The loss of Liberty

The view from the sea-facing rooms of Port Said’s Casino Palace hotel must have been dramatic. The building occupied prime real estate on the seafront beside the mouth of the Suez Canal. Guests would have been able to look out over the Mediterranean and watch the liners approaching and exiting the famous waterway. Those not staying at the hotel could enjoy the same view from a broad canopied veranda, over afternoon tea or drinks.

The mouth of the canal was marked out by a narrow stone breakwater that ran out into the sea and which was punctuated at its mid point by a statue on a high stone pedestal (you can just make this out on the luggage label above and on the postcard below). The statue is of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and while it’s appropriate that the man who brought the canal into being should be celebrated here, whenever I see pictures of the statue like the one below, I feel a sense of loss for what could have been had a talented French sculptor had his way.

In October 1855, 21-year-old Auguste Bartholdi was part of a group of Orientalist painters, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, travelling up the Nile. On his return to France he began to make a name for himself with a series of small-scale projects, many in his hometown of Colmar, but Egypt, and particularly the monumental sculptures of Luxor and Abu Simbel, had left an impression. In 1867, Bartholdi secured a meeting with Ismail Pasha, ruler of Egypt, who was visiting Paris for the Exposition Universelle, and proposed a colossal statue, like those of ancient Egypt, be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion. His idea was that it would take the form of an Egyptian woman holding aloft a lantern. The statue was to symbolise Ismail’s efforts to modernise Egypt and would be called ‘Egypt Bringing Light to Asia’ or ‘Egypt Enlightening the Orient’. The lantern would be metaphorical but also practical, as the statue would also double as a lighthouse – recalling the ancient Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ismail was encouraging and over the next two years Bartholdi submitted various designs for the project and was present at the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Sadly, in the end, over-spending Ismail could not afford a new colossus and Bartholdi’s grand Egyptian project came to nothing. The only indication of what might have been is a series of one foot-high clay models he made to present to Ismail, which are displayed in the Colmar museumdedicated to Bartholdi’s work.

Courtesy of the Musee Bartholdi, Colmar

Or you can look at this.

'La statue de la Liberté de Bartholdi dans l'atelier du fondeur Gayet, rue de Chazelles' by Victor Dargaud, currently hanging in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Bartholdi’s failure to get Ismail to commission him in Egypt was far from the end of his grand schemes. The sculptor was a member of a circle of French liberals led by Édouard Laboulaye, who had the idea of promoting the spirit of revolution and republicanism – which was at the time under threat in France from the autocratic regime of Napoleon III – by celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the American Republic. One way they proposed to do this was by the presentation of a great statue to the United States that would symbolise freedom and liberty.

So it was that ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, better known as the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on 28 October 1886, ten years and five months after the target date of 4 July 1876. Designed by Bartholdi, the statue was constructed in Paris around a skeletal frame engineered by Gustav Eiffel, before all 350 pieces were taken apart and shipped to New York to be reassembled on site.

Bartholdi always claimed that the two colossi were entirely unrelated projects. He probably didn’t want the Americans to feel they were being fobbed off with a secondhand design. But look at the models for his design for the Suez Canal and there is no question Liberty is a dusting off of the work he did for Ismail. And then there’s this sketch he made in 1869 of his proposed Egyptian statue in situ:

Courtesy of the Musee Bartholdi

Change the costume, add a crown and a tablet and it’s the same girl. Now instead of welcoming Western travellers to the East, she greets all nationalities to the city most emblematic of the West.

Perhaps it’s just as well she settled in America, particularly if the fate of De Lessep’s statue is anything to go by. Designed by Emmanuel Frémiet (also responsible for the equestrian statue of Jeanne d’Arc at the place des Pyramides in Paris) it was installed at the entrance to the Suez Canal in November 1899 and blasted off its plinth with TNT in December 1956 in the wake of the Suez Crisis. It now stands largely forgotten in a small garden in the Port Fuad shipyard across the canal from its vacant plinth.

Missing: one 10m-high bronze statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps

As for the Casino Palace, that too is gone. It survived the 1956 battles – despite being used as a barracks by the invading British soldiers – but succumbed to developers who ripped it down in the 1970s, erecting a modern hotel in its place, which is currently operated by the Helnan group.

1 Comment

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One Response to The loss of Liberty

  1. I loved your above post. Please be kind enough to give me permission to post it in my blog and translate it in Greek.
    Thank you for your answer by e-mail.
    Stella Xydia admin.

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