Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A visit to Versailles

A visit to Versailles has always been an event, including for a long line of distinguished Middle Eastern visitors, writes David Tresilian


Adam Frans van der Meulen, Construction of the Château de Versailles

Even today, a visit to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris follows a certain protocol. First, there is the queue to buy the ticket. Then, there is the even longer queue to enter the palace itself. Finally, there is the inevitable X-ray machine and security check that makes a visit to Versailles today a bit like turning up at an airport.

It has not always been like this. Before the French Revolution in 1789, elaborately costumed royal guards in gorgeously embroidered uniforms would greet visitors to Versailles, even if they would then turn away the less-important ones among them. While a visit to Versailles is still something of an event today, it does not compare to what it once was, or perhaps still is for important visitors.

Following a tradition going back to the reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, in the late 17th century, France still puts up its most important visitors at Versailles. Russian President Vladimir Putin met French President Emmanuel Macron at Versailles when he visited France in May last year. US President Donald Trump, on the other hand, visiting the country some weeks later, was met at the Invalides in central Paris, site of the emperor Napoleon’s tomb, though he did then get to attend France’s Bastille Day military celebrations.

The tradition of receiving important foreign visitors at Versailles thus has a very long history and one crossing successive monarchical and republican regimes. It is this history that is on show at a current exhibition at Versailles entitled simply “Visitors to Versailles” and running until 25 February. As the exhibition reveals, Putin is by no means the first distinguished Russian visitor to be hosted at Versailles, since tsar Peter the Great was also put up there by king Louis XV in 1717. Distinguished American visitors have included Benjamin Franklin, received by king Louis XVI at Versailles in 1778, followed soon afterwards by Thomas Jefferson as the new American republic’s ambassador to the French court.

Over its long history Versailles has by no means only hosted European and North American visitors. Middle Eastern delegations have also made their way to Versailles, and the exhibition commemorates two of these in the reception of the ambassadors of Persia (Iran) to Versailles in 1715 and the visit of the ambassadors of the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman Empire) in 1742.

Palace of Versailles

The visit by Persian Ambassador Mohamed Reza Beg to Versailles on 19 February 1715, the last presided over by Louis XIV, was typical of others throughout the century not only because of the determination of both sides to impress, but also because of the suspicion of ulterior motives. Both the ambassador and the king put on a magnificent show, with the exhibition recording that Mohamed Reza Beg entered the palace gates on horseback accompanied by his entourage to the met by Louis XIV in the famous Hall of Mirrors surrounded by members of the court.

Yet, “the purpose of the ambassador’s visit is highly uncertain,” the exhibition comments. “His entourage was somewhat mediocre, as were his presents to the king, and some suspect that he was just a provincial official on a visit for his own pleasure.”

If so, Mohamed Reza Beg carried off the visit with great aplomb, even engaging in private discussion with Louis XIV. While the visit does not appear to have had any particular results, it is believed to have inspired the French philosopher Montesquieu to write his Persian Letters in 1721 presenting the views of fictional Persian noblemen travelling in France.

Another important Middle Eastern visit to Versailles took place in 1742 with a reception for the ambassadors of the Ottoman sultan. “No ambassadors had been received in the Hall of Mirrors since the Persian Embassy in 1715, and when the visit of Mehmed Said Efendi, ambassador of the Sublime Porte, was announced, the custom had been somewhat forgotten,” the exhibition says. In the event, Louis XV received the ambassador seated on his throne flanked by the dauphin (the heir to the throne) and various princes of the blood.

The Ottoman sultan Ahmet III had already sent Mehmed Said’s father to Versailles in 1721, when he was received by a very young Louis XV, then aged just 11, but crowned in 1715. The purpose of the ambassador’s 1742 visit was clearer since a letter from the Ottoman grand vizier, presented to the king, promised the empire’s support for France in the War of the Austrian Succession that was fated to rumble on until 1748.

In the great power politics of the day the Ottoman Empire was still very much a player, and the empire’s European territories comprised most of the Balkans including Greece and what is today Romania. France was keen to secure support from the other European powers against Austria. Prussia and Russia were worth a try, and if that failed there was always the Ottoman Empire, though in the event it did not join the war.  


PALACE DIPLOMACY: One of the features of the absolute monarchy established by Louis XIV in France towards the end of the 17th century was its emphasis on public display. Versailles was designed to be a kind of magnificent stage-set for the display of royal power, and in order for it to fulfil this function it had to be open to visitors.

Rather like the guidebooks and souvenirs produced for tourists today, 18th-century guides to Versailles described the sights that would amaze and impress visitors to the palace, among them the figure of the king himself. Royal power was as nothing if it could not be displayed, and even humble visitors to the palace, assuming they were properly attired, could expect to witness one of the royal rituals put on to show it.

According to the exhibition, popular events for royal-watchers included the king’s daily procession to the palace chapel, occasional perambulations around the grounds, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the royal dinner. Apparently even visiting commoners could be admitted to watch this in progress, and it was usually accompanied by a small orchestra. Perhaps it was a bit like the kind of royal walkabouts still put on in some countries today in which crowds turn out to catch glimpses of the monarch.

The mix of extreme formality and almost casual encounters with power that could take place at pre-Revolution Versailles explains some of the otherwise almost incomprehensible comments by 18th-century visitors, who could give the impression that they were on almost conversational terms, or at least in remarkably close proximity, with members of the royal family.

There are the notorious remarks of the reactionary Irish writer Edmund Burke, for example, who claimed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France published after the first stages of the French Revolution that “it is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France [Marie Antoinette] at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendour and joy.”

Needless to say, Marie Antoinette could hardly have been expected to know who Burke was, and protocol would have made it impossible for her to notice him. Burke would have been one of a crowd of visitors gawking at the queen and following what already in the 18th century had become regular tourist itineraries from Paris.

However, such display had an important point, which was to project French power. When the Ottoman ambassador visited in 1742, he came in order to discuss a possible alliance against Austria, ironically later a leading ally of pre-Revolutionary France. When Benjamin Franklin visited Versailles in 1778, causing a small sensation for what were already perceived as his blunt American manners, it was in order to cement the Franco-American alliance against Britain.

Similarly, when the ambassadors of the Indian ruler Tipu Sultan, king of the state of Mysore, visited Versailles in 1788 it was also in an attempt to rally French support against the British. Tipu Sultan was an implacable enemy of the British East India Company and its attempts to swallow up the Indian sub-continent, and he hoped that Louis XVI would continue French attempts to dislodge the company from it.

Unfortunately, by the time the ambassadors arrived at Versailles Louis’s own position was looking distinctly shaky. Not only had France almost bankrupted itself in the race for global pre-eminence with Britain, but the king’s diminishing authority in the face of sharp domestic polarisation made further foreign adventures impossible. The Indian ambassadors thus left Versailles empty-handed in 1788, though Tipu Sultan made further attempts at enlisting French support against Britain during Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 Egyptian expedition.

“Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to India to join the forces of Tipu-Sahib [Tipu Sultan] and drive away the English,” wrote Napoleon on setting out from the southern French port of Toulon. Just two years later he was back in Paris, having lost to the English in Egypt and raised the whole of the Middle East against him.  

Visitors to Versailles, Palais du Versailles, Paris, 25 February.

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