How Egyptian Culture Came to Paris

How Egyptian Culture Came to Paris
“Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” is the enticing title of the exhibition currently running at La Villette in northern Paris. Some of the treasures on display have never left Egypt before, so it’s no wonder that visitors are flocking to admire them and to enjoy virtual visits to ancient Egyptian sites such as the temple of Abu Simbel and the tomb of Nefertiti. This popular exhibition, like the record-breaking one on Tutankhamun in 2019, is a reminder of the close links between Paris and Egypt. As so often, this can be traced back to Napoleon because Egyptomania hit Paris in the aftermath of his Egyptian campaign, even though that ended in failure in 1801. Many of the scholars and scientists he took with him wrote up their findings when they returned to France and a fondness for all things Egyptian took off, especially in Paris. It was more than a passing interest. In 1827 Jean-François Champollion founded the Egyptian Section at the Louvre, having made his name by successfully deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone which Napoleon’s soldiers had found in Egypt nearly three decades earlier. In 1831 Champollion was appointed the first Chair of Egyptology at the Collège de France, another sign that interest in and study of all things Egyptian was very much in vogue in Paris. The French admiration for Egypt was reciprocated two years later when the Obelisk of Luxor, a treasure more than 3000 years old, arrived in Paris as a gift from the Sultan of Egypt. As a result, 19th-century Paris went a little Egypt-crazy. The Rue du Caire in the 2nd arrondissement was named after Napoleon’s march into Cairo in 1798 and nearby roads were given similarly themed names such as the Rue du Nil and the Rue d’Alexandrie. They can all still be seen today, as can the Passage du Caire, the oldest, longest and narrowest shopping arcade in Paris.  It was extravagantly decorated with Egyptian figures, columns and hieroglyphics.  Today, you can still see an image of the goddess Hathor over the main entrance at 2, Rue du Caire, and mosaics on the upper facades inside.  In addition, Egyptian-style monuments were built all over the city, including obelisks, fountains and – it is said – over a hundred sphinxes! The Louvre is a good place to start your search for Egypt in today’s Paris, not least because you will pass the Pyramid on the way in. Commissioned by Président Mitterrand to refresh the Louvre’s courtyard, the artist Leoh Ming Pei designed an ultra-modern version of the largest and most famous of all the pyramids, the Great Pyramid at Giza. Inside, the Department of Egyptian Antiquities is considerably larger than when it opened in the 1820s, now containing over 6,000 works spanning nearly 5000 years. Here, you can wander the vast collection of sculptures of Egyptian gods, sarcophagi and mummies, funeral vases and exquisite jewelry and search out the Great Sphinx of Tanis.

Lead photo credit : Châtelet Fountain. Photo credit: Marian Jones

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.