19 November 2013

Ahmed the gargoyle

Like all monuments exposed to the perils of pollution, the Cathédral St. Jean-Baptiste in Lyon is constantly having to be cleaned and renovated. Even though the cleaning is done by laser nowadays rather than high-pressure water, which tended to scratch off yet more of the fine sandstone, sometimes the delicate centuries-old structures are so worn away by acid rain that they need to be replaced completely.

In 2010, it was decided that a gargoyle on the north wall of the cathedral - on the left-hand side if you're facing the front - had reached the "point of no return". Sculptor Emmanuel Fourchet was therefore given the task of designing and producing a suitable statue that might take its place. 

Fourchet duly sculpted a winged beast with a long tail and a human head. With permission from the relevant authorities, Fourchet continued an age-old tradition, modelling the head of the gargoyle on his friend and long-time colleague Ahmed Benzizine, the foremen responsible for the renovation of the cathedral for the last three decades. However Fourchet  wanted to surprise his friend, so he kept it a secret.
Ahmed Benzizine and "his" gargoyle

Of course the secret soon leaked out, and although he was flattered by the homage, Benzizine – a practicing Muslim – was embarrassed that his moustachioed visage would adorn the cathedral. He therefore shaved off his moustache so that he would no longer resemble the new gargoyle. Unperturbed, Fourchet simply chiselled the stone moustache off the gargoyle, thus making muse and sculpture identical again.

Unbeknownst to his employers, however, Fourchet also carved the words "God is great" into the base of the gargoyle in French and, in recognition of his friend's cultural background, the equivalent text in Arabic next to it. There's nothing wrong with that, you may think. After all, the gargoyle was made for the cathedral. 

Except that the Arabic expression is "Allah akhbar", an Islamic term which literally translates as "Allah is greater".

Honi soit qui mal y pense
So now Lyon's most important Roman Catholic church has a Muslim gargoyle which appears to be declaring that Allah is greater than God. It's not often that you see that on a Christian building.
Locate Ahmed the gargoyle on Google Maps

1 comment:

  1. I have been reading "Invisible Paris" for a long time, and now look forward to reading "Invisible Lyon.
    Always intrigued to see that the best writing about France is always by expats.
    Best regards,
    Marc Piel


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