“The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a Muslim peasant woman and was to have stood at the approach to the Suez Canal,” writes Michael Daly in The Daily Beast, “a lantern in her upraised hand serving as both lighthouse and a symbol of progress.”
The idea that our symbol of Liberty started as a Muslim is a powerful rhetorical tool in the fight to allow desperate Syrian refugees come to the United States and the decades-old debate over the so-called “clash of civilizations,” and Daly’s post has gone somewhat viral.
But is it historically accurate? That’s a little more complicated.
French artist and sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi did propose a plan to the Egyptian government in the late 1860s for Egypt (Progress) Carrying Her Light To Asia, a massive lighthouse in the form of an Egyptian peasant woman (fellah) to be placed at the head of the new Suez Canal. Egyptian leader Isma’il Pasha eventually dismissed the plan as too costly – although in reality it was probably more of a political decision – and Bartholdi abandoned his lobbying efforts. He then began work on plans for Liberty Enlightening the World, which eventually became the Statue of Liberty.
Bartholdi didn’t have a religious intent in either project, so in a sense, describing Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia as a “Muslim” woman is like describing Liberty Enlightening the World as a “Christian” woman – it’s based entirely on location, location, location. In this day and age, an Arab figure in an Arab country is going to be perceived as Muslim; a Western figure in New York Harbor is going to be perceived as Christian. But Bartholdi’s influences were ancient and classical: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, the pyramids at Giza, Nubian and Assyrian statuary, Roman representations of Libertas.
Daly’s depiction of Bartholdi as instantly packing up and sailing to America “with drawings of the Muslim woman transformed to the personification of Liberty,” is one Bartholdi himself hated. As the fundraising for Liberty dragged on, some commentators at the time noticed how close the projects were in scope and design. “It was this that made an evilly disposed newspapers say, and others repeat, that I had executed a colossal statue for Egypt, which had not been used, and that I had resold it to the Society of the French-American Union in order that from it might be made the Statue of Liberty,” he noted in a fundraising pamphlet he wrote in 1885. He had only produced sketches and models for the Egyptians, and the project had never gotten out of the planning stages. “At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive, and the statue now in New York’s beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft,” he said in a newspaper interview.
It’s been argued over the years that Bartholdi was being less than honest in trying to put daylight between the two projects. Existing sketches of Egypt share many similarities to Liberty, and it’s clear from his archives that he didn’t start working on Liberty until Egypt was rejected.
However, an artist’s creative process is complex, particularly when an idea ebbs and flows over a period of decades. The idea for a colossal statue may have formed as early as 1855, when he first visited Egypt and saw wonders like the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. (“These granite beings, in their imperturbable majesty, seem to be still listening to the most remote antiquity,” he once wrote. “Their kindly and impassible glance seems to ignore the present and to be fixed upon an unlimited future.”) The idea for a colossal statue as a gift to the United States seems to have formed at a dinner party in 1865, two years before he began planning for the Suez Canal project. The concept and design process for both projects was deeply intertwined, but Bathroldi clearly thought of them as separate project – sisters, rather than duplicates.