Bastille

Hi, you are listening to Paname, the podcast that delves into some of the more bizarre stories from Paris past. Today we are going to discover what elephants, giraffes, ancient Egyptian mummies’ s, lions and revolution have in common. Lets go.

I’ve come to the place de la Bastille in the 11th arrondissment, When you hear the word Bastille it brings to mind bloodshed and revolution –you might imagine the angry mob storming the gates of the fortress that gave its name to this neighbourhood, and expect at least something to remind us of the huge 14th century fortress that once stoodhere originally to protect the Saint Antoine gate.

Yet when you emerge from the metro there is no sign of it. Instead we see the huge modern opera building built to commemorate the bicentenary of the revolution but which has little to do with the actual fortress. In the middle of the place the green July column with a gilded genie atop - does remember a revolution, but not the one in which the bastille played such a big part and above all we can see, and hear cars. Bastille has become a huge roundabout and although people still gather here during celebrations or demonstrations for most of the time it is inaccessible to pedestrians, perhaps the mayor will change this with her plans to make Paris more pedestrian friendly but for the moment no such luck.

If you want to see any remnants of the Bastille itself its best to head underground. While excavating the metro in 1889 a few stones from the 8 towers that originally made up the bastille were discovered, they was dismantled and transferred to a nearby park and on rue henri IV. On the platform of line 5 you can still also still see some of the foundations stones and they have marked on the floor the where the walls once stood. Up above the only sign are markings on the rue Saint Antoine and for such a huge fortress a very discreet plaque shows the layout.  

The Bastille was destroyed during the revolution of 1789. It had become a hated symbol of the crowns power and authority, because although it started off as a fortress to protect Paris it was transformed into a prison where without trial, judge or jury you could be thrown into prison by the kings orders with a simple ‘lettre cachet’ hidden letter. In this way a number of famous inmates spent time here including Voltaire and the Marquis du Sade who apparently wrote his famous 120 days of Sodom. So when revolution brewed and the people stormed the gates, releasing the 7 prisoners – In actual fact the bastille had become rather cumbersome and expensive to run and Louis xiv was thinking of closing it down but he never got to. Instead the revolutionariesin a chilling foreshadowing of what was to come decapitated the head of the prison guard and quickly destroyed it. Overseen by Palloy he ensured that nothing was left behind. Some stones were used to build the new concord bride which is still here today and some he turned into souvenirs – miniature fortresses and sold all over France. The people of Paris were also keen to grab a small little piece and soon there was nothing or nearly nothing left. There is apparently a secret ‘cachot’ or dungeon that did managed to survive – hidden in the depths of the basement of the building which is now no 47 blvd Henri IV. But unfortunately we are unable to visit it.

So with the bastille gone Paris was left with some space to fill. Today there is the July Column that remembers the revolution of 1830 but that only dates from 1840. So what were between the bastille fortress disappearing and the July Colum appearing?

Fans of victor Hugo’s book ‘les miserables’ might know the answer. The poor street urchin Gavroch is described as sleeping in an elephant – Gavroch may have been fictitious but the elephant, strange as it may seem was not. It was the idea of Napoleon who decided he needed a gigantic fountain to show off his military might, in the form of a huge elephant with water spouting from its trunk. He intended it to be made from the bronze of enemy cannons. Sadly the elephant was never completed and only a plaster model was made which, over the years crumbled and decayed and was finally torn down. I personally think a huge elephant in the middle of Paris would have been much more fun but no one asked me.

It was replaced instead by the monument we have now. Its called the July column because it remembers a revolution that took place in July 1830. The three glorious days as they are know are July 27,28 and 29th.) it is inscribed with names of those who died in the revolution and if you look closely has a lion striding along the ledge – not quite an elephant but not bad. And on top of this 47 metres (154 ft) high Colum a genie, which represents liberty, breaking its chains and flying free.

However we are not interested in the Geni flying above the bastille but rather what lies beneath. In the beginning I promised elephants, giraffes, lions, ancient mummies and revolution, well we have had the elephant, the lion and revolution but what of the giraffe and mummies?

Charles the X was a big fan of all things Egyptian, and so in order to improve their relationship the Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, offered him a number of unusual gifts. Most sensationally was the giraffe known as Zarafa, who, after what one can only assume must have been a traumatic journey from Egypt to France, lands in Marseilles, where she winters,  and then walks all the way to Paris. She spends the next 18 years in the menagerie at the Jardins de Plantes. Her arrival in Paris caused a sensation and most of the city came out to see her. Women wore their hair piled up high on their heads ‘a la giraffe’ and giraffe motifs became all the rage.

Another gift to the King was the obelisk which still stands at the place de la Concorde. It’s Paris’ oldest monument at over 3000 years old and finally he offered him some Egyptian mummies. Although accounts seem to differ as to weather the mummies that we are interested in were a gift to Charles X or whether they were stolen by Napoleon it does not really matter as their fate was the same.  The fact that they were moved from their final resting place in Egypt to the damp dark place that is the Louvre museum and was much less accommodating meant that they started to rot and putrefy. It was a very undignified ending so it was decided to bury them. A few years later and revolution comes along, a few years later in 1830, the revolution sees the king deposed. Bodies of revolutionaries start to pile up and it being hot and July it is decide to bury them as soon as possible.  They are buried not far from the Louvre museum, just like the aforementioned mummies. Once Louis Philip has finished his column he decides to move those bodies of the revolutionaries who fought in the battle to bury them underneath, however when they are dug up no one seems to notice that a couple of extra cadavers, some maybe a little better preserved and a good deal older, hitch a ride. So this is when on the 28th of July 1840 with much pomp and circumstance two Egyptian mummies along with the bodies of the French revolutionaries were buried under the place de la Bastille and remain there to this day. 

Thank you so much for listening to this episode. For more information and to see some pictures go to my website panamepodcast.com. Also find me on all the usual social media sights. I’d love to hear your thoughts and do feel free to let me know if there’s any stories that you would like me to cover. Paname is written and recorded by me with music from The Owl. Links to her work in the show notes. That’s all for now so take care of yourselves. By be.