'Egyptomania!' Rages in Paris

Inside the Passage du Caire
The Passage du Caire never has had much traffic, despite Egypt.

Taking a New Look At an Old Fancy

Paris:- Wednesday, 28. January 1998:- Why Egypt? Why did Paris pick Egypt as a subject for total bonkerdom? There are so many Egyptian artifacts, both original and fake, strewn around Paris that it can only amount to 'Egyptomania!' pure and simple.

At one time it must have been pretty widespread, because even a friend of mine had his own pyramid in his garden. It wasn't as big a pyramid as the one in the Parc Monceau, but it was a real genuine fake pyramid. When you have one of these, you cannot mistake it for, say, some sort of barn or doghouse.

According to legend, Paris has some kind of relation to a temple dedicated to the cult of the Goddess Isis; thence 'Par-Isis.' This is supposed to explain Paris' relations with things Egyptian from the 17th to 19th centuries, but in fact Egyptian bits dug up from Paris' earth have never proved this myth one way or the other, so we are stuck with the word 'legend.'

Apparently we have to go back to the time of Henri II; perhaps to his state entry into Paris on becoming king in 1547 - if that's when it was - when some Egyptian decor was put up for the occasion. Don't ask me why.

Or maybe it started with the Porte Saint-Denis, put up by Blondel in 1672. The sides are decorated with pyramids, which are superimposed with trophies; and the whole thing celebrates 40 victories on the Rhine by Louis XIV's armies. Personally, I don't understand Egyptian decor the connection, but it may have been clear at the time, or even to you, today.

The only 'Egyptian' decor, facing the place du Caire.

By the end of the 18th century, Paris was gripped by full-blown 'Egyptomania.' The inseparable trio of pyramid, sphinx and obelisk became inescapable as well. Bouchardon used them for fountain projects. Marie-Antoinette used egyptian designs in all her various abodes. Pyramids and obelisks were tossed up in the Bagatelle and lastly, in the Monceau park. Then it was the turn of the sphinx.

Came the Revolution and the craze continued. The 'Fountain of the Regeneration' was raised on the ruins of the Bastille in 1793. It had a pharonic-looking figure on top, flanked by two lions. The figure inexplicably had some sort of 18th century wig, and looked a bit chubby and was supposed to be none other than the Goddess Isis with water spouting out of her.

The fate of this true wonder is unknown, partly because of the giant elephant project, planned for the place de la Bastille but never constructed beyond a full-scale 24-metre high wooden model, which was popular for a long time.

In 1798, instead of trying to invade Britain with inadequate forces, Napoléon Bonaparte proposed instead to seize Egypt, in order to bother the Brits in India. Actually this idea was Tallyrand's, based on an older plan, and the time was right - so on 19. May the expedition began.

With 400 boats and 13 ships of the line, and with enough in the payroll for only four months - mostly confiscated from Berne's treasury - Napoléon set off with 34,000 troops Wolhuter Etalages and 16,000 sailors; plus 167 members of a scientific and 'artistic' commission. Of course the assembly of this expedition did not escape the notice of British spies, but the French cleverly 'disinformed' them into thinking they were headed for Ireland - from Toulon.

One of the many professional shops in the passage.

After a day's token fighting on 12. June, the Knights of Malta - who were then mostly French - handed over that island in exchange for lifetime pensions. Napoléon looted six million francs worth of valuables from the Church of St. John and freed the galley slaves. On 19. June, the fleet sailed for Alexandria.

Admiral Nelson was sent to stop Napoléon, but unwittingly sailed right past him in a fog. Nelson arrived at Alexandria on 29. June, and seeing no French fleet, left immediately for Crete.

The French fleet eventually arrived two days later on 1. July, after a rough six-week passage. The troops were hungry, thirsty and feeling rotten. Then they had to spend more than 12 hours making the landing in a gale. After resting for a couple of minutes, they set out at midnight without artillery for Alexandria and it fell at 11:00, and everybody finally got a drink of water. Two days later, still without full supplies, the army began its march to Cairo.

On the way there, the promised lush villages with food and water failed to appear, and the men struggled through sand, clouds of bugs, thirst and harassment by Bedouins. Napoléon supplied the army with samples of proclamations to the Egyptians. On 11. July the army reached the Nile and some men drank themselves to death.

At the village of Shubra Knit the army met the defenders of Egypt - the Mamelukes, who were not very well-liked, not even by the Sultan of Constantinople; who was nominally an ally of the French - when the French were not invading one of his provinces, of which Egypt was one.

The Mamelukes could not break the French 'squares' and the French could not catch them when they ran away. On 21. July, the French army reached Embaba across the Nile from Cairo.

The troops were given a whole hour's rest and then beat up the Mamelukes and some Turkish regular soldiers serving under Murad Bey and that night Napoléon slept at Murad Bey's country house at Giza. Although this battle took place 16 kilometres north of Giza, it is called the 'Battle of the Pyramids.'

A great part of the defender's army was left intact - retreating to Syria - so Napoléon declared the campaign a victory. Meanwhile, Nelson's fleet showed up off Alexandria and after a tremendous fight - lasting from the early afternoon of 1. August all through the night, to about 14:00 the following day - the French lost 11 of their line ships, and their possible avenue of retreat from Egypt was doomed, or more precisely, sunk.

This set off a series of reactions resulting in a broad anti-French coalition; and on top of it, the Directory had to turn to putting down a royalist revolt within France, in the Vendée.

In Egypt, Napoléon, unaware of these external events, controlled only Cairo and a few other towns. The history goes on: from disaster to catastrophe to deception; with disease and plague, slaughter and massacres thrown in - but the 167-strong Scientific and 'Artistic' commission successfully 'captured' Egypt's treasures and brought them back to France to show them off to the western world.

A combined Turkish and British army forced the French to surrender in Egypt in 1801 and the remaining troops were returned to France shortly after peace was concluded provisionally on 1. October.

By then, Napoléon had been ruler of France for two years, which had been the whole point of the Egyptian expedition.

In the early days of Naploléon's rule of France, he had wide support, both inside and outside of the country. The Egyptian treasures were a popular marvel, and local businessmen hurried to jump on the bandwagon.

One result was the Passage du Caire in the 2nd arrondissement, in what is now the garment district of Paris. It was built for the Caisse des Rentiers by the architect Trétrelle and was gloriously opened to the public in 1798.

It doesn't look all that grand today, but it is still the longest covered 'passage' in the city, and today, the oldest. The property it is on was seized from the Filles-Dieu during the Revolution.

It has one interesting facade, above the entry on the place du Caire - the investors' homage to Napoléon's capture of Cairo. Other than this, the critics didn't care much for it - it was boring, they said. Actually they said more extreme things than this, but I don't think we need dwell on it. It was a mall meant for business and no marble, or Egyptian pearls were wasted on it.

In 1828 textiles were sold in it, then printers moved in. There wasn't much to see, and the passage as a 'passage' was not a big success for strolling or shopping. This remains the case; many of the shops are full of supplies for shops - such as mannequins and shelves.

Between these, there are a lot of clothes establishments. These are mostly manufacturer's outlets, for supplying retailers - it is nearly all wholesale in other words.

In one outlet, in the rue du Caire, the manageress told me they could sell a single item to a customer. But, she added, most of their customers were retailers; there to order by the truckload - and the shop Centurian, rue du Caire shop had no staff to deal with ladies spending 30 minutes to decide which hat or dress they wanted.

All the same, the Passage du Caire is part of the garment district and if you feel like plunging into this element just to get a whiff of the energy of it, in and around this passage is where you should be. If you ever went to Les Halles in the old days to see where the raw materials came from that you got in restaurants - then this is the same thing for clothing.

The lady in the other shop, said ones selling accessories would be more likely to sell retail.

If you are interested, the métro stop is Sentier. After taking it all in, you can stroll down the nearby rue des Petits Carreaux which runs into the bustling market street of the rue Montorgeuil.

Another result of the rampant Egyptomania was a blooming of fountains around Paris, five of which had or have egyptian themes, the most important today being Palmier's in the place du Châtelet which was erected in 1808, with the sphinx added in 1858.

Some victims of the Revolution of 1830 were dug up from their common grave in the gardens of the Louvre, where earlier some of Napoléon's mummies had been unearthed and one can wonder if bones of contemporaries of Ramses II got mixed in with those of the 'July Revolution.'

Paris' various Universal Exhibitions from 1867 to 1937 all had some egyptian motifs, as did the popular attractions such as the somewhat dangerous 'Egyptian Mountains' at Barbés. I cannot find out exactly what these were, or where they were, but they were said to be as dangerous as the 'Russian Mountains' of the same age, and these looked like some form of roller coasters.

The discovery of Tutankhamen's - Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, about 1350 BC - tomb in 1922 set off the mania anew, notably with the building of the Louxor cinéma in the '20's.

The most recent evidence of 'Egyptomania' in Paris are, of course, the various pyramids of the, now, Grand Louvre - and the Oriental exhibition spaces recently opened there.

L'Egypte à Paris

This is an exhibition of Egyptian influences on the development of the arts in Paris, put on by l'Action Artisique and the Ville de Paris. A postcard entry, place du Caire for this is on the poster page in this issue.

Until Sunday, 12. April. Open daily from 14:00 to 17:00, except Mondays.
Musée National de la Légion d'Honneur
Hôtel de Salm, 2. rue de Bellechasse, Paris 7.
Info. Tel.: 01 40 62 84 25.

High-end Egyptomania: Salles des Antiquités Orientales
Musée du Louvre - Richelieu Wing, Cour Napoléon
From 9:00 to 18:00 daily except Tuesdays.

La Gloire d'Alexandrie 100 works from Egypt and various museums, representing the age of the Ptolemies, from 323 to 30 BC.
At the Petit-Palais
Avenue du Winston-Churchill, Paris 8. From 6. May to 26. July; from 10:00 to 17:40 daily, except Mondays. Info. Tel.: 01 42 65 12 73.

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