Post link 23 November 2015, 4:32
America's most famous statue was Muslim before she became Lady Liberty
The Middle Eastern origins of the Statue of Liberty

By Ishaan Tharoor November 20, 2015

A view of the Statue of Liberty as seen from the air near New York City, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
It's perhaps the most iconic American landmark -- the giant copper statue, turned green with age, holding aloft its lamp of liberty from the harbor of New York City. The Statue of Liberty is accompanied by a plaque with the full sonnet "New Colossus" by American poet Emma Lazarus, a poem which ends with these famous words:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" message of that poem has not been heeded of late, with a slew of U.S. politicians rushing to clamp down on Syrian refugee arrivals. But it would perhaps surprise some of the country's would-be guardians that this statue, this great symbol of American freedom, has its origins in the Middle East.

The statue's designer, the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had initially dreamed up the project of erecting such a "colossus" during a trip to Egypt in his early 20s. He marveled at its many epic ancient sites, while in the company of a number of European Orientalist painters: "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," he wrote.

The opportunity to fashion something new out of this vision of antiquity arose during the 1860s, while French builders worked on the Suez Canal. Bartholdi approached the ruler of Egypt, Isma'il Pasha, with a proposal: a huge new colossus at the mouth of the canal of a robed woman holding up something looking like a torch.

America's most famous statue was Muslim before she became Lady Liberty to one account, the figure was supposed to resemble an Egyptian peasant, bearing a jar known as "balfalis," a vessel that symbolized good fortune and plenty. The statue was supposed to represent "friendship" and "free navigation," and would have had the words "Egypt, the Beacon of Asia," carved at its pedestal.

But Isma'il Pasha, who had numerous other money troubles, balked at the $600,000 asking price for the statue's construction. And so Bartholdi transported his ambition to American shores, and redesigned his "beacon of Asia" along American principles.

As a historian of the statue notes, contrary to popular opinion, it was not a "gift" from France to the United States -- but rather got funded by myriad private donations on both sides of the Atlantic, with Bartholdi playing the part of a spirited, savvy showman. It was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.

As the Daily Beast's Michael Daly wrote earlier this week, the statue's global legacy is important to remember when considering the rather polarized conversation now over immigration and refugees.

"When we welcome and aid the tempest-tossed, from Syria or anywhere else," wrote Daly, "we put to a lie what our enemies say about us."

You Lie Because You Are Scared