Paris – Obelisk Obsessed

I love Paris. Whenever landing at Charles de Gaulle, it is like coming home. Not that I have ever lived in Paris, but having visited so often, it is without mistake that Paris and I belong together. So on our way to Rome, we spent a few days there.


On our first Sunday morning, Antun and I walked through the Tuileries, the formal seventeenth century gardens designed by Le Nôtre. Running along the Seine, they connect the Louvre on one end with the Place de Concorde on the other. 


Hundreds of families, many with strollers or dogs on leashes, joined us as we strolled on the sandy boulevard stretching the length of the gardens. Along our way were meticulously cared for beds of red, blue, orange, and white flowers. Gypsy girls cavorted around garden-visitors trying to rest or read in chairs set out around an imposing circular basin at the foot of a fountain. A trio of small children played in the shadows thrown by a strict line of trees.  Above us, the sun sparkled and gleamed off the tip of the Egyptian obelisk that we could see in the distance at the center of the Place de Concorde.


How strange that this needle, this symbol of unity between pharaoh and sun god, inscribed with hieroglyphs commemorating the military victories of Ramesses (also Ramses) II, is here so far from its temple in Luxor. For a long time, I had been under the mistaken impression that the obelisk had been brought to Paris by Napoleon.


Somewhere I must have read the legend that tells how Josephine requested an obelisk of Napoleon and thought it true, but it is not.  And, even if she had requested one, she would never have gotten it. What a story it would have been if returning from his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon, mimicking the Roman Emperor Augustus, brought the monolith to Josephine, even as she was reportedly gallivanting around Paris in his absence and he was entertaining his own set of paramours.


The true story of the obelisk is that it arrived to Paris twenty years after Napoleon’s reign when a french naval engineer named Jean Baptiste Apollinaire Lebas hauled it back from Egypt. He did so with the full weight of a harrowing journey and France’s passion for ancient Egypt on his shoulders.


Having reached the end of the gardens, the impressive Place de Concorde was in front of us. At its center, the 75 foot obelisk demanded our attention but was impossible to approach. A parade was forming there. Giant tour buses crowded the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Sounding bagpipes, flapping kilts, flowing peasant skirts, stiff waistcoats, and waving flags crisscrossed the square. As they took formation, I wondered what celebration had brought them to this magnificent square that in its form and architecture imitates obelisk obsessed Rome.

All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum


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