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Was Lady Liberty Originally A Muslim?

“The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a Muslim peasant woman and was to have stood at the approach to the Suez Canal,” writes Michael Daly in The Daily Beast, “a lantern in her upraised hand serving as both lighthouse and a symbol of progress.”

The idea that our symbol of Liberty started as a Muslim is a powerful rhetorical tool in the fight to allow desperate Syrian refugees come to the United States and the decades-old debate over the so-called “clash of civilizations,” and Daly’s post has gone somewhat viral.

But is it historically accurate? That’s a little more complicated.

French artist and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi did propose a plan to the Egyptian government in the late 1860s for Egypt (Progress) Carrying Her Light To Asia, a massive lighthouse in the form of an Egyptian peasant woman (fellah) to be placed at the head of the new Suez Canal. Egyptian leader Isma’il Pasha eventually dismissed the plan as too costly – although in reality it was probably more of a political decision –  and Bartholdi abandoned his lobbying efforts. He then began work on plans for Liberty Enlightening the World, which eventually became the Statue of Liberty.

Bartholdi's proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi’s proposed Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia on the Suez Canal

Bartholdi didn’t have a religious intent in either project, so in a sense, describing Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia as a “Muslim” woman is like describing Liberty Enlightening the World as a “Christian” woman – it’s based entirely on location, location, location. In this day and age, an Arab figure in an Arab country is going to be perceived as Muslim; a Western figure in New York Harbor is going to be perceived as Christian. But Bartholdi’s influences were ancient and classical: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Lighthouse of  Alexandria, the pyramids at Giza, Nubian and Assyrian statuary, Roman representations of Libertas.

Daly’s depiction of Bartholdi as instantly packing up and sailing to America “with drawings of the Muslim woman transformed to the personification of Liberty,”  is one Bartholdi himself hated. As the fundraising for Liberty dragged on, some commentators at the time noticed how close the projects were in scope and design. “It was this that made an evilly disposed newspapers say, and others repeat, that I had executed a colossal statue for Egypt, which had not been used, and that I had resold it to the Society of the French-American Union in order that from it might be made the Statue of Liberty,” he noted in a fundraising pamphlet he wrote in 1885. He had only produced sketches and models for the Egyptians, and the project had never gotten out of the planning stages. “At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive, and the statue now in New York’s beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft,” he said in a newspaper interview.

It’s been argued over the years that Bartholdi was being less than honest in trying to put daylight between the two projects. Existing sketches of Egypt share many similarities to Liberty, and it’s clear from his archives that he didn’t start working on Liberty until Egypt was rejected.

However, an artist’s creative process is complex, particularly when an idea ebbs and flows over a period of decades. The idea for a colossal statue may have formed as early as 1855, when he first visited Egypt and saw wonders like the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. (“These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity,” he once wrote. “Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.”) The idea for a colossal statue as a gift to the United States seems to have formed at a dinner party in 1865, two years before he began planning for the Suez Canal project. The concept and design process for both projects was deeply intertwined, but Bathroldi clearly thought of them as separate project – sisters, rather than duplicates.

Could the Lincoln Bedroom Become the Ultimate Airbnb Rental?

Call it the ultimate Airbnb crash pad.

In a recent interview on Bloomberg TV, Brian Chesky, CEO of the online room-letting empire, says he asked President Obama if he could get the Lincoln Bedroom listed for rent.

President Obama told him “I need to check with Michelle,” but said it was probably a long shot.

Chesky allowed that the President was probably just “humoring me.”

That said, it’s a lot more guest-ready than many of Airbnb’s offerings. A big comfy bed, great views of the Washington Monument and other DC landmarks, a modern flat-screen TV media center hidden in a repurposed walnut wardrobe, and (presumably) super-fast wi-fi. The vintage 1950s bathroom features a lovely domed ceiling, pale-green glass tiling, and a big tub etched with the presidential eagle seal. The White House even provides fluffy white towels and complimentary Aveda hair products.

Wait…a vintage 1950s bathroom?

The strange reality of the Lincoln Bedroom is that it isn’t Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom. He never slept there. He never walked those floors.

In the 1860s, the space now called the “Lincoln Bedroom” was a suite used as the president’s office and Cabinet meeting room. It had been since around 1830 and would be until the West Wing was built in 1902. Lincoln’s actual bedroom was down the hall, past a reception room, the family library, and Mary Lincoln’s bedroom.

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

The Lincoln Bedroom in the 1960s

Between 1949 and 1952, the White House interior was completely gutted and rebuilt. After decades of neglect, the building was in such poor condition that engineers feared it could collapse. The end result was a modernized living and work space, stabilized with new load-bearing steel beams. The trade-off was that the historic interior details were demolished.

The public rooms on the main floor were rebuilt on their old lines, but the upstairs living quarters were modified. The old presidential office suite was rebuilt as a modern bedroom suite, with a bathroom, bedroom and sitting room. President Truman christened it the Lincoln Bedroom as a place to display Lincoln-era furnishings and artifacts.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The Lincoln Bedroom after Bush Administration redecoration.

The room itself has been redecorated multiple times over the last fifty years. During the George W Bush era, the White House Historical Association paid $500,000 to give it a more authentic and vibrant Victorian feel. Many of the furnishing pre-date the Lincoln era, but were likely used by the family during their residence. The great rosewood bed that serves as the room’s centerpiece was purchased by Mary Lincoln in 1861, probably for a guest room. Other presidents slept in it, but Lincoln himself did not.

So it’s a complicated piece of historical memory: a bedroom that is a bedroom but wasn’t a bedroom; a “hallowed space” that was actually an office space; a “haunted” space whose original walls and floors are laying in a Virginia landfill. Abraham Lincoln, brought back from the beyond, would not recognize this space, or even the view from the windows.

At the moment, a decent Airbnb room a few blocks from the White House is renting for $327 a night. No rosewood bed. No reproduction Scalamandré drapes. They do provide shampoo, but it might not be Aveda. A secure building, but not snipers-on-the-roof secure. So – location, location, location – the Lincoln Bedroom could go for an easy $400 a night. That’s a cool $146,000 a year. The next president could support the sharing economy AND reduce the national debt at the same time.

Go on and list it! Lincoln would approve.

And you thought your last home renovation was intense? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuliding.

And you thought your last home renovation was a nightmare? The view from the Lincoln Bedroom during the Truman-era rebuilding.

Was Donald Trump’s Father In the Klan? There’s Room For Doubt

This week, the website BoingBoing uncovered a New York Times story indicating that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s father, Fred, was arrested at a brawl between members of the Klu Klux Klan and New York City police during a Memorial Day parade in 1927. They and other websites and news outlets seem to draw the a logical inference that Fred Trump was a member of the Klan.

But is it a logical inference? Looking at the history, there’s plenty of room for doubt.

The Memorial Day parade in Queens was one of the city’s largest. Well before the holiday, there were signs that the 1927 parade wasn’t going to go smoothly. Community outrage had followed news that the organizing committee had accepted an application from the Klan to join the march. Word of their involvement drew the ire of the Knights of Columbus and other Catholics in Queens. The Klan retaliated by papering the area with KKK stickers and posters and erecting an 18-foot tall cross in Briarwood.

Behind the scenes, Patrick Scanlan, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, wrote to Police Commissioner Joseph A. Warren to alert him to the situation. Warren had only been on the job for a few months, and he saw an opportunity to serve notice to the Klan and other disruptive organizations that he was going to be a firm hand.

“I advised Inspector T J Kelly, in command of Queens, that under no condition was the Ku-Klux-Klan to be allowed to parade in Queens gowned and hooded,” Warren later told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “They had no [police] permit to parade. There are too many elements today, having nothing to do with our wars, taking part in Memorial Day parades, and they take up too much of he Police Department’s time, anyway.”

KKK, NYPD, & Spectators Mix at 1927 Memorial Day Parade in New York/Source: DailyMail.co.uk

KKK, NYPD, & Spectators Mix at 1927 Memorial Day Parade in New York/Source: DailyMail.co.uk

Whether by chance or by design, the Klan was given the last slot in the parade. As they approached Hillside Avenue, the contingent of about 500 men and women were met by a force of over 100 police officers. With guns drawn, the police stopped the marchers and ordered them to disband. “After a skirmish, which attracted a huge crowd, the hooded figures were pushed to the sidewalk.”

Klansmen, jeering spectators, and police all mixed together, and for a moment it seemed like a full-on riot was inevitable. But the marchers managed to re-form their parade line and continue on down the four-mile route. Outnumbered, the police were powerless to stop them, and most spectators were content to yell from the sidelines. Only six or seven were arrested.

Which brings us back to Fred Trump, then just 21 years old.

No matter how you read the evidence, his part in the day’s events was minor. His arrest is noted in the New York Times, but not in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s extensive coverage of the march. The Times doesn’t list a specific charge against him. Alone among the defendants, he was “discharged” by the magistrate. His name does not seem to appear in connection with the case again.

Was Fred Trump a member of the Klan? It’s possible.

However, it seems improbable that the son of German immigrants would join an organization that hated both immigrants and Germans. It would seem like bad business for a budding construction mogul – someone whose business relied heavily on Irish and Italian construction workers – to align with a group that hated Catholics. And Klan affiliation it would hardly put him in good stead with the City officials.

There is an alternative explanation. The Queens of Fred Trump’s era had a sizable German-American community, and they were out in force that day. While groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Boy Scouts withdrew in opposition, the German-American Steuben Society decided the to march in defiance, making a last-minute application to organizers and sending a contingent of 500 members.

We also know there was at least one false arrest that day. A man named Ralph Losee turned out to be “an innocent bystander who had his foot run over by a police flivver.”

So, while Trump might have been there with the Klan, he could also have simply been amongst the crowd that came to protest the Klan and gotten caught up in the melee.

The political fallout from the 1927 parade lasted for months. The Klan won a Grand Jury presentment stating that police had incited the violence and demanding a full investigation of Warren’s police department by the Mayor. Only two of the five Klansmen arrested stood trial. Both were convicted, and both won on appeal.

Fred Trump died in 1999 at the age of 93, and in the absence of police records, long destroyed, or proof of Klan membership, there’s no way to clarify his role in that day.  Donald Trump has said “This never happened. Never took place. He was never arrested, never convicted, never even charged.”

“It’s a completely false, ridiculous story. He was never there! It never happened. Never took place.”

48 Names and Mount McKinley Is Just One of Them

Mount McKinley c 1900/Library of Congress

Mount McKinley c 1900/Library of Congress

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: No, Denali is not “Kenyan” for “black power.”

The dialog surrounding the Obama administration’s directive to the Department of the Interior to rename Alaska’s highest peak has been surprisingly vigorous. It hits that sweet spot between modern political rhetoric and historical memory – or lack of historical memory, as the case may be.

Understanding how Denali came to be called Mount McKinley is something that can only be explained by stepping back into its own time…and even then, not all the details are clear.

One thing that is clear from the record is that prospector William A. Dickey didn’t march into the Alaskan wilderness in the summer of 1896 with the intent of hijacking a sacred Native mountain and naming it after some white dude. He was just looking for gold.

Dickey, like most people who saw the Alaska Range for the first time, was surprised by the beauty of the massif. Thirty years after the Alaska Purchase, this part of the territory was still largely unmapped and unexplored. Artists and photographers had not yet created a visual record. It was still very much a “terra incognita,” he wrote. Despite the clouds of mosquitoes, the cold rains and flooding rivers, the earthquakes and the bears, to him this was a “wonderful wilderness.”

But why “Mount McKinley”?

In his only known published account of his Alaskan adventure, published in the New York Sun in January 1897, he said it was because McKinley’s presidential nomination was the first news he heard as they returned to civilization. Years later, he told mountaineer Belmore Browne the full story. Dickey and his partners “fell in with two prospectors who were rabid champions of free silver,” during their expedition, “and…after listening to their arguments for many weary days, he retaliated by naming the mountain after the champion of the gold standard.”

Like all political jabs, there was a serious subtext. In 1896, the US was struggling to recover from a deep depression sparked by the Panic of 1893. Whether the cash supply should be back by gold or a combination of gold and silver had become the major political argument. Republicans like Dickey believed in the gold standard, a stable base that theoretically kept supply tight and inflation low; Democrats were supporters of bimetallism or “free silver,” believing that cheap silver would bulk up the money supply and make more cash available to all.

Dickey may not have known if the peak had a name. In fact, it had many. There are more than forty variant names in Athabaskan; depending on dialect and location, he might have heard *Denali, Dinadhit, Deenaalee, Denale, Dghelay Ka’a, Doleika, Traleika, Tennali, Tolaghah, Tenada.* Some variants applied only the peak, others to the entire massif. If he had an old Russian map, it would have read Bulshaya Gora. Local prospectors in these years called it Densmore’s Mountain, after a fellow prospector who, like Dickey, had rhapsodized on its distant beauty.

Nor does Dickey seem to have lobbied for “Mount McKinley” to be officially recognized. How it ended up sticking is something of a mystery. The Army and the US Geological Survey sent teams into the area in 1898-99. Keeping the name of their Commander-In-Chief might have seemed like the prudent or polite choice.

In 1900, survey teams announced that the peak stood over 20,400 feet above sea level, making it, as Dickey had theorized, the highest peak in North America. One major wire report said the mountain “now known by the name of McKinley, was formerly known as Mount Allen” and that “inhabitants of the region call it Bertheya, which is the corrupted Russian version of ‘The Big Mountain.'” The real native name for it, they said, “is Tralega,” but “Mr. Dick, a prospector,” named it after President McKinley.

Just over a year later, six months into his second term, William McKinley was assassinated. During his tenure, he had become one of the most popular presidents in US history, and his murder touched off a wave of national mourning not seen since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

After McKinley’s death, several states contemplated naming mountains in his honor. (Naming geographic features after famous people was fairly common this period. That the famous person had never been there was beside the point. It was a tribute, and a lot cheaper and easier than building a monument.) That the continent’s *highest* peak was already named for him seemed practically prescient.

Denali gained support as the “true” name for the peak beginning in 1913 with mountaineer Hudson Struck’s The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), which contained ” a plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name,” and over time it became the common alternative name. Since 1974, it’s a been a political hot potato between Alaska and Ohio, and President Obama’s directive is probably not going to end the rhetorical war between the states.

Meanwhile, Mount Foraker stands ignored. Right next to Denali and the third highest peak in North America, she was named for Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker by an Army lieutenant for unknown reasons in 1899. Foraker never visited Alaska and died in his bed at the age of 71. This peak had once euphonic Native names as well: Sultana, ‘the woman;’ Menlale, ‘Denali’s wife.’ Nobody is agitating to change it.

Saving Sekhemka

Sekhemka has traveled far.

For centuries, he stood over the tomb of his namesake, the great scribe of Ancient Egypt, at the necropolis at Saqqara near Cairo. At some point, looters took him from his master’s grave and set him into the growing network of collectors of all things Egyptian. Here his path vanishes for a while. Some believe he went north to the Ottoman Empire. Others think he stayed closer to home.

Sekhemka, 1950s. He was on display in the Northampton Museum from the 1870s to 2012.

Sekhemka, 1950s. He was on display in the Northampton Museum from the 1870s to 2012.

Around 1851, he ended up in the collection of Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton. Antiquarian, geologist, man of letters, Lord Northampton traveled through Egypt in 1850-51, collecting objects from dealers and transporting them home to the Midlands of England. He never got to enjoy them, dying the year after his return. His family, honoring his wishes as a patron of the arts and sciences, donated his collection, including Sekhemka, to the local museum in Northampton, on the condition that they remain on display and free of charge.

This was Sekhemka’s home for the next century. He was such a familiar face that, after a while, he stopped exciting curatorial interest. He was just sort of there in his case, his miniaturized wife Sitmerit crouched patiently by his leg.

Then, in 2012, an appraiser valued Sekhemka at £2 million. And suddenly, he was very, very popular.

With austerity measures pinching local budgets and a long list of projects they couldn’t fund, the Northampton Borough Council saw the quick sale of this object as the answer to their woes.

Sekhemka was scuttled into storage while the council opened negotiations with the current Lord Northampton, who technically owned the item as part of the family estate. Public pressure delayed the sale for two years. On the promise of a 55-45 split in proceeds, Lord Northampton agreed to the deal. Sekhemka made yet another journey, this time Christies in London.

In July 2014, it sold to an anonymous buyer for a record-setting £15,762,500. While they’ve not released exact figures, it’s believed Lord Northampton made around £7 million from the sale, and Northampton Borough Council around £6 million.

A year later, Sekhemka sits in limbo, a source of international controversy.

Museums have a duty to hold their collections in trust for society,” says David Fleming, chair of the Museums Association Ethics Committee. “They should not treat their collections as assets to be monetized for short-term gain.”

Almost everything about the sale violated professional norms, and the profession has struck back hard: Arts Council England stripped the museum of its accreditation and the Museums Association banned them for a period of five years. These actions effectively block them from applying for heritage grants. “In the long run,” writes archeologist Mike Pitts, “the sale could cost them more in lost grants than it made in the auction room.”

Now, the focus is on saving Sekhemka from vanishing entirely. The name of the buyer is unknown, but most sources say it was purchased by a Qatari billionaire for a private collection.

Action groups in both Northampton and in Egypt have been working to try to keep the statue in England or have it repatriated home to Egypt. UNESCO and the International Council of Museums have also joined the lobbying efforts.

The unifying principle is simple: cultural heritage belongs to humanity. It’s better for a work of art to sit in a small-town museum than to become an ornament in some oligarch’s bathroom. Or wherever billionaires put their 4,500-year old objets d’art.

The British government has been receptive to their pleas. Just this week, it extended an export ban on the statue, giving parties another opportunity to try to come up with the funds to buy the statue and keep it in-country. If a serious offer emerges by midday on 28 August, the ban could be extended to March 2016.

It’s a longshot. Not too many people, or organizations for that matter, have £16 million laying around. Plus, says Alistair Brown of the Museums Association, “it still seems unlikely that any public body will want to be seen to reward Northampton Borough Council by being involved in the purchase of the statue.”

But there is still a chance. Any object that last for more than 4,000 years is pretty tough, and Sekhemka may have a few tricks left up his carved sleeve.

The day before he was sold at auction in London in 2014, a huge fire broke out Lord Northampton’s Castle Ashby, the family’s home for 15 generations. The main house was spared and nobody was injured. The timing caught everyone’s attention. Is there a “Curse of Sekhamka”? Probably not. But maybe it was a sign the gods were speaking.

The Noble Face (Image: BBC)

The Noble Face
(Image: BBC)

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