A visit to the Louvre

David Tresilian , Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

David Tresilian continues his tour of world Egyptological collections in the run-up to the opening of Egypt’s Grand Egyptian Museum with a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris

A visit to the Louvre
A visit to the Louvre


Though it does not have the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt, an honour that belongs to the British Museum in London, the Louvre Museum in Paris undoubtedly has one of the most important. No tour of world Egyptological collections in the run-up to the opening of Egypt’s Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) can afford to ignore it.

Founded during the French revolutionary decade after 1789 in a former royal palace, the Louvre benefited both from the confiscations of property that had belonged to the former French royal family, aristocracy, and Roman Catholic Church and from the collecting mania that took over the French revolutionary armies as they invaded country after country across Europe.

Italy, weak and divided and mostly under ecclesiastical or foreign rule, was a particular victim, with the French armies ransacking cities across the Peninsula to bring the booty home to Paris. Although much of this material had subsequently to be returned following the military defeat of France in 1815, the collecting impulse signalled the Louvre’s ambition to be recognised as Europe’s pre-eminent museum at the time, a position it retains today.

There was also a developing interest in both ancient and modern Egypt in France following the attempt by French general, later emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, to conquer the country in 1798. In the event, little was in fact brought back from Egypt in the wake of Napoleon’s expedition aside from the Description de l’Egypte, a famous write-up of the country by a group of scholars that accompanied the military campaign. But this did not matter much because a mania for all things ancient Egyptian soon took over Paris.

Some of the results of this can be seen in the city’s streetscape today, with ancient Egyptian motifs and monuments providing often well-known additions to the French capital. There is the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, a gift of Egypt’s then ruler Mohamed Ali in 1830, and there is the ancient Egyptian-style fountain at the Place de Chatelet, restored by French Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s, also in the centre of the capital.

Some streets have Egyptian names, including the rue du Caire, rue du Nil, rue des Pyramides and rue d’Aboukir in the second arrondissement alone. Abou Qir, the name of a town and bay to the east of Alexandria, was the location of a famous sea battle in which British forces under Lord Nelson defeated the French Navy and trapped Napoleon’s expeditionary force in Egypt.

Following the large-scale renovation work on the Louvre that took place in time for the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, such Egyptological motifs, already pronounced owing to the presence of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, were added to by US architect I M Pei. His famous glass pyramid sheltering new subterranean entrance spaces to the Louvre replaced the car park that had previously occupied the courtyard opening onto the Jardins des Tuileries, and it has since become an instantly recognisable calling card for the museum.

Entering the Louvre today, either down through Pei’s pyramid or up from a conveniently located station on the Paris Metro, visitors access the museum’s ancient Egyptian collections either through the Richelieu wing, which runs along the rue de Rivoli, or the Denon wing, which faces the Seine. Al-Ahram Weekly headed through the Richelieu wing as this takes visitors through the Louvre’s collection of Near Eastern antiquities before entering the ancient Egyptian galleries in the neighbouring Sully wing of the building.

It turned out that this was the wrong way to do things, since the ground-floor ancient Egyptian galleries start at room 338 in the opposite wing of the museum. However, one could still walk through rooms containing masterpieces from the ancient Middle East, including the famous Hammurabi law code from ancient Babylon, today in the modern state of Iraq, dating from 1750 BCE, the lamassu statues composed of a man’s head, a bull’s body, and an eagle’s wings found by French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta in the remains of the palace of the ancient Assyrian King Sargon II at Khorsabad, also in Iraq, and the famous glazed-tile friezes of men and animals from the palace of the ancient Persian Emperor Darius at Susa, today in southern Iran.

The Louvre’s ground-floor ancient Egyptian galleries are unusual in that they are arranged thematically rather than chronologically and entering them from the wrong end can be disorienting. Visitors come across rooms full of sarcophaguses, coffins, mummies, and funerary equipment, apparently in no particular order and with little explanatory material to help them. There are few details about where the objects were found, how they came to be in the Louvre, or their recent or longer-term provenance. The Weekly decided to walk through all the rooms, numbers 316 to 338 on the museum map, and start again from the other end.

This was a great improvement, since it is explained that the displays begin by examining the role played by the Nile in ancient Egyptian civilisation, before moving through rooms presenting artefacts associated with writing, materials and techniques, furniture, beauty, music, and other areas before eventually ending up with mummies and sarcophaguses. The Louvre’s ancient Egyptian collections were first put together by Jean-Francois Champollion, famous for deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s, and it was Champollion who was responsible not only for acquiring much of the collection but also for first appropriately cataloguing it and presenting it to the public.

There are many impressive pieces, including the sarcophagus of the 30th-Dynasty priest Djedhor, apparently collected by Champollion himself in Cairo, along with the sarcophagus of King Ramses III taken from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, though no details are given of when or how this came to be in the Louvre.

The decorated lid of the sarcophagus is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in the UK, and the king’s mummy, found in the Deir Al-Bahari cache of royal mummies at the end of the 19th century, is in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Cairo.


UPSTAIRS AT THE LOUVRE: The Louvre’s ancient Egyptian galleries continue on the first floor of the Sully wing, the oldest part of the original building, where there is a parallel chronological presentation of artefacts from the collections.

Downstairs one finds heavier and bulkier items, probably at least in part owing to the loading capacities of the floors, and upstairs one finds smaller objects, including some famous ones, such as the well-known statue of the seated scribe.

This painted limestone sculpture, found by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette at Saqqara in the 1850s, represents a man sitting cross-legged with a white kilt stretched over his knees. Dating to the Old Kingdom, it is notable for its realism and contrasts with the idealised royal statuary of the same and later periods.

Rather like the core ancient Egyptian collections of the British Museum in London, those in the Louvre were largely the result of purchases or gifts made from the 1820s onwards when Egypt was opening up to foreign archaeological investigation. British consul in Egypt Henry Salt, working with former Italian circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni, acquired an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts for the British Museum, but he also sold parts of this to the Louvre.

Many of the objects in the thematic and chronological galleries at the museum are from what was originally the Salt collection, while others come from a similar collection put together by the Italian antiquities dealer Bernadino Drovetti. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, fewer ancient Egyptian artefacts were acquired from antiquities dealers and more came from excavations directly carried out in Egypt, at first by Mariette, appointed first Director of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, the forerunner of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), by Said Pasha in 1858, and then by other archaeologists.

A constant stream of archaeological finds, gifts, and purchases rounded out the collections.

In the upstairs ancient Egyptian galleries in the Sully wing of the Louvre visitors can admire not only the objects on display, fewer and more soberly presented than in the downstairs thematic galleries, but also the enfilade arrangement of the rooms.

The Sully wing is the heart of the original royal palace, begun by French King Francis I in the first half of the 16th century to replace a mediaeval fortress and designed to emulate — and outdo — the opulence of the Renaissance buildings he had seen in Italy. Later French kings then added to the original buildings between the 17th and 19th centuries, such that the Louvre today is a kind of palimpsest reflecting the successive building programmes of the French state.

The upstairs ancient Egyptian galleries in the Sully wing reflect some of this history, since while the presentation of the artefacts on display follows an historical narrative beginning in the ancient Egyptian Predynastic Period and running through to Roman Egypt, the rooms they are in tell another story, this time of successive uses and transformations of the Louvre itself.

These rooms were used for the Louvre’s first presentation of ancient Egyptian antiquities organised by Champollion in 1827, and they retain what seem to be original display cases mounted along the walls. However, Champollion’s original exhibition, justly praised for its concern to place the objects in their historical and cultural context, would have had to fight it out with the interior decoration of the rooms, as the chronological presentation of the antiquities also does today.

Some rooms in the Louvre have newly installed interior walls and ceilings designed to produce a neutral viewing space for the artefacts on show. In cases where the (presumably) original decorative scheme survives and is considered particularly important, the curators have sought to draw attention to this as well as to the works on show owing to its historical significance. Room 638, for example, housing a fragment of a statue of the New Kingdom Pharoah Akhenaten, is labelled as a chambre de parade, a kind of antechamber built between 1668 and 1678 when the Louvre’s main function was still that of a royal palace.

Room 639 is the chambre à alcove built in the same period, now housing a statue of the god Amun protecting the boy-king Tutankhamun. Later rooms were redesigned in the Restoration style favoured during the rule of French King Charles X, original patron of Champollion’s curatorial activities, and they have been left in their original 19th-century magnificence, making an intriguing contrast to the ancient Egyptian Late Period and Ptolemaic Period artefacts on show.


SCANDALS AT THE LOUVRE: Casual visitors to the Louvre today will have no more reason to suspect controversies behind the scenes any more than casual visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the British Museum in London, and yet all three institutions periodically face questions about the origins or upkeep of their collections.

In the case of the Metropolitan Museum, investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office led to the seizure in 2022 of 27 ancient artefacts suspected of being illegally trafficked from their countries of origin, including six artefacts from Egypt. In 2019, the Museum was forced to return a first-century BCE gold coffin belonging to Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis, to Egypt, following reports that it had been illegally trafficked out of the country.

In the case of the British Museum, investigations last year led to the announcement that some 2,000 objects including ancient Greek and Roman jewellery had been found to be missing, believed stolen, from the collections.

The Louvre, too, has not been free of media attention, since its previous president, Jean-Luc Martinez, is being investigated by the French authorities on suspicion of antiquities trafficking. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the case concerns seven ancient Egyptian artefacts acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a UAE institution advised by the Louvre and licensed to use its name, between 2014 and 2018 for some 50 million euros.

The artefacts, now believed to have been looted from Egypt, were given the green light by Martinez and others, who are suspected of having turned a blind eye to fake provenance certificates. Martinez lost an appeal to get the charges brought against him thrown out last year, and according to a report in the Art Newspaper, a professional publication, in November, the case against him is continuing.

Whatever the truth may turn out to be regarding these particular antiquities, like other world museums visited in this series, the Louvre is also vulnerable to restitution claims from countries eager to see cultural property returned to its places of origin.

Sometimes these claims relate to recent acquisitions, such as the decision by the Metropolitan Museum to return the Nedjemankh coffin, but more often they refer to historical acquisitions made under murky circumstances, such as the ancient Egyptian Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London.

One ancient Egyptian exhibit in particular in the Louvre has been the object of such restitution claims: the Dendera Zodiac currently in room 323 of the museum’s ground-floor ancient Egyptian galleries. This is a ceiling bas relief showing the Zodiac that was taken from the ancient Egyptian Dendera Temple in Upper Egypt by French adventurers in 1821 and was later acquired by the Louvre. It depicts the Zodiac as seen by the ancient Egyptians in the Ptolemaic Period and is thus an important source of evidence for how they thought about astronomy.

Quoted in the Weekly in 2022, Egyptian Egyptologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass made a special plea for the return to Egypt of the Dendera Zodiac. Not only had it been taken from Egypt in violent circumstances, he said, and had thus not been collected under appropriate conditions, but rather like other objects such as the Rosetta Stone and the bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti currently in the Neues Museum in Berlin, it was of unique importance as a symbol of ancient Egypt and document of ancient Egyptian identity.

 “We must build up a national campaign to return these unique objects that were illegally smuggled out of the country during the 19th century,” Hawass told the Weekly. “I believe that these items are unique, and their home should be in Egypt. We have collected all the evidence that proves that these items were stolen from Egypt.”

Visiting the Dendera Zodiac during the visit to the Louvre, the Weekly found it rather underwhelmingly presented in a side room of the museum’s ground-floor thematic galleries where it could be easily overlooked by visitors. The accompanying wall texts give information about what the Zodiac is and why it is important, but there is no indication of the controversy surrounding it or how it came to be in the Louvre.

Originally forming the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris in the Hathor Temple at Dendera, the Zodiac dates from the late Ptolemaic Period with parts of the structure being added in the Roman Period during the rule of the 1st-century CE Roman Emperor Tiberius. It mostly shows the constellations of the Zodiac in their familiar Graeco-Roman forms, though some are shown in an ancient Egyptian form that may relate to other Near Eastern representations.

Nearby, there is another fascinating structure in the shape of the “chamber of the ancestors” from the Karnak Temple in Luxor that shows the panorama of ancient Egyptian Kings as this was understood at the time of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Thutmosis III. While the figures are difficult to make out owing to the chamber’s fragmentary surface, information accompanying it says that it contains 61 names of ancient Egyptian Kings from the second to the 18th dynasties, with some names missing or not included.

The story behind this exhibit is just as remarkable as that of the nearby Dendera Zodiac. Perhaps competing with the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius who was leading a major expedition to Egypt at the same time, French Egyptologist Émile Prisse d’Avesnes, known for his pioneering work on ancient Egyptian as well as Arab art, dismantled the chamber one night in the spring of 1843 and smuggled the blocks to Paris where they were reconstructed and eventually put on display in the Louvre.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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