With the current debate in the US about refugees from the Muslim world, it would be interesting to highlight some little-known facts about Lady Liberty. It might be shocking to many to know that the statue itself was originally intended to represent a female Egyptian peasant as a Colossus of Rhodes for the Industrial Age.
People are more familiar with the statue’s French roots. Yes, Lady Liberty was given to the United States by France for its centennial to celebrate the alliance of the two countries formed during the French Revolution. However, this fact doesn’t deny the Arab/Muslim roots of the statue.
So, what’s the real story behind Lady Liberty?
The statue’s French designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, found inspiration in Egypt. In 1855, he visited Nubian monuments at Abu Simbel, which feature tombs guarded by gigantic colossus figures. Bartholdi became fascinated by the ancient Egyptian architecture. Moreover, the young man was enchanted by the project underway to dig a channel between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Eventually, he channeled that passion into a proposal for the inauguration of the Suez Canal.
At Paris world’s fair of 1867, Bartholdi met with the Khedive, the leader of Egypt, and proposed creating a work as wondrous as the pyramids or sphinxes. He then designed a colossal woman holding up a lamp and wearing the loose fitting dress of an Egyptian veiled peasant, to stand as a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal. The statue was to stand 86 feet high, and its pedestal was to rise to a height of 48 feet. Early models of the statue were called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.”
However, The Egyptian deal fell through, so Bartholdi didn’t lose hope and decided to adventure to America to pitch his colossus.
But, how excited were Americans about the possibility of giving a home to this new monument?
Initial fundraising and support was extremely lackluster. It took about 15 years, with the statue completed and assembled in a neighborhood of Paris, before the American citizenry finally began to embrace it.
When it was unveiled in October 1886, women’s rights groups lamented that an enormous female figure would stand in New York harbor representing liberty, when most American women had no liberty to vote.
Only two women attended the actual unveiling on what is now known as Liberty Island: Bartholdi’s wife, and the 13-year-old daughter of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who had designed the Suez Canal.