Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Ancient Egypt on the Streets of Paris

When the glass pyramids were added to the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in 1989, they divided opinion. Whatever your thoughts, they are now as synonymous with the Louvre as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is. Further along the ‘Axe Historique’ is the ancint Egyptian obelisk on Place de la Concorde. In fact, the streets of Paris have numerous references to ancient Egypt. These reflect a complex relationship the West in general and France in particular have had and continue to have with Egypt and her past. Here I list some of the best known examples of Egyptian Revival  Architecture in Paris.

The West’s interest in ancient Egypt goes back to the Greeks and Romans. The raising of ancient Egyptian Obelisks in Rome during the 17th century inspired the raising of obelisks in Ireland for example. Neoclassical rends in the 18th century often mixed Greek, Roman and Egyptian features. There was no attempt to faithfully reproduce ancient buildings, rather to create a new style.

The systematic study of ancient Egypt owes a lot to Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and Syria between 1798 and 1801. Besides the obvious military personnel, Napoleon’s army included over 167 scientists. Their presence was intended to help the army, but soon they began to describe and illustrate the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, from the geology, flora and fauna to the various ancient structures they encountered. Napoleon’s scientists published their findings as Description de l’Égypte, which gave rise to a deep fascination with all things Egyptian. A fascination that cropped up everywhere, including on the streets of Paris.

Over a century later, the Art Deco movement and the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb initiated a renewed interest in ancient Egyptian aesthetic. 

Place du Caire and the 'Retour d'Egypte', 1799

On 29 July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte entered Cairo. In a square where a convent had been destroyed during the French Revolution, Parisians chose to mark the occasion with references to Cairo. The square became Place du Caire, with an adjacent road called Rue du Caire.

One of the buildings erected then was heavily decorated with ancient Egyptians themes. Not all accurate. The most striking of these are the heads of Hathor, with her distinct bovine ears. These closely resemble such sculptures found in many of the temples dedicated to the  Egyptian deity. Besides the reproductions of Hathor there are many other Egyptian styled features on the façade. An frieze of low relief images include Egyptian styled men on chariot.  The columns on the ground floor have typical papyrus-styled capitals. Below the curved cornice at the top are images reminiscent of hieroglyphs. Although the human profile with the exaggerated nose is said to be of Henri Marcellin Auguste Bougenier.

The building has been named Retour d’Egypte. It has an arcade through it, named Passage du Caire, that leads to the Foire du Caire – which is of course nothing like a Cairo market. Not only is this the oldest covered arcade in Paris, it is also the longest and narrowest.

Place Du Caire Paris
Retour d'Egypte. Photograph © Neoclassicism Enthusiast / Wikimedia
Place Du Caire Hathor
Compare the sculptures on the building in Paris to one of the ancient sculptures of the Egyptian goddess Hathor below, which can be seen at Hatshepsut's mortuary temple on the West Bank of Luxor. Other very similar examples can be seen at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Photograph © Tangopaso / Wikimedia
Hatshepsut Temple Hathor
A sculpture of the Egyptian goddess Hathor on a pillar at the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor.

Hôtel De Beauharnais, Circa 1806

Hotel De Beauharnais Paris
The entrance porch decorated with various Egyptian inspired elements. Photograph © Jospe / Wikimedia

Today the Hôtel de Beauharnais is the residence of the German Ambassador to France, having been in Prussian and then German ownership since 1811. Although built in 1710, the porch to the entrance was added around 1806. The various features of the porch have decoration that has very obvious Egyptian influences. The two central columns, for example, resemble columns you might see in an Egyptian temple, even topped with lotus flowers. The exterior walls are decorated with Egyptian style imagery.

Fontaine Du Palmier, Place Du Châtelet – 1806-1808

Fontaine Du Palmier Sphinx
A close up of the Sphinx-styled statues in the Fontaine du Palmier.

At the centre of Place du Châtelet is the Fontaine du Palmier, which draws on a number of different ancient influences. Four clearly Egyptian-style sphinxes, that each spout water from their mouths, sit at the base of a Roman-style triumphal column. The column, the largest surviving fountain built during Napoleon’s reign, celebrates a number of Napoleon’s victories around Europe, including the Battle of the Pyramids. The fountain basin and the sphinxes were added to the column in 1858 under orders of Emperor Louis Napoleon.

Fontaine Du Fellah Statue
The statue in the Fontaine du Fellah, thought to be a copy of a Roman statue of Antinous now in the Vatican Museum.
Fontaine Du Palmier
The Fontaine du Palmir, also called Fontaine du Victoire because it commemorates Napoleon's victories in Egypt and Europe.

Fontaine Du Fellah, Rue De Sèvres – 1806

Just beside the entrance to Vaneau metro station is an attempt to replicate an Egyptian temple. Originally erected against the exterior wall of a hospice, today the Egyptian-influenced structure is all but a building site, with a high rise being constructed around it. Within the cavity of the temple is the statue of a fellah, a peasant, dressed in obvious Egyptian costume, who when the fountain was in working order poured water from a pitcher in each hand. The statue is said to have been based on a Roman statue of Antinous, Roman Emperor Hadrian’s lover. This is another fountain that was intended to celebrate Napoleon’s victories in Egypt.

The Glass Pyramids at the Louvre

The famous Louvre Museum in Paris with the Eiffel Tower on the background
Four glass pyramids at the entrance to the Louvre Museum.

Of course, as well known as they are, no list on Egyptian Revival Architecture would be complete without the glass pyramids at the Louvre. These once futuristic now iconic glass pyramids are a testament to the continued fascination ancient Egypt has for France, and her many tourists who come to the Louvre to see some of the best collections of ancient art and artefacts in the West.

Architectural History Guided Walking Tours of Paris

Create Your Own Itineraries & Travel Lists for Paris

Palais du Louvre - Louvre Museum

Now one of the most famous museums in the world, the Louvre was a Royal residence. A 12 century fortress became a residence for Charles V in the mid 14th century, when he abandoned the Palais de la Cité. Since then it the principle residence of kings of France until the French Revolution, when parts of it became a public museum. The museum now occupies the entire complex. Collections include art and antiquities from France and Mediterranean Europe (Etruscan, Greek and Roman). There are also substantial collections of Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities, from late prehistory to the start of Christian and Islamic periods.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

Community Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments