The following monitorial instructions on the Secret Vault appear on pp. 49-53 of “Cryptic Masonry: A Manual of the Council” by Albert G. Mackey.
Considered simply as an historical question, there can be no doubt of the existence of immense vaults beneath the superstructure of the original temple of Solomon. Prime, Robison, and other writers who in recent times have described the topography of Jerusalem, speak of the existence of these structures, which they visited, and, in some instances, carefully examined.
After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Roman Emperor Hadrian erected on the site of the “House of the Lord” a temple of Venus, which in its turn was destroyed, and the place subsequently became a depository of all manner of filth. But the Caliph Omar, after his conquest of Jerusalem, sought out the ancient site, and, having caused it to be cleansed of its impurities, he directed a mosque to be erected on the rock which rises in the center of the mountain. Fifty years afterward the Sultan Abd-el-Meluk displaced the edifice of Omar, and erected that splendid building which remains to this day, and is still incorrectly called by Christians the mosque of Omar, but known to Mussulmans as El-kubbut-es-Sukhrah, or the Dome of the Rock. This is supposed to occupy the exact site of the original Solomonic temple, and is viewed with equal reverence by Jews and Mahommedans, the former of whom, says Mr. Prime, “have a faith that the ark is within its bosom now.” [Prime, William. Tent Life in the Holy Land. p. 183.]
Bartlett, in describing a vault beneath this mosque of Omar, says: “Beneath the dome, at the southeast angle of the temple wall, conspicuous from all points, is a small subterraneous place of prayer, forming the entrance to the extensive vaults which support the level platform of the mosque above.” [Bartlett, William. Walks about the City of Jerusalem. p. 170.]
Dr. Barclay [City of the Great King.] describes, in many places of his interesting topography of Jerusalem, the vaults and subterranean chambers which are to be found beneath the site of the old temple.
Conformably with this historical account is the Talmudical legend, in which the Jewish Rabbins state that, in preparing the foundations of the temple, the workmen discovered a subterranean vault sustained by seven arches, rising from as many pairs of pillars. This vault escaped notice at the destruction of Jerusalem, in consequence of its being filled with rubbish. The legend adds, that Josiah, foreseeing the destruction of the temple, commanded the Levites to deposit the ark of the covenant in this vault, where it was found by some of the workmen of Zerubbabel, at the building of the second temple.
In the earliest ages the cave or vault was deemed sacred. The first worship was in cave temples, which were either natural, or formed by art to resemble the excavations of nature. Of such great extent was this practice of subterranean worship by the nations of antiquity, that many of the forms of heathen temples, as well as the naves, aisles, and chancels of churches subsequently built for Christian worship, are said to owe their origin to the religious use of caves.
From this, too, arose the fact, that the initiation into the ancient mysteries was almost always performed in subterranean edifices; and when the place of initiation, as in some of the Egyptian temples, was really above ground, it was so constructed as to give to the neophyte the appearance, in its approaches and its internal structure, of a vault. As the great doctrine taught in the mysteries was the resurrection from the dead, as to die and to be initiated were synonymous terms, it was deemed proper that there should be some formal resemblance between a descent into the grave and a descent into the place of initiation. “Happy is the man,” says the Greek poet Pindar, “who descends beneath the hollow earth, having beheld these mysteries, for he knows the end as well as the divine origin of life;” and in a like spirit Sophocles exclaims, “Thrice happy are they who descend to the shades below after having beheld these sacred rites, for they alone have life in Hades, while all others suffer there every kind of evil.”
The vault was, therefore, in the ancient mysteries, symbolic of the grave; for initiation was symbolic of death, where alone Divine Truth is to be found. The Masons have adopted the same idea. They teach that death is but the beginning of life; that if the first or evanescent temple of our transitory life be on the surface, we must descend into the secret vault of death before we can find that sacred deposit of truth which is to adorn our second temple of eternal life. Looking, therefore, to this reference of initiation to that subterranean house of our last dwelling, we significantly speak of the place of initiation as “the secret vault, where reign silence, secrecy, and darkness.” It is in this sense of an entrance through the grave into eternal life, that the Select Master is to view the recondite but beautiful symbolism of the secret vault. Like every other myth and allegory of Masonry, the historical relation may be true or it may be false; it may be founded on fact or the invention of imagination; the lesson is still there, and the symbolism teaches it exclusive of the history.
The full text of Mackey’s monitorial instructions on the Select Master degree may be found at:Select Master from Mackey’s “Cryptic Masonry: A Manual of the Council”