Saturday, January 10, 2009

Napoleon's Tomb

Rising high in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, of humble Corsican birth, would rise to lead France's armies to triumphant victories and staggering defeats. He also revolutionized French law and schools. He has long been a hero of France, and his elaborate tomb in Paris is one of the sights that every visitor should really see.

Built at Les Invalides (pronounced "lays on-vah-leed"), the former hospital and retirement home for wounded soldiers, Napoleon's tomb occupies the place of honor in a symbol of the glory of the French military.

Unlike popular belief in some countries (notably mine), the French were historically an extremely warlike people. From the ancient times to the Crusades and the wars they started naming based on how many years they took to fight (The Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War) to the Napoleonic Wars and through World War One, the French have always managed to field an army and mix it up. World War One sapped much of their will to fight for a time, but that does nothing to diminish the rich history of the French military, and Les Invalides is one of the best places to explore that history.

I won't focus on the excellent museums for this post, but will say that they include ancient artifacts, room after room of arms and armor, artillery pieces, tanks, machine guns and hundreds of uniforms. Even if you're not at all into military history, it's worth a quick breeze-through. If you get a museum pass (you really should), it won't even cost you any extra.

Topped with an ornate gilded dome, Napoleon's Tomb was built to resemble the Pantheon, and when it is lit up at night, it would satisfy even the ego of the legendary Napoleon.

Even though he abandoned his armies in Egypt and Russia, the notoriously short Emperor of France was revered by his troops. On his return from his exile on Elba, French soldiers were sent by the restored Bourbon monarchy to stop him. Napoleon addressed them, asking if they would really fire on their beloved leader. One of the soldiers supposedly dropped the ramrod of his musket down the barrel, where it clanged, showing the firearm was unloaded.

Even after Waterloo, the French military adored Napoleon. His mark can be seen throughout the city, in part of the design of the Louvre, the Arc d'Triomphe and, of course, his tomb.

As I walked through the door the first time I visited Les Invalides, I wasn't sure what to expect. The inside of the building was reminiscent of a church, but adorned with military displays and the tombs of other great French military leaders, most notably Marshall Foch, leader of the French armies in World War One.

Walking to the railing surrounding the circular hole in the ground floor, I gazed down on the red marble tomb that holds the remains of one of the most intriguing men in history. The tomb itself sits on a pedestal, which is surrounded by statues of angels. At the base of the tomb is an inlaid wreath of laurel leaves, resembling the emperor's crown. Outside that are the names of his most famous battles, including Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland. They were battles in which he revolutionized warfare, and gave the relatively new French Republic something to rally around.

Rotating displays on the ground floor contain artifacts from the man. The first time I was there, orders he issued to his elite Imperial Guard were under display cases, and diagrams of their uniforms sat nearby. The next time, Napoleon's own gray cloak stood in a case with one of his swords and hats. Most recently, a portrait of the general and some of his personal notes were on display.

I walked down the stairs to the subterranean level where his tomb stands, and I read the names of the battles, recognizing most of them from history books or movies. I looked again at the tomb, and suddenly really wished I could somehow talk to the man inside, who had accomplished so much, be it the Napoleonic Code of laws, revolutionizing the French school system or perfecting the divide-and-conquer strategy, in such a short time.

As I headed out, I stopped to look at Marshall Foch's tomb, with an effigy of him held aloft by poilus (literally "hairy ones," poilus was the nickname for French soldiers in World War One). It struck me as ironic that Napoleon had been such a problem for Europe that an elaborate alliance system had been formed to prevent a repeat. That alliance system had, in turn, been directly responsible for the escalation of World War One, which left one-third of French fighting-age men dead.

Napoleon plays such an important part in French history that his tomb should be at least in the top-15 things to see when you go to Paris. I happen to like it best at night, when the lights reflect off the golden parts of the dome. It is visible from most of the high places in the city, including Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.

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