One sphinx, eight cities, two Rhodes Scholars, and the real power of Penn.
By Amy Gutmann
This spring, for the first time in more than a century, Penn’s great Sphinx will see the light of day. Strapped tightly to a custom-built gurney and monitored meticulously by a dedicated team of curators, conservators, architects, engineers, and rigging technicians, the 13-ton human-headed lion will creep slowly out of an opening made in the south wall of the Penn Museum’s lower Egyptian gallery. A custom-built track will guide the colossus outside to its first breath of fresh air since it entered the museum in 1916.
But the opportunity for the Sphinx to stretch its legs will be short-lived: the track will lead out, over, up—and back in. At the end of its move, this iconic Penn Museum treasure will henceforth greet visitors from a place of honor as the centerpiece of the Museum’s newly renovated Main Entrance Hall.
It has been a journey through the millennia to come to this. Hewn from a single block of red granite quarried at Aswan 3,000 years ago, floated 500 miles down the Nile to its home in the ancient capital city of Memphis, the Sphinx stood silent guard for centuries as the lone and level sands slowly enveloped it. Early in the 20th century, the Sphinx was excavated, loaded onto a steamer, barged through the Suez Canal, and shipped more than 6,000 miles to its new home. Accounts from the Philadelphia Inquirer in October of 1913 describe city residents stopping in their tracks to gawk as the massive statue was trundled through city streets drawn on a flatbed wagon pulled by nine straining horses. It arrived at the Museum’s front yard—where it would remain for the next three years before moving inside—on October 18, causing considerable disruption to the Penn-Brown football game then under way across the street.
Sphinxes, the ancients tell us, are riddling creatures, so what lessons our own Sphinx has learned over the course of its journey across thousands of miles and through time measured in the length of civilizations we can only guess. But I have been thinking about journeys—and the wisdom we gain from them—as I have had the opportunity to travel across the country and over the world as part of our Power of Penn tour, which concluded April 2nd here in Philadelphia, in the city’s wondrously restored Metropolitan Opera House.
At the Kickoff Celebration in New York a year ago, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Konrad Kording offered startling insights into how our brains record and remember the things they do not know. Months later, in London, Penn Anthropology Department chair Kathleen Morrison described her work reconstructing the human impact on global land use over the past 10,000 years and its implications for climate change modeling. Near the tour’s conclusion, in Hong Kong this past March, Wharton professor and Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Karl Ulrich defined innovation as a “new match between a problem and a solution” and talked about how Penn successfully fosters a culture of discovery and invention across disciplines.
In each of these examples, and in every presentation we made with Penn’s amazing faculty, a deeper story was at work, an underlying tale of discovery and revelation beneath the facts. The what and the why of our faculty insights were always fascinating, not infrequently surprising, and occasionally astonishing. The how of these observations, and the journey of discovery that led to them, is so often what engaged our audience’s attention most intently. It is the difference between seeing and discovering. It’s what separates observation from insight.
As I visited the octet of cities on the Power of Penn tour, I came to understand that while we invariably speak of Penn as a location, a tree-lined vista down Locust Walk and a glittering mosaic of cherished memories, it is also something else. The real power of Penn lies not in our buildings and places—as well-equipped, stunning, and memorable as they may be. Rather, our real power lies in this shared journey to discovery, those thrilling moments of looking out and seeing new horizons together for the first time. Fully experiencing Penn is a voyage all its own.
Nothing illustrates this journey of discovery better than the exciting announcement this spring that Penn was the progenitor of two new Rhodes Scholars for the coming year. Senior Adamseged Abebe of Gondar, Ethiopia, was one of just two individuals worldwide to be awarded an inaugural Global Rhodes Scholarship for graduate study at the University of Oxford. This brand-new honor has been created to recognize and award truly exceptional students previously ineligible because of their country of origin.
Adam, as he is known to his many friends at Penn, has focused his studies on an interdisciplinary approach to global health and non-profit leadership, conducting essential research, working on behalf of vulnerable populations in Malawi, and all the while mentoring Ethiopian children during his summer breaks. His journey of discovery has taken him across many different African countries and into the offices of one of the world’s preeminent multinational investment bank and financial services companies, all in pursuit of better understanding international development needs and opportunities through the lens of different sectors. At Oxford, Adam intends to pursue a doctorate in international development.
Penn’s second 2019 Rhodes Scholar’s journey has been no less dramatic and affecting, though not nearly so long as measured in the distance of miles. Anea Moore grew up in a struggling neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, just 20 minutes from Penn’s campus. A first-generation, low-income student, she says if she thought about Penn at all, it was like this: “never a possibility for me.” But she was fortunate in having parents who believed in her and who honored her educational achievements. With their help, she was able to earn her way into the city’s premier magnet public high school and from there to Penn. Even though she grew up only miles from the campus, like Adam Anea arrived at Penn feeling herself the proverbial “stranger in a strange land.” Majoring in sociology and urban studies with a concentration in law and a minor in Africana studies, she threw herself into making herself a place in this new world, quickly becoming a leading advocate for Penn’s first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student community.
A founding member of the Penn First board devoted to serving these students, in her junior year Anea chaired and organized the largest student conference ever held focused on the needs and aspirations of FGLI students at colleges and universities across the country. Her commitment to advocacy and her passion for engagement embodies the finest attributes of Penn scholars who are working to make a profound difference in the world. After earning her doctorate at Oxford, Anea plans to return to the US and ultimately pursue a career of public service in Philadelphia.
No doubt if we could query Penn’s Great Sphinx it would express at least mild astonishment that its original journey, bound down the Nile to honor forever the great king Ramses, would lead ultimately to offering generations of Penn Museum visitors a uniquely powerful insight into the ancient world. I cannot help but suspect that this year’s Penn Rhodes Scholars, Adam and Anea, will one day look back with equal surprise at where their journeys of discovery will lead them. One thing that unites us all: although our destination may be unknown and even unknowable, there can be no better way of making this journey of discovery than as part of the Penn family.