Tag Archives: Suez Canal

Egypt in Paris

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Over the years I’ve been to a number of good exhibitions at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris and last week I went to another. Next November marks 150 years since the opening of the Suez Canal and the Institute has decided to get the celebrations started early with a show called ‘The Epic of the Suez Canal’. It begins with a room dedicated to the grand inauguration party at Port Said. The centrepiece is a large model of the town and canal with the pavilions erected for the occasion; there are further models, notably of Aigle, the ship on which guest of honour, the Empress Eugenie, sailed in the procession through the canal, lots of paintings and one of the dresses worn by Eugenie.

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The exhibition continues by detailing the canals dug in ancient times, illustrated by pharaonic loans from the Louvre, and then documents the various other schemes predating the Suez Canal, before going on to document its construction. Included are maquettes and a watercolour of the monument designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that was to have stood at the mouth of the canal, but which in a slightly amended form was eventually erected in New York Harbour (I’ve blogged about this before, here).

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It takes the story through into the 20th century with Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal, the tripartite aggression by the Israel, Britain and France, and the 1967 and ’73 wars. It ends by putting you on the bridge of a container ship sailing the length of the canal. It runs until 5 August and is well worth seeing.

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Also on this summer is an exhibition at the Quai Branly, near the Eiffel Tower, called ‘Paintings from Afar’ (Peintures des lointains). It brings together around 200 unseen works from the museum’s collection, largely drawn from the late 18th to mid 20th centuries, illustrating the Western perception of distant lands. Among the pieces on display are more depictions of the Suez Canal, as well as several paintings by Emile Bernard, including ‘Les marchands du Caire’, below. It runs until January 2019.

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If you are in Paris this summer, you could spend a whole week exploring the links between the French capital and Egypt. There are the obvious ones, like the ancient Egyptian treasures in the Louvre and the obelisk on place de la Concorde, but there is plenty more beyond. You might start by searching out the passage du Caire, a covered arcade that runs off rue St Denis, which is filled by textile and garment shops. It exits onto place du Caire where, if you look back, you see a frieze of pharaonic faces decorating the facade.

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Just around the corner are the rues Alexandrie, Abu Qir and du Nil. Opposite the west end of rue du Nil is the Libraire Petit Egypte, a fine little bookshop with a good section of all kinds of books on Egypt. From here it’s not too far to walk to place du Chatelet, where you find the Fontaine du palmier with four huge sphinxes at its base (below). You might then hope on Metro line 4 a few stops to Saint Suplice from where it’s a few minutes walk to rue de Sevres where you find the Fontaine du fellah (below), also known as the Egyptian Fountain, which was erected in 1806 commemorating Napoleon’s short-lived expedition in Egypt.

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Some of those who accompanied Napoleon on that particular campaign are now buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, where there is no shortage of Egyptian-inspired funerary architecture (below). Personally, I prefer the Montmarte Cemetery where you find a sleek, life-sized figurine of Egyptian diva Dalida (below), which is more fashion mannequin than funerary monument. A short walk away there is also place Dalida, with a well-fondled bust of the singer.

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Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Cinema Louxor, which I have blogged about previously, here. As well as being a fabulous building, it also frequently shows Egyptian films. We’ve seen Chahine’s 1957 comedy Inta Habibi here (the main auditorium here is named for Chahine) and Le Caire confidential, and just the week before we arrived in Paris last month it was showing Sala Abou Seif’s 1956 film Shabab Imra’ah.

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That should keep you busy for a while.

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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.

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