A visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose breaks the seal on mysteries of a faraway land.
Imagine you're a modern-day Indiana Jones itching to unearth a dazzling stash of Egyptian antiquities. Do you search in the great necropolis at Luxor? Dig beneath the pyramid of Djoser?
Try looking between a Starbucks and a middle school in San Jose. Yes, Indy, a trove of royal coffins, ancient mummies, and sacred amulets—more than 4,000 pieces—lies hidden in Silicon Valley suburbia inside the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium. The building's facade, a visual echo of the Temple of Amen at Karnak, rises amid obelisks and sphinxes in the surrounding Rosicrucian Park.
The story behind these riches begins with H. Spencer Lewis, founder and first Imperator of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC—a branch of the fraternal society that traces its traditions to the mystery schools of ancient Egypt. A collector of artifacts, Lewis helped secure funds for excavations at the former city of Akhetaton in the 1920s and was given several Egyptian relics in return. When he moved to San Jose in 1927, he brought with him a vision of a home for his growing collection. Asked about a statuette of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet he kept on his desk, he would say, "That is the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum." In 1928 he had glass exhibit cases installed in the order's administration building; the museum kept growing, with its current incarnation opening in 1966.
The Afterlife gallery draws visitors with an eerie reproduction of a rock-cut tomb and four authentic human mummies, including those of a priest and a 4-year-old girl. The Egyptians prepared for the world beyond by placing an array of mummified animals in tombs; in the displays you can check out cat, gazelle, falcon, and ibis mummies—even a well-preserved Nile catfish some gourmand may have planned to savor for eternity.
The equally intriguing Daily Life & Trade gallery reveals details about Egyptian culture from the Predynastic period—circa 3000 b.c.—through the early Christian era: for instance, a 1,700-year-old marriage contract that asserts the bride's virginity. An exhibit of 3,500-year-old kohl mascara tubes, tweezers, combs, and even hair extensions illustrates the deep roots of cosmetology. And judging from a backgammon-like board game called senet, leisure was already a priority five or six millennia ago. As were religion and temple life, the focus of the upstairs galleries that hold a fragment from The Book of the Dead (a text about the afterlife) and Lewis's original Sekhmet statuette.
Leave time to explore Rosicrucian Park, where you can take in a star show at the planetarium or peruse rare books on alchemy and mythology in the Rosicrucian Research Library. Treasure maps aren't part of the library's resources, but you never know what you might discover in San Jose.
Photography courtesy Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum.
This article was first published in September 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium, 1664 Park Ave., San Jose, (408) 947-3636, egyptianmuseum.org .