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The Statue of Liberty Started as a Muslim

The Statue of Liberty was initially conceived as a Muslim peasant woman located at the approach of the Suez Canal. The clay model in the picture shows one early depiction of how the statue was to look. The project was entitled “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia,” The sculpture was nicknamed “Egypt.” Egypt had a lantern or a torch projecting some light in her upraised hand, serving as both a lighthouse and a symbol of progress.


The sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi of France, was enamored with the giant rock carvings of Pharaoh Ramesses II and his wife, Queen Nefertari, near the Abu Simbel site upstream on the Nile River past Aswan. He went on to study the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the Seven wonders of the Ancient World). His goal was to build a sculpture in height and breadth comparable to those other monuments he had studied. The rock carvings of Ramesses II were 70 feet (21 meters) high. The Colossus of Rhodes was 108 feet (32 meters) tall. Egypt, the statue, was designed to be 86 feet high on a pedestal of 48 feet.


Initially, the statue was intended to represent a female Egyptian peasant carrying a light. All well and good, but the connection did not make sense, and perhaps that is why the project did not fly. The Colossus of Rhodes was modeled after the Greek sun-god Helios. While Helios did not have a widespread cult across Greece, he and Apollo became synonymous over several centuries.


So, who was Egypt, the statue, supposed to represent? In sculptor Bartholdi’s mind, a goddess from the Roman Republic was the perfect model. Libertas, Goddess of Liberty, has been around for thousands of years. In 1848, she was depicted seated on the Great Seal of France, and that Great Seal is still in use today. On Roman coinage, numerous emperors show her standing in a robed toga with a staff in one hand and a pileus (a hat made of felt) in the other hand. When an enslaved person obtained his freedom in Rome, he shaved his head and wore a pileus to demonstrate his release to others. Here is the front side of a Roman coin issued by Brutus (yes, that Brutus) in 54 BC with the face of Libertas. Brutus’ family had a history of killing tyrant kings way before Rome became a Republic. As we all know, ten years later in 44 BC, Brutus conspires to kill another would-be dictator in the name of liberty.


So how does Egypt, the statue, relate to Libertas? It doesn’t. In 1867, Egypt, the country, was a subdivision of the Ottoman Empire. There was no liberty, in the classical sense, to be found. Egypt, the statue, was offered as a female fellah. A fellah was usually a landless farmer, a tenant farmer, or part of a sect that worked the land communally. After the Arab conquest of Egypt, fellah usually referred to the masses of peasants or farmers. However, when Christian Egyptians converted to Islam, the name changed to falih, which in the local dialect means “winner” or “victorious. Thus, the statue referred to Christians seeing the light and converting to Islam. Nonetheless, the Egyptian Viceroy thought the project too expensive and the statue too outdated and rejected it. A few years later, a 180-foot tall lighthouse was built at Port Said instead.


The sculptor, Bartholdi, remained determined to erect a colossus on the scale of the one in ancient Rhodes. In 1870, inspired by Édouard de Laboulaye’s idea to have a monument dedicated to embodying the values of freedom and democracy in the United States, Bartholdi designed the “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” which bore striking similarities with his previous idea for the Suez canal.


Of course, most of us know the rest of the story. Bartholdi got his friend Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower in 1889) to design Lady Liberty’s structure. The statue cost $250,000, paid for by French citizens and companies, not the French government. The pedestal for the statue cost an additional $100,000, paid for by 120,000 American citizens. From Civil War fame, General Sherman was authorized by President Hayes to secure a site for the projected monument in New York Harbor.


Libertas, the Statue of Liberty, or Lady Liberty, was dedicated in 1886 by President Cleveland. Bartholdi got his wish to build a colossal structure. The statue came in at 151 feet (46 meters) with a base of 154 feet. The Civil War had ended slavery in the US just 21 years prior, and personal liberty was trending worldwide. The statue was appropriate in its location and timing and the US became a bastion for immigrants wanting to get away from governments that promoted and endorsed fascism, slavery, socialism, and communism.


(Photo credit for clay statue: Barry Moreno, The Statue of Liberty)

(Photo credit for Statue of Liberty: Wikipedia Commons)


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