THE PLACE DU CAIRE is a triangular Parisian square at the northern end of the 2nd arrondissement. Flanked by rue d’Aboukir and rue du Caire, place du Caire lies in the heart of an area of Paris known as a multicultural textile and garment manufacturing district and more recently, home to many Internet start-up companies.
Along with the Passage du Caire, one of the oldest Parisian passages couverts, the place du Caire dates from 1798. Both the Passage du Caire and place du Caire take their name from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, a place much in vogue at the time as Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798 – 1801) was unfolding. As well as the military objectives of defending French trade interests and weakening Britain’s access to India, Napoleon also took a group of scientists with him to establish scientific enterprise in the region. The scientists began to describe and illustrate the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, from the geology, flora and fauna to the various ancient structures. This gave rise to a fascination with all things Egyptian, a fascination that manifested itself on the streets of Paris.
The oriental influence was reflected in some of the street names, rue du Caire, rue d’Aboukir and rue du Nil for example, but also in architecture. One example of this is the neo-Egyptian building in place du Caire.
It was built in 1799 and the large heads ornamenting the façade represent the goddess Hathor, who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. Above Hathor is an Egyptian inspired decorative frieze and vaguely Moorish arched trefoil windows.
Maison de style néo-égyptien sur la place du Caire- Photo d’Eugène Atget, 1903
While the place du Caire unashamedly boasts its Egyptian influence there is another chapter in this Parisian square’s history that is less obvious.
In medieval Paris a large portion of the population relied on begging for survival. Since begging was a competitive business, those with the most severe handicaps could expect more alms. It was therefore quite common for beggars to fake unsightly infirmities, injuries or dieseases. Once their day’s work was done, the beggars would return to their slums where miraculously the blind could see again and the crippled walk. This phenomenon gave the generic name to these areas where so many ‘miracles’ occurred every day: the cour des miracles, the courtyard of miracles.
The cour des miracles as imagined by Gustave Doré in an illustration to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Referring to the cour des miracles in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pierre Gringoire, the struggling playwright and philosopher says, “Miracles, upon my soul! Here the blind see, and the lame run.”
The cour des miracles were the haunts of thieves, beggars, prostitutes, pimps and other marginalised people. In Paris there were a dozen of them, the most famous of which was in the Sentier district between place du Caire and rue Réaumur. This is the cour des miracles Victor Hugo was referring to.
Hugo’s cour des miracles consisted of three interconnected courtyards, the main one being the loop formed by the rue de Damiette and rue des Forges. It was accessed by the present day rue du Nil, or by an alley, now disappeared, at 100 rue Réaumur.
N°100 rue Réaumur – once an entrance to the cour des miracles du Sentier,
Work to clean up the cour des miracles began in 1667 when Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, holder of the new office of Lieutenant General of Police, was charged with curbing the growth of crime but it wasn’t until 1750, when some of the slums were demolished and more respectable trades like blacksmiths and fishmongers moved in that improvement began. The last vestiges of the old cour des miracles were eliminated with the Haussmannisation of the area in the 19th century.
Listening to and recording the sounds of Paris is my way of exploring the city. The sounds invariably arouse my curiosity about the social and cultural history of the places in which they occur. It was listening to the sounds in the place du Caire for example that led me to discover the Egyptian connection and the history of the cour des miracles.
But as well as opening a window on the social and cultural historical connections, for me at least the sounds of a place have an absolute value in their own right. Listened to attentively, sounds can paint a picture of and tell a story about a place.
So what does the place du Caire sound like?
Today, the place du Caire still has its share of mendicants but no more than many other areas of the city. On a normal working day it’s a hustling, bustling, multi-cultural part of the city with people going about their every day business.
Sounds in the place du Caire on a normal working day:
So, is this what the place du Caire sounds like?
Well, yes it is – at least some of the time. But there are times when it sounds completely different, when the sounds have a different story to tell.
More sounds in the place du Caire:
I recorded these sounds last Monday, a public holiday in France, when all the boutiques and the passage du Caire were closed. In this different atmosphere all the sounds usually subsumed by the more aggressive sounds of a normal working day are now free to take centre stage.
The piece begins with the sound of a man with an artificial leg walking by; not a refugee from the former cour des miracles but a middle-aged man out for a stroll with his wife. A mendicant wearing sandals approaches me but then thinks better of it. The normally drowned out sounds of pigeons cooing can clearly be heard. The sound of passing two-wheelers fuelled by testosterone is inevitable. The most characteristic sounds are those very familiar to Parisian apartment dwellers like me – the sounds of an apartment gardien on one side and a gardienne on the other bringing out the refuse bins and lining them up on the trottoir ready for collection later in the day. There is even the sound of a lady, under the gaze of Olivier Brice’s ‘L’Homme au Bras Leve’, walking her cat on a leash.
For those just passing through the place du Caire, the sounds to be found there on a normal working day will perhaps be the most familiar. But I hope I have shown that these sounds don’t represent everything the place du Caire has to say.