Who inspired the design of the Voortrekker Monument: Pharaoh or Abram?

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This article investigates and argues the origin of the design of architect Gerard Moerdyk's (1890–1958) Voortrekker Monument, erected on a hill to the southwest of Pretoria. It documents the architect’s thoughts, or ideas, or the mindset that gave rise to the creation of the monument. What, according to Moerdyk, enthused or kindled the original idea that eventually shaped and formatted this remarkable building?

Tracing the relevant primary sources led to the identification of two lines or trajectories of thought, embedded in the explication given by the architect whenever he reflected upon the origin of his design. Initially, and without hesitation, Moerdyk attributed the inspiration of his design to ancient Egyptian temples and architecture. Later, after the design was questioned in public, he indicated that the altar built by the Biblical Abram inspired the original idea that led to the design of the building. Hence the question forming the title of the article: “Who inspired the design of the Voortrekker Monument: Pharaoh or Abram?” The research thus intended to determine – from the primary sources – to whom this honour is due. Was it Abram of the Bible, or the Pharaoh of Egypt?

Moerdyk, as the authority, clarified the design of his monument over a long period of 17 years: from 1932 to 1949. The platform was laid in 1932. His first sketch of the envisaged monument (1932) clearly resembles the famous Egyptian temple of Horus at Edfu, a building that he described in detail in his 1935 book on the history of architecture. This design, published as a drawing in the Pretoria newspaper Die Vaderland, consequently carried the footprints of the ancient Egyptian tombs and temples. The immense physical structure of the building, the two massive pylons with a diametric axial passage through the middle and a distinctive sarcophagus, symbolized according to the architect the unwavering character of the Voortrekkers, as well as the way (presumably) opened by them into the interior of Africa in order to establish and maintain a "white" civilization in these regions. It was clear that the inspiration for the design of the building originated in Egyptian temple architecture, and thus with the Pharaoh.

In 1936 Moerdyk revised his design. It was still based on the elementary lines of the Egyptian pylon temple, but now embodied a composite building, with a massive granite appearance. In April 1936 the Central People’s Monument Committee officially accepted this revised design. Moerdyk was then appointed as the architect of this national enterprise. Elucidating the form of the structure to the committee, he denotes it as a mausoleum in which a sarcophagus for the remains of Piet Retief and his men would form the centrepiece. The original Egyptian ideas that inspired the monument were thus maintained. When a model of the proposed monument went on display in September 1936 at the Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, the public could, for the first time, visualise the form of the building. The basic idea of the memorial Moerdyk then envisaged was to erect a beautiful shrine or sanctuary located within the protective wall of a wagon laager. In the upper dome would be an opening for a shaft of light to filter in and illuminate a sarcophagus of Retief and his men.

For some, however, the building bore resemblance to a wedding cake, a pepper pot or even a radio. For others, the similarity to an Eastern temple and its appeal was foreign to the Afrikaner. This unexpected criticism made the Central People’s Monument Committee (including Moerdyk) cautious about arguing the origin and idea behind the structure and stature of the building in terms of its Egyptian roots. It is evident that the criticism of the design motivated the committee to disclose the significance and symbolism of the building along a different line of thinking. An official document issued by the committee gave effect to a new interpretation.

The committee’s response at the beginning of 1937 elevated the historical achievement of the Voortrekkers. The victory they had accomplished in establishing a “white civilisation” deserved, according to the committee, an imposing monument. Designed to meet this purpose the Moerdyk monument, it was emphasised, embodied in its stature the national identity of the Afrikaner in a powerful way. The significance of the building now shifted to the framework of nationalist sentiments, which went hand in hand with the religious nature of the Afrikaner.

The building’s origin in the Egyptian combination of a mausoleum and temple was substituted by the biblical history of Abram, and the altar he had built to accommodate the religious nature (or spirituality) of the Afrikaner. The document indicated that just as the wandering Abram erected an altar whenever he came to rest, the monument was correspondingly constructed. The document, however, noted that since an altar like that of Abram was outmoded and had been superseded, a sanctuary in the case of the monument would replace it. Deep in the heart of the building, it continued, a sarcophagus for Retief and his men, who paid the ultimate sacrifice to make South Africa inhabitable, was situated. This sanctuary would provide the sacred space for the Afrikaner to become a participant of his history. The monument was interpreted as a memorial of the people for the people. A switch thus took effect: Pharaoh was exchanged for Abram. In following the underpinning primary sources, the article identifies a clear turning point in the trajectory of the architect’s explanation of the origin of the building. Pharaoh made room for Abram.

The next set of documents in which the architect reflected on the meaning and symbolism of the building was linked to the laying of the cornerstone of the monument on 16 December 1938. Remarkably, Moerdyk in these documents did not offer an explication of the original idea that had shaped the design of the building. The building, as a prevailing expression in stone of the Afrikaner’s history, was nationalised. This Afrikaner and people’s monument was designed in harmony with the religious nature and spirituality of the Afrikaner. Neither Pharaoh nor Abram was even mentioned.

Published in the year of the inauguration of the monument (16 December 1949), a final set of documents offered Moerdyk the opportunity to illuminate the meaning of his monument. Yet again the architect emphasised that the monument was the formidable and eternal symbol and expression of the triumph of the Afrikaner's history. However, Moerdyk now expanded his argument. The monument is also a symbol of the entitlement of the Afrikaner to the country. The emphasis thus moved from a nationalist to a political consideration. The building became the symbol of an ideology.

In these documents references to Abram's altar (for the first time since 1937) as the original inspiring idea that had shaped the design of the monument again surfaced. In this regard Moerdyk was categorical in his assertion. He wrote that while searching for a fundamental concept to conceive a worthy monument, he was struck by a thought: What would the Voortrekkers have done, had they decided to erect a monument? He expected that, as a religious people, they would obviously have consulted the Christian Bible. They would have looked for circumstances similar to their own, and then acted accordingly. The history of Abram provided a perfect counterpart. After leaving Ur, on his sojourns Abram always built an altar. The Voortrekkers, who had left the Cape Colony, would thus, Moerdyk assumed, have made their monument a religious one. They would have built an altar, like, and because, Abram did. The architect then indicated that, based on this hypothesis, the Abramic altar guided his design of the Voortrekker Monument. The genesis of what eventually emerged as the monument had germinated in the altar that Abram had built. Abram, and not the Egyptian Pharaoh, had inspired the building.

As in 1937, Moerdyk nonetheless noted in 1949 that the Abramic altar was dated. It could no longer be utilised. In the monument it therefore took the form of a sarcophagus deep in the centre of the building. It had been transubstantiated to a mausoleum, from which the whole building rose. Consequently, it could not be Abram who had inspired the design of building. In the final analysis it seems that the origin of the design of the building remained firmly seated in its Egyptian (sarcophagus!) roots. In terms of its design, this remarkable building on a hill on the south-western side of Pretoria is an Egyptian temple. It is a mausoleum, a sanctuary, for the mid-20th-century Afrikaner Voortrekkers. The Pharaoh had indeed inspired the building.

Keywords: Afrikaner; Afrikaner nationalism; Ancient Egyptian architecture; Central People's Monument Committee; Gerard Moerdyk (1890–1958); Great Trek; Voortrekker Monument design; Zimbabwe ruins

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Wie het die ontwerp van die Voortrekkermonument geïnspireer: Farao of Abram?

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