The obelisk, at over 22 meters high, made from rose Granit and weighing in at an estimated 227 tonnes sits proudly in the centre of the Place de la Concorde and at over 3,000 year old is Paris’ oldest monument. It was a gift to Charles X by the Egyptian Viceroy Mehmet Ali for France’s support. Originally it stood, with its twin, at the entrance to the Louxor temple, in fact both were given to France but only one would make the long and difficult journey to Paris the other remains to this day in Egypt. But was it just difficult because moving such a giant monolith was never going to be easy or was there something more sinister at work? Ancient Egyptian magic? And are there secret masonic messages hidden deep within? Come with me and lets find out about the fraught journey of the Obelisk from Louxor to Paris.
All things Egyptian were already popular with Parisians following Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt in 1798 as well as the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799. There are plenty of sculptures around Paris with an Egyptian feel dating from this period: the fountain at chalet, the entrance to the covered passage at place cair (or Cairo in English) and the Lemercier wing of the Cour Carrée at the Louvre to name but a few. More modern tributes include the gorgeous Louxor cinema near Barbes, various mausoleums at Père lachiase and of course the pyramid entrance at the Louve museum. But needless to say the most important Egyptian artefact is the obelisk itself. It is meant to represent a ray of sunshine in homage to the sun god Amon, and its role was to establish a link between the world of gods and men which is why it would have stood at the entrance to a temple. At the very top of the obelisk, depicted in hieroglyphics, we see the figure of the Pharaoh Ramses II kneeling and making an offer to Amon. Appropriately today the obelisk, unlike many other monuments is not illuminated at night with artificial lights but rather is lit only by the sun and serves not only as a monument but perhaps one of the most nobles sundials in the world. Look carefully when you visit the place de la Concorde, and yes it can be overwhelming with the cars, people, fountains, facades but cast your eyes down and you will notice the markings on the ground in roman numerals.
In return for this incredible monument the French, 15 years later, offered Egypt a brass clock, which still sits today in the Mosque of Muhamed Ali, in the citadel of Cairo, but sadly the clock has never worked as it was damaged in transit. I think the Egyptians were had. The French got a better deal. Or did they?
At the same time that the Egyptians offered the French the 2 obelisks from Louxor they also offered the English a set of obelisks. The English, at first refused, realising it would be extremely difficult and costly to bring such a gift over to England – later they changed their minds but the French were keen and so set off to collect their prize. Of course a certain amount of planning was needed so before they could begin a special boat had to be constructed. In Toulon a ship they called, ‘the Louxor’ was specially built and customised in order to adapted to its unusual cargo and the voyage ahead. It needed to be able to cross the Mediterranean sea as well as navigate the river Seine and the Nile. It was 43 meters long, but with a mast of only 9 meters high so that it might go under the bridges of the Seine, not only this but the front of the boat could be removed so that the obelisk was able to be loaded with ease. By the time the ship is ready In April of 1831, the July revolution has already seen Charles X, the king who accepted this complicated gift, replaced by Louis Philippe. Coincidence or the first example of an ancient Egyptian curse coming into play? Probably unrelated.
The Luxor sets off for Egypt and arrives in good time. So far so good, But here things start to go wrong. The reality of moving this huge, heavy, and ancient artefact really set in. There was a real concern that they would not be able to, that they would break it in attempting to do so, which one can only imagine would not be bode well for Franco-Egyptian relations. Or that they would significantly weaken the structure so that by the time it arrived in Paris it would crumble when they tired to erect it. Navel engineer Apollinaire Lebas, was in charge of the delicate operation. First they gently rotated the obelisk and then, with a complex system of ropes, pulleys, supports and plenty of manpower they gently lowered it to the ground, but at the last moment the timbers snapped and it fell to the ground, thankfully remaining in one piece. Phew.
The obelisk may be down but its not given up the fight. There were 400 meters remaining between where the obelisk stood, or rather lay and the boat. Transporting the Obelisk this short distance however would take them a month and a half before they were finally able to load it onto the ship. Then the Nile itself has a go at keeping the artefact in Egypt. It was now December and the water was too low to travel, so they are obliged to wait another six months before finally setting off, again he river had a go at delaying them, at the mouth of the Nile a sandbar prevented them leaving. Again they had to wait but this time a cholera epidemic swept the company, killing many and delaying the operation further. Finally the Luxor made it into the Mediterranean, where she was joined by another ship, the ‘Sphinx’ a steam powered vessel whose job it was to guide the Luxor back to France through the sometime tempestuous Mediterranean waters. Finally after setting off nearly 2 years previously the obelisk had made it to Paris.
But, despite having had ample time, the preparations to receive the obelisk were not finished. The base was not ready. Now the obelisk of course had its own, very interesting base which depicted 4 baboons standing on their hind legs, their arms raised worshipping the sun. But the somewhat puritanical climate of Louis-Philip's reign, and especially his wife, thought impossible to show such, in the words of the Louve museum ‘manifestly male baboons’ in a public place. It seems they were convinced that the Parisians would be shocked. So the baboons were sent to the Louvre, where they are to this day and which had no hesitation in exhibiting them then as now. The new base was sculpted at Brest and it is adorned with a sort of modern hieroglyph depicting the journey of the obelisk from Egypt and its erection in Paris.
The choice of the Place de la Concorde was by no means accidental. Previously it had been a royal square, during the revolution it was one of the places that the guillotine was set up and it was here that Louis XVI and MA were executed. This ancient monument, which predated French history seemed like a perfect symbol to bring harmony to this complicated space. The day of the elevation was tense. Hundreds gathered to witness the event, Apollinaire Lebas; the engineer now in charge of the mounting the obelisk was keenly aware of how delicate the operation was. He wrote «a misunderstood order, a badly secured cable, a bent bolt.. Would have caused a dreadful catastrophe : the shattered obelisk, the loss of millions, the hundred or so workmen crushed inevitably by the collapse of the rig. I confess I could not think, without some sort of anxiety, of the deep responsibly that weighed upon me.» I’m not surprised. Thankfully, this time all went to plan.
And so on the 25 October 1836, 3 years after its arrival in paris, Louis Philippe, the last king of France in the place de la Concorde witnessed the inauguration of Paris’ newest oldest monument. Later Haussmann would try to remove the it in his frantic renewal of the city but thankfully his plans were thwarted, obviously the obelisk liked its new home or did not fancy its chances of being moved again.
Today the tip of the obelisk is covered in gold leaf. Like the base it was not part of the original sent from Egypt. It was usual for an obelisk to finish with a pointed tip called a pyramidon, which would have looked similar to what we see today in shape and appearance as they were covered in precious metal to reflect the sun. As part of the bicentenary celebrations of the French revolution they created this gilded pyramidion to replace the one that would have originally been there. (And there is even some vague freemason allusions related to the number 33 (33 centuries later, 33 grams of gold per something or other) which is apparently a masonic number – all very secretive so if anyone has any information do let me know.
Today the obelisk in its central position watches over Paris and all major events. Standing at the bottom of the champs Elysees it witnesses the annual Bastille day celebrations, the tour de France, the marathon and really any major gathering. Personally if I find the place de la Concorde a bit too busy and full of cars; and if I’m honest it does feel a bit of a shame to have moved this monument from its twin and home. This said it is very impressive and has done a great job of helping Paris move on from all the guillotining.
If you want to see the original base then head to the Egyptian section of the Louvre or if you would like to see Models of the apparatus used to lower the obelisk, transport it and then raise it in Paris and you can see depicted in gold they are at the Musée de Marine.