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The Statue of Liberty Story, From Egypt to New York

Archived from Arab American Almanac, 6th Edition

In 1986 “Arab-Americans for Liberty,” under the chairmanship of Casey Kasem, Los Angeles, held fund-raising events in Washington, D.C. and other cities and solicited donations toward the group’s $100,000 pledge for the restoration work on the Statue of Liberty. Arab-Americans contributed to the restoration of the statue and the Liberty Week Centennial celebrations. Los Angeles musician Dr. A. Jihad Racy played traditional Arab music at an ethnic folk festival in Lower Manhattan as part of the Liberty Week festivities. Other Arab-American musicians from New York included Dr. Simon Saheen, playing oud and violin, and Hanna Mirhije, playing percussion.

The Arabic roots of the Statue of Liberty go back to Egypt, when its sculptor Fredric Auguste Bartholdi, influenced by Egypt’s great monuments and pyramids, was commissioned to create a statue to be called the “Statue of Progress” for the entrance of the Suez Canal, according to the following excerpt taken from the book The Statue of Liberty by Marvin Trachtenberg, Viking Press, 1976: “Frederic Auguste Bartholdi in 1856 accompanied Leon Gerome, Bally, and Berchere – a group of orientalist painters – on a long trip to Egypt, a fashionable undertaking at the time. Bartholdi, very serious about the trip, not only made a number of remarkably good photographs (then becoming the rage), but took careful note of the great monuments that had drawn him on so long a journey. And it was this voyage up the Nile that seems to really have brought out his latent attraction to the colossal classical sculpture.

“The Egypt of Thebes and Abu Simbel remained for all to behold, and admire it Bartholdi most passionately did. Thirty years later (after an intermediate visit) he wrote:
“‘We are filled with profound emotion in the presence of these colossal witnesses, centuries old, of a past that to us is almost infinite, at whose feet so many generations, so many million existences, so many human glories, have rolled in the dust. These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity. Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future. These impressions are not the result simply of a beautiful spectacle, nor of the poetry of historic remembrances. They result from the character of the form and the expression of the work in which the design itself expresses after a fashion infinity.’

“Though his academic scruples prevented him from ever imitating Egyptian art directly – except for certain architectural references – its grandiose success in the colossal mode haunted him, and the dream of equalling it became a mainspring of his life.

“To a large extent this ambition can be said to have been fulfilled, for by far his most successful works – and they did bring him great fame – were the Liberty and the Lion of Belfort, a patriotic memorial to the town’s heroic defenders of 1871 built into the cliffs below the fortress in the form of a 22 by 11 meter feline – a cross between Khafre’s Sphinx at Gizeh and Thorvaldsen’s Lion of Lucerne.

“The impetus for Bartholdi’s two colossi came out of the war of 1870-71 and its aftermath. But already in the late years of the Second Empire, Bartholdi, encouraged, it seems, by the Empress Eugenie herself, had approached Khedewi Ismail Pasha, ruler of Egypt, with a project during his visit to Paris in connection with the Universal Exposition of 1867.
“Bartholdi saw the possibility of achieving a colossal project in the land of his dreams. Its location was to be at the entrance to the Suez Canal nearing completion in 1867 when Bartholdi first proposed it. In form a colossal fallah (fallah, in Arabic, means farmer) many times life-size and holding aloft a torch, the theme being ‘Progress’ or ‘Egypt carrying the Light to Asia’, it was to be the embodiment of Ismail’s efforts at Europeanization and referred particularly to the great new canal itself. It was to serve as a lighthouse, thus recalling the Pharaohs of Alexandria.
“Bartholdi worked on the Suez project intermittently over the two succeeding years experimenting with the movement of the figure in a number of clay maquettes and drawings. In 1869 he attended the festive opening ceremonies of the canal (for which Verdi’s Aida was commissioned, although not completed in time), taking the opportunity to solicit Ismail again. His response was encouraging; he even involved himself in the scheme sufficiently to suggest that the light be carried not in the hand but native style – atop the head. However, Ismail’s interest was transient; more pressing problems were soon to confront him. Bartholdi traveled to America the next summer, and the Suez colossal sculpture project was dropped.


“I believe that even as your fathers come to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.”

Read more from Kahlil Gibran’s article published in the first edition of The Syrian World Magazine, New York, July 1926, addressing “Young Americans of Syrian Origin”