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Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds I am in front of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the shape of which reminds us of the passion for things Egyptian in 19th century France as well as Britain. At first sight, the Obelisk of Luxor might seem an odd choice as a monument that gives you an insight on France. Twenty-three metres high and carved out of a pinkish granite from Aswan in Egypt, under the reign of Ramses the II in the thirteenth-century BC, it is about as un-French as you can get in origin.

Skip to 0 minutes and 42 seconds And yet now it sits at the heart of Paris, on the Place de la Concorde, at the junction between the Champs-Elysees and the Tuileries gardens and is as authentic a symbol of France as the Bastille or the Eiffel Tower. The story of how the obelisk came to Paris is an important part of the story of how France, after the great Revolution of 1789, forged a sense of itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. Those two things are, of course, closely related and helped shape the identity of modern France. It was during the French Revolution that France launched its first major military expedition to the land of the Pharaohs.

Skip to 1 minute and 25 seconds The Directory, which was the body governing France between 1795-1799, authorised Napoleon Bonaparte to lead a French force to Egypt. France could not attack Britain, its arch rival, directly, but the hope was that Napoleon could hurt British commercial interests by targeting its trade routes to the East. The campaign in Egypt and Syria lasted from 1798 until 1801, before Napoleon was forced to withdraw by superior British power. But it had lasting effects. Intellectually, it marked the start of a massive rise in the passion for Egyptology in France. In political terms, it marked a new phase in France’s encounter with the world.

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds The authors of the French revolution believed that the values for the new society they wanted to build were not only right for France, but also right for the rest of the world. That is why the slogan ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’ is often referred to as summing up the ‘universalist’ values of the Revolution. And in the nineteenth-century this develops a cultural dimension called the ‘mission civilisatrice’ or civilising mission. So in its contact with the outside world, France is guided by the thirst for knowledge that was created by the Enlightenment movement in the 18th century, but it is also driven to share the universalist values of the Revolution - the values that had brought it into the modern age.

Skip to 2 minutes and 51 seconds So, it is a movement in which France brings the world to itself and offers itself to the world. When, in 1829, the Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, offered an obelisk as a gift to the French, it was too good an opportunity to miss. There was, however, a snag. The obelisk was one of a pair - the other having been offered as a gift to the British - and the obelisks were the ones in Alexandria. So the great French scholar and the man who unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jean-Francois Champollion, persuaded Mehmet Ali to give the French the more distinguished pair of obelisks which stood at the entrance of the temple at Luxor.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds Transporting the one which made it to Paris was an epic journey which captured the imagination of the French public. Loaded onto a purpose built vessel, suitably christened the Luxor, it would take the obelisk two years to complete the journey to the port of Le Havre, before it was towed up the Seine to be installed in Paris on the 25th of October 1836. The site chosen was highly symbolic. It was where Louis the XVI and many others had been guillotined during the Revolution, and the name, Concorde, had been chosen by the Directory after the period of the Terror to mark a new era of national reconciliation.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds In 1830 there had been an uprising that had brought down the Bourbon constitutional monarchy and a new constitutional monarchy under the junior branch of the royal family, the Orleanists, came to power. So the installation of the obelisk at the Concorde was an opportunity to celebrate a renewed sense of national unity, and remarkably, some 200,000 people came to watch the obelisk being erected. But it was also a celebration of France’s success as a modern nation, its intellectual genius and its engineering prowess. Soon afterwards, France had conquered Algeria and by the end of the century it had an empire that would be second only to Britain’s. And a key justification for this enterprise was a belief in France’s civilizing mission.

Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds So, the next time you are crossing the Place de la Concorde look up at the obelisk. It actually tells you a lot more about France than that perennial tourist favourite, the Eiffel Tower.

The 'Obelisk of Luxor' with Prof Gino Raymond

This video will tell you about the ‘Obelisk of Luxor’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the monument’.)

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This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol