humpback whale New York
A humpback whale surfaces near the Statue of Liberty in this photo taken from a boat on New York Harbor in New York City, US, December 8, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

On Saturday, Lady Liberty, America’s most iconic symbol and the most readily recognisable in the world, celebrated the 138th anniversary of her arrival in New York’s harbour on June 17, 1885, albeit in 550 pieces, shipped in more than 200 crates that weighed 225 tons and that took a year to assemble.

With every year’s commemoration of the event, we are reminded of how it was only by a trick of fate that this structure, formally known as the The Statue of Liberty, had not arrived instead in Port Said harbour, where it was originally intended to sit years earlier.

All of which brings us to Fredrik Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who, at age 22, visited Egypt in 1855 with a group of Orientalist painters, where he was awestruck by that ancient land’s Mennon colossi, the two massive statues that had towered over the ruins of Thebes for well over 3,200 years, still seated proudly on the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor, and still looking at us, he wrote in his diary (according to Elizabeth Mitchell, author of Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, who unearthed it at the New York Public Library) with “imperturbable majesty”

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A towering sculpture

The French sculptor’s encounter with Egypt’s antiquities inspired in him the idea of designing a towering sculpture — one rivalling even the Sphinx in its grandeur — that would stand at the northern end of the Suez Canal.

Bartholdi, a quirky visionary through and through, set out to work. And the sculpture he finally designed was that of a kindly fellaha — a female peasant, or field worker — her arm upraised holding a torch, clad in a jalabiya, or cotton robe (cotton imported “from the land of the Pharaohs” was at the time valued by Europeans for its uniqueness and thus became a signature export of Egypt after the product’s commercial cultivation in the 18th century), bidding voyagers farewell or welcoming them back home as they passed through the Suez Canal, a waterway that had opened for business in 1869, a mere six years earlier, becoming the shortest path between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, a bridge, as it were, between Europe and Asia.

That spirit is literally carved in stone on the statue’s pedestal, verbalised in the moving verse of Emma Lazarus (who once called Lady Liberty “The mother of all exiles): “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... “


Then came the time to pitch the idea to Ismail Pasha, also known as Ismail the Magnificent, the khedive of Egypt, whom Bartholdi had met and discussed the project with at the Paris World Fair.

Alas, the khedive chose to pass. The project, he averred, was too expensive for Egypt, given that the country had been left in deep debt to the European powers after the building of the Canal was completed. And, moreover, he reportedly was convinced that the figure of a mammoth harbour structure depicting a fellaha was too “old-fashioned” an image to project of a now greatly modernised Egypt.

Statue of Liberty in New York City
Statue of Liberty in New York City. Image Credit: AFP

Sorry, Monsieur Bartholdi, no go.

So, as it later transpired, instead of the French Bartholdi’s colossus of a peasant woman stoically toiling in the cotton fields, offered as a symbol of “Egypt carrying the light to Asia”, Port Said ended up with the Port Said Lighthouse, which was built, well, to guide ships through the Suez Canal.

Liberty Enlightens the World

For the artist, it was not case-closed, for after he returned to France he went back to the drawing board, where he redesigned his sculpture, transforming it from a figure of endurance, as it were, to a figure of liberty — The Statue of Liberty, America’s most famous monument and one of its most enduring symbols. He called his finished work La Liberte Eclarent Le Monde, or Liberty Enlightens the World.

The statue, measuring an impressive 305 feet in height, was also of a woman, this one holding a tablet in her left hand with the date of the of the United States Declaration of Independence inscribed on it, carrying a shimmering torch in the other and wearing a seven-pronged crown on her head.

A woman with a strong jawline and a pensive — some say ‘troubled’, perhaps even ‘stern’ — expression on her face. A woman representing, as the artist himself saw it, the daunting journey that disenfranchised people have to take first before they gain their freedom.

Keep in mind that Bartholdi, who arrived in the US with his proposal for the statue in 1871, was still imbued with the spirit of the French Revolution, thus cognizant of how much the French people had sacrificed to launch it — not to mention that his arrival there came six years after the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the country.

That spirit is literally carved in stone on the statue’s pedestal, verbalised in the moving verse of Emma Lazarus (who once called Lady Liberty “The mother of all exiles): “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... “

Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million of these tired, poor and huddled masses gazed longingly at the visage of this lady as they passed it on their way to find a sheltering refuge in their new home. And today, it draws no less than 3 million visitors a year.

It’s interesting, is it not, that the lady’s journey to fame began in the harbour of Port Said and ended, as a consequence of a serendipitous confluence of events, in that of New York?

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.