From Luxor to Paris: The Odyssey of the Place de la Concorde Obelisk
It’s a miracle an Egyptian obelisk stands proud on the Paris Place de la Concorde. Not so much because of the mystery surrounding its carving, transport and erection in Upper Egypt in the 8th century BC, but rather because of the number of obstacles it faced on the journey from the city of Luxor to its current French abode. End to end, from Egyptian Khedive Muhammad Ali gifting it to France to its erection in Paris, the journey took seven years (1829 to 1836) and encountered technical difficulties, a cholera outbreak, stormy seas and Egyptian droughts.
The transfer was more than geographical, it was topical. A symbolised link between gods and humans in Egypt, the obelisk became a prime tourist attraction in France, and is currently the focus of a detailed exhibition at the Paris Musée de la Marine. It’s a fitting location: the French navy oversaw the journey. Apollinaire Lebas, the engineer who lead the project, was appointed curator of the museum in recognition of his work.
Focused on the Luxor-Paris journey, the exhibition quickly deals with the question of how the obelisk was made during Ramesses II’s reign. A video at the entrance shows men carving a bedrock of pink granite in the Aswan quarries.
When Muhammad Ali offered both obelisks from the temple of Luxor to France 16 centuries later, they were buried in nearly four metres of sand, as shown by the miniatures on display. In the 19th century, Egyptian monuments were used as an easy place to source rocks or build on, rather than as historical testimonies.
Lebas’ party, tasked with collecting the monolith, arrived in Luxor in August 1831 after five months at sea aboard the Luxor ship. Imagine Luxor at that time of the year: scorching. The obelisk itself was not in the condition the men expected; an eight-metre long fissure threatened to break it if they dared to try and move it. As his men watered the Luxor, now lying on the sand on the side of the Nile, twice a day, Lebas was forced to rethink his initial plan to take the obelisk down.
Two months later, everything was ready. Using two machines actioned by 200 men, the obelisk was brought down. During the transfer however, its centre of gravity moved and the obelisk fell in the sand, in the wrong direction but… in one piece. Lebas had succeeded in the first part of his mission.
The second part: bring the monolith back to the Luxor, 400 metres away. A span was cut in the sand. Using four capstans, 48 men managed the journey in two hours. The Luxor had been cut open to welcome her charge and, once the obelisk was on board, put back together.
Christmas day 1831 saw the men waiting for the flood for the first, but far from last, time. They needed the Nile to rise for the Luxor to float with her charge, a meteorological event not scheduled until the following summer. During that time, the party split in a few groups: some explored further than where Napoleon’s soldiers had gone, gathering scientific samples and taking Egyptian antiques for the Paris museum; others stayed in Luxor where they built a refreshing garden.
On 25 August 1832, just over a year after reaching its destination, the Luxor began the trip back to Alexandria. It reached the seaside town six months later, after being unexpectedly stuck in sandbanks.
The Sphinx, the first French navy steam boat, pulls the Luxor to Toulon, where she was initially quarantined before Lebas was able to disembark. His mission was only half complete: he still needed to get the obelisk to stand tall, in the heart of Paris.
Key to the success of this first leg of the journey was its core team. Aside from Lebas who, not wanting to live with the shame of failure, placed himself under the obelisk as it was erected Place de la Concorde so it would crush him if it fell, the party included: Lieutenant-Commander Raymond de Verninac Saint-Maur; his right-hand man Léon de Joannis, who documented the journey through sketches and Justin Pascal Angevin, a doctor. Angevin was not actually meant to be on board but switched places with the nominated doctor because he was determined to go to Egypt. He protected the men against cholera and dysentery. Although the exhibition doesn’t discuss the dynamics between the men, it is a lesson about the team’s role in the success of any project. With a different doctor, the whole party might have died.
Finally, after the last leg of the journey that saw the Luxor pulled by horses on the Seine, and the authorities somehow losing track of her, the obelisk reached Paris. However, it spent another two years lying by the pont de la Concorde before it was erected at its current place. King Louis-Philippe attended on a nearby balcony, only emerging when the experiment was a guaranteed success.
So the Obélisque has stood, overseeing traffic, for nearly two centuries. Louis-Philippe picked the place because he wanted it to be known for something else than the rivers of blood flooding there during Revolutionary beheading, including Marie-Antoinette’s and Louis VXI’s. By creating a new landmark and a new shorthand for Paris’ landscape, he succeeded. Yet few of the Parisians and tourists walking by every day marvel at how the obelisk got there, at the technological prowess and bravery involved in bringing a 230 tonne, 20 metre-high block of granite from Luxor to Paris in 19th century conditions. Le Voyage de l’Obélisque rights this oversight, mixing human stories with engineering in an exhibition covering all aspects of the journey.
Its only failure is not addressing whether the obelisk should be sent back to Luxor. The French authorities probably want to discuss the topic as much Neil MacGregor wants to discuss the Elgin Marbles’ ownership. The conditions under which the obelisk was obtained are less dodgy than the Parthenon sculptures though. Like any good 19th century French tale, it also involves the Brits. In fact, the Luxor obelisks could be standing in Trafalgar Square, since it had initially been promised to the Crown. Jean-François Champollion, liaising with Muhammad Ali on the topic, convinced the British consul to take the bigger Karnak obelisk instead, the only one worthy of William IV. It also turned out to be impossible to transport, which Champollion probably knew. So cunning, those French archaeologists!
The exhibition is open until 6 July 2014.
Photo credits: The exhibition banner; Flickr user Marc Ben Fatma Place de la Concorde; Flickr user Yann Caradec Obelisque de la place de la Concorde; Flickr user Le Jhe Concorde; Erection of the Luxor Obelisk Érection de l’Obélisque de Louxor,25 octobre 1836, détails, aquarelle. Cayrac, 1837 Dépôt du musée du Louvre© Musée national de la Marine/P. Dantec; The Luxor Obelisk being taken down Abattage de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Shipping off the Luxor Obelisk Embarquement de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Façade du temple de Louxor, vers 1800, aquarelle. François-Charles Cé-cile (1766-1840). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Les frères Chuzeville; Portrait d’Apollinaire Lebas (1797-1873), anonyme, milieu XIXe siècle © Musée national de la Marine/A.Fux; Flickr user Jason Garber Place de la Concorde