Thursday, January 13, 2011

London and Paris: Historic Cities

EiffelTowerandBigBenGleaming new cities are arising or being rebranded in the Middle East and Asia.  One striking example  is Shanghai, the Chinese metropolis of nearly 20 million people, which has gone from colonial entrepot to world-class colossus.

But the great cities of the Old World remain, a testament to centuries of history.  There are   few cities which rival London and Paris for their achievements, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Although  different in many ways, there are a number of parallels which underscore the similar experiences of each capital.

Both have had myriad leaders of every type.  But it can be—and has been—contended that Winston Churchill is the greatest Briton.  This nearly anachronistic imperialist came out of the political wilderness to lead the nation through its most trying time.

Churchill greatly admired Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the reigns of his adopted country in the midst of the French Revolution.  Napoleon clearly ranks as the most notable French historical figure.  The French emperor, of course, was a conqueror, while Churchill sought to save and maintain the British empire.

There is a shrine to Napoleon in Paris, the emperor’s tomb in the Dome Church, part of the Hotel des Invalides.  The sarcophagus dominates an enormous gallery.  Churchill greatly admired pomp and circumstance but his democratic shrine can arguably be said to be the recreation of the Cabinet War Rooms, which highlight the prime minister at his zenith.

It is significant that in London, the great source of parliamentary government, the most recognizable structure is the Houses of Parliament, where Churchill served for 60 years.  The significant landmark of Paris is surely the Eiffel Tower, the late-19th-century structure which emphasizes French aesthetics and science. 

Both cities can boast of extraordinary museums, the British Museum and the Louvre.  The British Museum, which dates back to 1753, has amazing collections in many fields, including Egyptology.  The Louvre, once a fortress, became a museum during the French Revolution.  The British Museum holds the great Rosetta Stone while the Louvre exhibits the Code of Hammurabi.

Religion has played an important role in both countries.  Britain was an early stronghold of Protestantism.  Great formal religious ceremonies, some clearly reflecting political authority, are held at Westminster Abbey, which dates back at least 1,000 years.  Paris’ Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral was begun in the 12th century and has seen as much history as the Abbey.

Two of the most historic European rivers course through these cities, the Thames in London and the Seine in Paris.  The Seine, twice as long, has its mouth at the English Channel.  Few rivers have attracted as much attention over the centuries.

Both countries have a strong artistic heritage.  The written word has loomed large in London, and the greatest English man of letters has been William Shakespeare, whose Globe Theatre was near the Thames.  Paris is more closely associated with painting and sculpture, and the list of French artists includes Delacroix, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet and Rodin. 

Similar yet different, London and Paris have had an important impact on Western civilization for nearly a millennium.  Two cities immersed in history, they continue to thrive, instruct and amaze.

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