It is an honour to have a city named after you. Heck it would be already honourable to have a street named after you right? What would be the impact one made that leads hundreds of thousands if not millions to venerate you? Would liberating your country from servitude be one of them.
This were the thoughts that raced through our minds as we sped towards the federal territory known as the District of Columbia. For there the capital of the United States is located, named after its most famous son (in our opinion) – George Washington.
Built from scratch in 1791, the city was designated as a capital district on its own and not located in any state within the union. Our journey to this city was with a tour group way back in 1997. Yep, that was 20 years ago! It started out from New York and had made stops in Baltimore and Philadelphia before we got into the city late at night.
Our guide had told us that we’d need to wake up real early – in order to be first in line for the entry to the White house.
Center of Government Power
While we were not the first group, we were amongst the earliest. The only thing though was photo-taking was prohibited at that time. Nowadays, not only are photos allowed, it was said that the Obama family surprised some visitors by coming over to their tours when they were at the house! Sigh. Perhaps we will try visiting again someday.
However, Pennsylvania avenue is definitely open for all to access evident by the protesters in the background of our photos. With the White House lawn sprawled in front of the building, it must be the most iconic face of the building.
Spending some time at Lafayette square to soak in the atmosphere of the most powerful capital in the world is something one must do.
A short drive or 45-minutes of walk brought us to Capitol. Ok the group was driven. This would be the equivalent of parliament or a general assembly of elected representatives in other countries. It is bicameral though, which means it has two separate and distinct bodies, that in theory functions as balance between the larger and smaller states in the union.
We were led through the chambers of capitol, which houses congress, which in turn was in recess (summer break).
We were brought into the interior of the Capitol. Nice. Photos were allowed inside the chambers, something we had not expected having just visited the White house. However the lighting inside the chambers were low thus our pictures did not turn out quite well… Like any other parliament, the chambers contained symbols of State power – e.g the speaker’s hammer, statues and busts of past presidents. Students of history, take your test to identify them correctly without looking at the pedestals! It was interesting to know that the supreme court was housed within the capitol until 1860. Now it is a separate building just across first street.
With some free time, we explored the green grounds at the west side of Congress by the capitol reflecting pond. Looking ahead would be the national mall.
We had just wandered through the botanic gardens and stumbled upon the statues of Garfield circle. Just a little further along was memorial to general Ulysses Grant. This civil war hero helped the northern states defeat the confederates and became the 18th President.
And how can a country not choose to remember its founders and defenders? Truth be told, the tour group was really short on time. So within the limits of this we had to choose the monuments to spend time at.
And we chose the Lincoln memorial. Aside from Washington, probably the other historical statesman to stand out for folks like us coming from outside the US would be Abraham Lincoln. The Parthenon-like structure was constructed in 1867 with design from the architect Henry Bacon after his assassination. Flanked by 38 Doric columns, it looked like a Greek temple. Perhaps this was what the memorial was designed to convey; ie that this is a temple of democracy?
In it there is a 19 feet tall statue of Lincoln, seated facing the reflecting pool and in direct view of the Washington monument. If you read it up, the marble used to construct the sculpture came from Georgia (the US state) and weighs 175 tons! And if one looks closer at the hands of the sculpture you might notice that one is clenched while the other is relaxed. This symbolism was meant to convey that while Lincoln was steadfast and resolute in re-uniting the country, he was also open and compassionate.
Now we would have loved to walk along the reflection pool all the way to the Washington monument, but we were experiencing one of those rainy summer days and it was pouring periodically. That should explain why our photos are dull – it wasn’t just due to poor photographic skills alone! But that did not stop us from admiring the Washington monument from afar. The obelisk styled stele was constructed from 1848 but took 36 years to complete due to fiscal constraints and the civil war. Hey you must remember that back in the day the US government did not exact income tax and a host of other taxes did not exist. So, funding has to come from private sources. Oh the irony right?
Today the 555 feet tall monument holds the record for being the tallest stone structure and obelisk. When one watches the inauguration of the swear in of a US President, one inevitably will see both the reflection pool and the Washington monument.
And unfortunately that concluded our tour of the US capital.
So, let us recount. We missed out on the Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson memorials and we did not really stroll the Potamac river. We did not take photos inside the White house. All good reasons to make a return trip don’t you think?
If there was one more thing that we did not sufficient do justice to, it would be the museums. Along the national mall are the Smithsonian museums. From art to natural history to air & space, one could spend perhaps two full days to see them all. Yeah, we did see the meteorite fragment, but these days you might be able to buy one on the internet.
It is a promise to ourselves that should we have an opportunity to return to Washington, we’d definitely set aside at least a full day.
We were in the capital of the United States in July 1997
PS: the tour stop at Philadephia took us to independence hall (formerly called Pennsylvania State House) where the Declaration of independence was penned and signed by representatives of the original 13 colonies. This is very interesting for it is surely true when men signed, the risk was truly either they hang together or separately. Just across the street is liberty bell center where the famed bell with a crack is housed. Varying stories about how the crack was sustained a jostle for believers.