Extracts from a paper prepared by Wor. Bro. Keith Stockley PM – Lodge Star of the Rand No. 15 Grand Lodge of South Africa, District 15 Masonic Education Officer – NSW – Australia
An idea born in the Desert
Camp had been made at Tel El Fara on the 28 April 1917 and a welcome break in hostilities in the first World War had developed. On 6 May, Brigadier General Meldrum ( A Past Master of Lodge Rangatira No. 71 and a former Grand Lodge Sword Bearer of the GL of New Zealand) chaired an informal meeting of 8 Freemasons held at Brigade Headquarters .
Those present resolved to form themselves into a provisional committee for the purpose of formulating proposals for the establishment of a Masonic association ( Not a Military Lodge) from the Freemasons in the NZEF (New Zealand Expeditionary Forces) fighting in the Holy Land.
27 May 1917
A meeting of 36 Freemasons, representing 34 lodges, was held in the open air on a hill slope near to Gaza. They had gathered in response to a word-of-mouth notice that had been circulating among the men.
It was 2 p.m. so it was necessary to appoint guards to prevent enemy interruptions. Here the use of a Tyler was put into serious practice, with the place of symbolism being taken by reality and the traditional sword being replaced with the rifle.
Those present unanimously agreed to form an association known as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Masonic Association and adopted without dissention the proposed Constitution.
The Mastermind behind this initiative was undoubtedly Brig. General Meldrum ably assisted by Lt Col J N McCarroll. Right from the very start, when these two brothers planned the association, it is clear that they had a motivation which was simultaneously Masonic as well as personal. Throughout the written records, both formal and informal, unfolds the clear determination that they intended to achieve something unique, something never before done in the entire history of Freemasonry whether such history was 700 or 7000 years old and that the Association was the vehicle created to achieve this goal.
They wanted to make Masonic history and this they did!
The journey begins
The journey to Moriah had begun and was completed 12 months later at King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The goal was to assemble in King Solomon’s Temple and this was a goal promised to every member of the Association. There are many statements in the records that reveal this promise to the brethren.
The thought of achieving the unachievable and becoming a part of Masonic history must have been an enormous motivation to these men and a brief look at the heroism these Freemasons showed in the months to come and the lists of military decorations awarded for bravery and valour is an indication, I believe, of the extent of this motivation.
To hold a Masonic meeting under serious war conditions was difficult to say the least, especially as the terrain was totally unfamiliar, there were basically no facilities and the conditions in the desert were both unfriendly and savage.
To convene a meeting in due form required the group to acquire aprons and gavels. The most likely source for such items was Jerusalem which was in enemy hands. Apart from the fact that the intention was to hold the meeting in King Solomon’s Temple itself posed additional problems in that according to history the temple had been destroyed in AD 70, the Muslim Mosque –the Dome of the Rock—which had been built on the site was not only in Turkish hands but strictly forbidden firstly by the military and secondly by the Muslims who had forbidden entry to Christians and non-Muslims.
Transport itself was at a very high premium and assuming that all the other insurmountable problems disappeared like magic, how would it be possible to get to Jerusalem?
Despite the above difficulties, all of which seemed to need a miracle to be removed, the glittering goal conceived by Brother Meldrum and Bro McCarroll dominated the thoughts and minds of all the Freemasons who had joined the Association.
The GAOTU certainly works in mysterious ways. Despite the rigours and dangers of war in the desert, the association lost only two members killed in action and as the hostilities continued, General Allembie eventually reached Jerusalem, walking in to the Holy City on the 11 December 1917, signaling the end of four centuries of Turkish rule. (It is perhaps an interesting coincidence to note that the 9 December when the Turkish troops were leaving the city, was the Jewish Festival of Hanukah, commemorating the deliverance of the city by Judas Maccabeus).
Thus one of the major difficulties facing the NZEF Masonic Association was removed. Jerusalem was no longer in enemy hands.
The members of the association were of course scattered all over Palestine, but towards the end of this journey to Moriah, on the 4th April 1918, one mile from Jericho at 3 p.m. a quick meeting was held at which a plan was devised to achieve the objective they had set for themselves 12 months before.
No doubt using the influence of Brig. General Meldrum and his close friendship with General Shea, the High Command lent the group seven motors cars. This influence must have been extraordinary as motor cars were absolutely impossible to get hold of, transport being of crucial importance to the war effort at this point in time.
Who was approached and what was said is not known, but the outcome was the making available to a group of Freemasons, of the seven available cars. This was indeed a miracle.
They used white handkerchiefs for aprons.
The gavels to be used at the meeting have proven to be something of an enigma. The Minutes of the meetings, supported by subsequent reports written many years later, show that “a set of three gavels was ordered”. In keeping with the symbolism in which Freemasonry is steeped, the gavels ordered were to be made from three different woods, each having a symbolic significance , namely acacia, olive and cedar wood from the forests of Lebanon.
The research undertaken has revealed that various members of the group sent these gavels back to their Mother Lodges as important symbols of the only meeting ever held in King Solomon’s Temple by Freemasons. The gavels presented in this way were sent to New Zealand lodges and to Lodge Cadder Argyle No. 147 in Scotland.
The gavels have been carved into a traditional legal shape which creates the first puzzle. If the gavels were ordered on the Thursday and had to be specially carved into a specific shape out of special woods, is it likely that they would have been available 1 ½ days later on the Saturday? Try and get this done in your home town and see what length of time you are looking at, but here in a war-torn city, freed from Turkish rule just a few months before and the business sector still in turmoil and chaos, surely another miracle was needed?
The Minutes of Lodge Cadder Argyle’s meeting on Saturday 18 May 1918 in Glasgow read:
“ The Secretary in a few words, on behalf of Bro.Cpl. Archibald McDougall who is serving with the New Zealand Forces in Palestine. The Secretary hands over to the RWM Three beautiful mallets sent by Bro. Corpl. McDougall from Jerusalem (Holy City). The Secretary was instructed to write and thank Bro. McDougall for his handsome gift.”
King Solomon’s Temple
King Solomon’s Temple stood at the northern part of Mount Moriah facing east. It towered over its surroundings—a monument to the constructive genius of man and a witness to the omnipotence and omnipresence of God.
However, the reality of the situation was that it had been destroyed in AD 70.
Zerrubbabel thereafter built his temple on the site which was also basically destroyed and subsequently rebuilt by Herod which in turn met the same fate.
Over the Byzantine period, it may seem horrendous but it is a fact of history that the site became a dumping ground for waste. This waste was cleared by the Caliph Omar who then built upon it a small mosque. Even today the site is more commonly known as the Mosque of Omar, when in fact the official title is The Dome of The Rock.
The Dome of the Rock, which is the oldest Muslim building which has survived basically intact in its original form and which after Mecca is the most important Muslim site in the world, was built by the Caliph Abd al-Malik and completed in 691 AD
Despite the decision having been made at Thursday’s meeting to make the trip to Jerusalem, permission to do so was only given on the following evening.
Although the number of brethren who made this historic journey varies , depending on which report one reads, there is a picture taken outside the Dome of the Rock ( With this building in the background) of 31 soldiers , so it is safe to conclude that 31 brethren mustered in Jericho on that Saturday morning to make the 20 mile trip to Jerusalem.
Apart from the Brigade Ford, six ( in some reports seven) other cars were put at their disposal by General Chaytor and General Shea.
The group arrived at mid-day and had lunch at the new Grand Hotel before making their way on foot through the narrow streets of the old city to the “Mosque of Omar”.
Then, sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday 6 April 1918, the 31 Freemasons, all members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Masonic Association, assembled outside the Mosque.
The building encloses a huge rock located at its centre from which, according to tradition, the Prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven at the end of his Night Journey.
In the Jewish tradition, this is the Foundation Stone, the symbolic foundation upon which the world was created and the place of the Binding of Isaac.
Abd al-Malik marked the end of the construction with a dedicated inscription which is still visible, which reads “ This dome was built by the servant of God Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, emir of the faithful, in the year seventy-two” - (Hejira 72 in the Muslim calendar is 691/692 AD).
The Dome of the Rock is not built on the exact spot where King Solomon’s Temple stood but it does dominate the overall site. We must bear in mind that when Solomon built his temple to God on the same site he also built many other buildings, palaces, accommodation for guests and servants and so forth. The Mount Moriah site had to be levelled and built up in order to house all the buildings and the whole site was shored up with enormous supporting walls ( The well-known King Solomon’s quarries which were the legendary source of the stone used in the construction of the Temple and which even today are used periodically as the venue for Masonic meetings—usually of the Mark Degree—are to be located in the supporting walls about 400 metres from the Temple site). This huge site is still covered with buildings, the most prominent being of course the Dome of the Rock.
This awesome site was the destination of the group of Freemasons on that history-making day nearly 90 years ago.
What was left of King Solomon’s Temple that would enable a meeting to be housed therein?... And assuming such a mythical place did in fact exist, how would it be possible to gain access to it in view of the fact that the military had issued express orders that the site was out of bounds and the Muslim authorities strictly imposed the rule that non-Muslims were forbidden from coming on to the site?
For such a meeting to happen required the intervention of TGAOTU and amazingly enough, such a miracle was about to happen.
As they stood in front of that great citadel, how did Brig. General Meldrum hope to gain entry? It is assumed that as one of the most senior officers in the forces he had obtained permission to make the attempt contrary to the general Order forbidding visits to the site by members of the military, but having reached his objective, what miracle was he expecting? What miracle would happen to enable them to gain entry into this holy place?
Yet, a miracle did in fact happen!
There are many important aspects of the situation which are not mentioned anywhere in the written records, but the one fact that emerges is that somehow they were given an audience with the Imam in charge of the Dome itself. Discussions were held with this sheik during which “he proved himself to be on the square”. There is no doubt that the sheik in charge of the Dome was in fact a Freemason himself!
The photograph taken of the brethren who participated in the historic meeting, includes the sheik also– he was the 32nd brother present at the meeting.
In fact, the sheik also acted as one of the two outer guards/Tylers for the meeting. This of course makes sense as such a large meeting of non-Muslims held on forbidden ground must have attracted a great deal of undesirable attention.
General Meldrum mentions that “baksheesh” changed hands. Although perhaps unMasonic to accept bribes, perhaps this “baksheesh” was not so much for the sheik himself, but necessary to keep the “curious” onlookers at bay hence the obvious appointment of the sheik as the Tyler.
What, I wonder, were the odds of finding a Freemason, and a Muslim at that, in charge of the most holy of Muslim buildings in Palestine and the very individual who could permit entrance to the holy site?
Even so, he could have only done so at some risk to himself.
Where to meet?
The huge rock previously referred to was, according to all traditional accounts, also part of King Solomon’s Temple, being in the courtyard before the porch. Underneath this great stone is a cavern which most accounts indicate formed part of the cellars beneath the temple and if any spot on the entire site could be considered as part of the temple, this was definitely the place.
With the help of the sheik, the brethren entered this cavern. The darkness was lit by candles, also purchased that morning, and a Lodge meeting was held.
It is important to realise that the Association was not a lodge and consequently the meeting that was held, although conducted exactly as a Regular lodge meeting, exactly according to proper ceremony and ritual, was a meeting of what could perhaps be described as a lodge without a charter.
It is emphasized that this meeting took place in the cavern below the sacrificial rock which formed part of King Solomon’s Temple.
There have been meetings before and meetings to be held in the future in the chambers known as King Solomon’s quarries but these are situated in the supporting wall of the site and did not form part of the temple complex itself.
Thus these brethren can rightfully claim to have been the only Freemasons ever to have actually attended a Masonic meeting held in King Solomon’s Temple.
The “lodge” was opened in the first degree at 3-15 p.m.. 27 craft lodges were represented.
Brig. Meldrum in his capacity as Worshipful Master remarked upon the uniqueness of the occasion and “ to the new page added to Masonic history”, stating that the members of the Association were honoured to be able to meet in harmony and peace on that spot “adorned and hallowed by the three Ancient Grand Masters”.
The meeting lasted 15 minutes only as apparently the Sheik had indicated that longer might create problems.
The National Geographic Magazine—Issue of October 1918