our eyes …