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The Odyssey of an Obelisk: Luxor to Place de la Concorde

by Meredith Mullins on March 20, 2014

Luxor obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a story that makes you see things differently when you know how hard it was to get it to Paris. (Image © Vitaly Edush/iStock)

The Luxor obelisk at Place de la Concorde
© Vitaly Edush/iStock

Curiosity Inspires Us to See Things Differently in Paris

You can’t miss it. The Luxor obelisk rises 75 feet from the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, taller than anything in the neighborhood.

I have passed this gold-tipped monolith a thousand times, on its little island in the middle of frenzied Paris traffic.

I noted it as one of those odd Paris monuments—a bit discordant with its surroundings, but somehow fitting in—like the Louvre Pyramid; the too colorful, externally piped Pompidou Center; and the mother of them all, the Eiffel Tower.

Luxor Obelisk at sunset at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, inspiration to see things differently when you look closely. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

The obelisk is a monument that’s often seen, but not too many people know about its challenging journey to Paris.
© Meredith Mullins

A Closer Look

Though I formed fleeting impressions of the obelisk, I never really stopped or studied. I thought it was a replica, perhaps a tribute to cross-cultural relations or a reminder of Napoleon’s early conquests in Egypt.

What I didn’t know is that the obelisk is the real deal—more than 3,000 years old—one of the original entry pylons from Egypt’s Temple of Luxor.

Oh, I see: You can pass something everyday and not know much about its character until you really look. Curiosity often rewards us with incredible tales of adventure.

So . . . just how did a 250-ton piece of granite make its way to Paris using the tools available in the early 19th century?

The voyage was, by all accounts, impossible. The challenges were insurmountable. And yet, thanks to a few courageous and persistent people, the obelisk stands tall in its Paris home.

A Job for the French Navy

In 1830, Egypt gave the gift of two obelisks as a thank you to France for help in modernizing the country. The offer of such an antiquity was an honor. Then, reality set in.

No one believed that it was possible to lower the granite monolith from its long-time position at Luxor, transport it from one continent to another, and raise it upright again in Paris without breaking it.

The Temple of Luxor, with an entry obelisk, the beginning of the journey to Place de la Concorde in Paris and a way to see differently. (Photo © Medioimages/Photodisc)

The eastern obelisk at the Luxor Temple in Egypt
© Medioimages/Photodics

The French Navy came to the rescue. Naval engineer Apollinaire Lebas, and his team sailed to Egypt in the Luxor, arriving in 1831. They then proceeded to restructure the ship to accommodate the tall and heavy “needle” and to build a sled and wooden path to drag the obelisk to the ship, all with the help of Egyptian workers.

When all was ready, they carefully lowered the obelisk to the ground, with a complex system of ropes, wood support, and sheer manual strength; but at the last moment, the timbers snapped, and it fell to the ground—thankfully still in one piece.

By the time they finally loaded the obelisk onto the ship, the waters of the Nile were too low to travel. The crew waited six months for the river to rise, and passed the time by exploring archaeological sites and tombs and collecting artifacts for museums and their “personal collections.”

The Luxor finally set sail, but by the time the ship reached the mouth of the Nile, the water was too low to proceed over the final sandbar.

Another wait, a cholera epidemic, the long sail through the Mediterranean, several ports of refuge in the Atlantic, the final trip down the Seine . . . and the difficult journey was complete.

Hieroglyphics on the Luxor obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a story that helps us see things differently (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

The hieroglyphics on the Luxor obelisk tell stories of the pharaohs’ exploits and pay tribute to the gods.
© Meredith Mullins

The Talk of the Town

Things in the capital were not quiet while waiting for the ship. King Louis-Philippe and the usual interested parties—urban planners, city officials, Egyptologists, writers, and poets—were busy debating where to place the obelisk.

Model monoliths were constructed out of wood and cardboard and placed in the two most likely spots (Place de la Concorde and Invalides). Parisians had time to let the view sink in.

In reality, Louis-Philippe had already decided on Place de la Concorde. He wanted that square to be known for the new obelisk, not for the guillotine that put so many to death in that spot during the Revolution.

Gold images at the base of the Luxor obelisk at Place de la Concorde in Paris, part of the story to see things differently about the obelisk journey. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

A history of the Place de la Concorde installation in 1836,
engraved in gold at the base of the obelisk
© Meredith Mullins

The Day of Reckoning

The obelisk was finally ready for its grand debut in October, 1836. A crowd of 200,000 gathered to witness the historic (and dangerous) event.

Apollinaire Lebas was there, directing the operation. In true navy-captain fashion, he stood directly under the obelisk as it was raised, ready to “go down with the ship” should anything go awry.

After a few tense course corrections, broken bolts, and strained ropes, the obelisk was finally straightened and stabilized. The king gave the signal; and the crowd, after three hours of suspenseful silence, erupted in applause.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Egyptian obelisks were a more common gift (or object of pillage) than one might imagine. Today, ancient obelisks reside in France, England, Turkey, Italy, and the United States, perhaps a result of the old adage “If you can get it to your country, it’s yours.”

Obelisk in Central Park in New York, one of several gifted to foreign countries, part of the story to make us see differently about the tales of the obelisks. (Photo © bwzenith/iStock)

Paris isn’t the only city with an obelisk. Egypt gifted the U.S. also (Central Park/New York).
© bwzenith/iStock

For France, one obelisk was enough. After the seven-year ordeal for the first obelisk, no French officials were anxious to undertake those challenges again. In 1981, President Mitterrand officially “returned” the second obelisk, diplomatically suggesting it stay in its country of origin.

The top of the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, part of the story that makes us see things differently. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

In 1998, the obelisk received a new “crown” of gilt bronze, identical to the original one in its early life in Egypt.
© Meredith Mullins

Wisdom of the Ages

Is there a moral to the obelisk tale of adventure? Yes. Persistence. Patience. Problem solving prowess. All good virtues.

For me, inspired to see things differently, two other messages leap out.

  • Backstories are fascinating. I am making a vow to “stop and study” more often.
  • On the subject of gifts: If someone offers a 75-foot, 250-ton piece of carved antiquity, it may be best to politely negotiate for something more manageable.
Obelisk at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, one of the obelisks outside the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a way to see differently about the distribution of obelisks. (Photo © Danieloncarevic/iStock)

Rome, too, has several obelisks. It’s surprising any are left in Egypt.
© Danieloncarevic/iStock

“The Voyage of the Obelisk” at the Musée national de la Marine is on exhibit until July 6, 2014. To learn more about Place de la Concorde and see other Paris monuments, visit Paris Info.

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3 thoughts on “The Odyssey of an Obelisk: Luxor to Place de la Concorde

  1. This article was perfect for two Americans who found the mostly French signage at the museum a bit challenging. What a delightful way to present this subject! A link to your article will be included in the vacation photo journal we share with our family and friends! Thank you Meridith and thanks also to Francoise for the recommendation!

  2. Thank you, Françoise, for your kind words. It’s wonderful that you’re going on your own obelisk odyssey. First, New York. Then, perhaps, Rome and Istanbul?
    Bon voyage!

  3. Superbe article Meredith, en plus d’être une photographe hors pair, tu écris merveilleusement bien. Bravo pour ce beau voyage, cette exposition est une petite merveille. Nous irons bientôt admirer l’Obélisque de Central Park ! Amitiés, Françoise

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