The glass pyramid of the Louvre, La Défense, even the quaint “Monument to the Rights of Man” are known to be part of the French President François Mitterrand’s enigmatic building obsession. But Cergy-Pointoise’s “Axe Majeur,” the largest, is seldom cited as work developed under Mitterrand’s reign. Why is it so unknown?
When the pharaoh Khufu (or whoever) built the Great Pyramid, it probably would not have occurred to him that millennia later, his masterpiece would be remembered as the greatest monument ever erected by a head of state. Still, it is easy to believe that even in those days, the pyramid was seen as a major accomplishment.
In modern France, President François Mitterrand, who, indeed, was nicknamed “the Sphinx,” may also be remembered as a man who tried to accomplish similar ends. His modifications of Paris, especially the pyramid of the Louvre and the extension of the main Parisian axis towards La Défense, have captured the imagination of many, including Dan Brown and Robert Bauval. The latter wrote that this “Great Work” was a series of subtle modifications with a hidden, esoteric meaning in line with sacred Egyptian town planning and stellar alignments.
Some authors have also drawn attention to the “Monument to the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” a small building in the shadow of the Eiffel tower, modeled after an Egyptian funerary temple. It is aligned to the summer solstice when the sun at noon penetrates a shaft between its two columns. It is said that Mitterrand came here during the night, apparently to think, meditate, or reflect.
Few, however, have noticed one of the grandest, most enigmatic and impressive creations of Mitterrand’s regime: the “Axe Majeur” in Cergy-Pontoise, where one of the most infamous alchemists of all times, Nicolas Flamel, was born.
Unlike other new towns that derive their names from existing villages or geographical features, there was no previous place named Cergy. The story goes that someone noticed that paths in the upper part of the Axe Majeur (major axis), which was already integrated into the general layout of the project, looked like the letter Y and proposed naming the new town Cergy, the inversion of “Y Grec”—the Greek Y—in French. The letter Y was one of the favorite symbols of the Pythagoreans, indicating that the course of anyone’s life divided into the two paths—vice and virtue.
The axis is the primary feature of Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb of Paris, roughly between the city center and Charles de Gaulle airport. It is the creation of artist Dani Karavan and is the “soul” of this new town. It stretches for three kilometers; if future archaeologists ever stumble upon its remains, they may call it a ley line. Though many doubt that ley lines have earth energy attached to them, the “axe majeur” actually might. But, primarily, the axis was intended to inspire creative energy from the local community and offer the town’s inhabitants a place to walk, relax, and attend festivals.
Karavan, an artist born in Tel Aviv in 1930, devoted his life—from 1963 on—to monumental art. He started with the “Negev Monument” in the desert around Beersheba, and created similar works in Spain, Italy, Korea, and Germany, where, in Nuremberg, he created a sculpture in homage to human rights.
The idea for a feature at Cergy-Pontoise existed as early as 1975 and, in 1978, became more than just talk when Karavan’s works in Florence were noted by officials of the Cergy project. A long exchange of letters began, and in 1980, Karavan visited the town and accepted the project, making a wooden model over the next month which he submitted for approval.
The idea of the “Axe Majeur” thus predates Mitterrand’s regime which began in May 1981. This may explain why it does not feature on his list of Great Works. But, as was so often the case with this enigmatic French leader, things are not so simple. Even though Karavan’s project predates his Great Works, it still is—remarkably—the last to be completed. Hence, it is the concluding statement providing the closing period for everything that went before.
Mitterrand’s Great Works were constructed not only in a precise location, but also in a precise time frame. The greatest, size-wise, was La Défense, or the “Grand Arche de la Défense,” commissioned in 1982 and completed in 1989. A gigantic inverted U-shape, the structure was meant to express Masonic and Pythagorean symbolism. The design was by Johan-Otto von Spreckelsen, who called it a “porte cosmique”—a cosmic door, or star gate. It sits at one end of the major axis that runs from the Louvre through the Champs Elysées. Bauval has noted that on specific days of the year, the sun can be seen to set along this axis, its disc framed by the Arch.
In front of the Arch, there is the commercial center of the “Four Times” (a reference to the four ages of the esoteric tradition, the Age of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron). Here, time and space have become entwined.
But it was no coincidence that the Arch itself was inaugurated on July 14, 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, while the G7 Summit was hosted in Paris. As Jules Boucher observed: “It were, of course, seven masters that participated in the search.” Seven is, indeed, one of the most holy numbers. And, of course, the letter G is an important Masonic letter, referring to God. Masons normally depict the letter G in the center of the Blazing Star. All of these “coincidences” make it clear that Mitterrand was working to a preconceived timeline, with subtle clues containing major significance.
Before focusing our attention on the “Major Axis,” indeed, its name suggests that there is a smaller axis. This “Minor Axis” runs from the local train station with the “place de l’Horloge,” a giant watch, which is visible from one end of the Major Axis. Hence, both Minor and Major Axes are linked, especially in time, as indicated by the giant watch. Time is also a primary component of this Great Work.
Furthermore, just as the Minor and Major Axes interrelate, some have argued that the “axis” of the Champs Elysées is also integrated with the “Axe Majeur.” A plotting of the two axes shows that they cross—or link—on an island in the river Seine, in the town of Carrières-sur-Seine. Coincidence, or design?
The “Axe Majeur” has gone through several phases, and it remains a work in progress. As a whole, it has twelve stations, some of which are more recognizable than others. They are: the observation tower, the “place des colonnes Hubert Renaud,” the Impressionists’ Park, the Esplanade de Paris, the terrace, the garden of Human Rights Pierre Mendes France, the amphitheatre, the scene, the bridge, the astronomical island, the pyramid, and the “Carrefour du ham.”
The axis is thus a complex artistic realization, involving several components. Its point of origin is a tower, known as the “Tour Belvédère,” a phenomenal structure, rising to a height of 36 meters. Originally, the now square tower—with sides of 3.6 meters each—was intended to be circular. It sits in the center of a semi-circle of buildings and at the center of a ring of 360 paving stones, each 36 centimeters on a side. The axis commences, cutting its way through the 3.6 meter opening between the two semi-circular buildings. The number 36, incidentally, is clearly a key in the overall design.
The tower thus acts as a solar gnomon casting its shadow on the surrounding pavement, while the axis throws itself in between buildings created by Ricardo Bofill but which were not originally part of the design. The two are oriented exactly East-West. One is a semicircle symbolizing the sky, oriented westward, while the other, half a square, symbolises the earth, oriented eastward, the inversion of the traditional orientation. Bofill incorporates the same orientation in two other buildings located on top of the highest hills around Paris.
On the other side of the building are well-maintained gardens in which apple trees grow. It is said to be an homage to the impressionists that loved to paint the countryside and especially fruit trees that were covered by flowers in springtime. Of course, the apple is a very symbolic fruit, which might make us wonder about the fact that Mitterrand labeled one of the skyscrapers to be designed around La Défense “Eve.” Unfortunately, the first series of planted trees did not produce any apples. In 2007, new trees were planted—which hopefully will bear fruit.
Much has been made about the Glass Pyramid of the Louvre, if only because of its prominent inclusion in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown adjusted the number of glass panels to 666, to imbed even more symbolism. But what is often overlooked is that to make room for this structure, some of the old—and beautiful—paving stones of the “Court Napoleon” had to be removed. The stones were carefully dug up and transferred to Cergy-Pontoise, where they are now positioned in a semi-circle, an official part of the “Axe Majeur.” Coincidence? Or design?
It is not the only Louvre connection which raises eyebrows. Perhaps the signature feature of the Axis is the enigmatic group of twelve columns with the same dimensions as those of the arch of the Carrousel at the Louvre. These twelve columns, as well as the twelve components that make up the axis, underline that apart from the number 36, the number 12 is equally important. Twelve and 36, of course, are no strangers to each other. Twelve is a primary number in the zodiac and timekeeping, whereas 36 and 360 were key features of the Egyptian calendar—a time, and a place, of which Mitterrand was enamored. In fact, some argue that Mitterrand believed he was the incarnation of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some believe these twelve columns also refer to the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem, and some claim that the Arche de la Défense is also built on twelve columns. Its outer shape is that of a cube, as the New Jerusalem is described in the Revelation of St. John, though it is empty (even as in the Axe Majeur where the twelve columns support nothing), while the New Jerusalem, although containing no temple, is filled with God’s Glory.
The site’s “ley line” connection is concretized between the slabs that were formerly in the Louvre and the twelve columns: the “Fountain of Vapors,” which was designed to evoke the geothermic qualities of the site where underneath resides a hot water reservoir. One might even wonder whether this feature—less impressive than most others on this line—may nevertheless have been one of the primary reasons the axis was located as it was. The vapors emanate from the Dogger Phreatic layer, found at a depth of 1000 to 1500 metres beneath the Ile de France. Its temperature varies from 56 to 85 Celsius degrees and is used to provide heating to 34 locations, Cergy being one of them. Some observers have thought the vapors rising from below symbolized the Underworld.
From the twelve columns, a series of steps descends to the river Oise below. It is in this garden that the personal involvement of François Mitterrand can be proven: on October 18, 1990, he planted an olive tree, which had been specially imported from Vinci in Italy. Some may wonder whether that was a coincidence, or a symbol, and whether this is yet another, if not the actual, Da Vinci Code—or Vinci Code.
The project was conceived as one whole, yet certain sections were constructed only at precisely set times. Though this would often be given ordinary practical explanation (funding, a special occasion, etc.), sometimes, its phased realization resulted in higher costs. Hence, some have suggested that the project had a prescribed or secret timeline which was not necessarily communicated to all. So, because of a timeline that both preceded and post-dated the French President, the idea that the project was Mitterrand’s Great Work has ofter been rejected, but such purely three-dimensional considerations might be totally misleading.
Though conceived in the 1970s, it was only in 1986—well into Mitterrand’s regime—that the first three sections were completed: the “Place de la Tour”, the “Tour Belvèdere” itself, and the “Vergers des Impressionistes”—the apple tree garden. Then, on August 26, 1989, the year France was celebrating its bicentenary and six weeks after the G7 summit in Paris, the twelve columns were inaugurated in the presence of 10,000 people. The following year, the laser light between the Tour and the Carrefour du Ham became operational, materializing the layout into an axis of light. The following year, Mitterrand personally visited the site— to plant a tree. Any Great Work has an idea, a realization, and a completion. And the realization clearly involved Mitterrand.
The third and lowest level of the Axis involves structures around the river and an artificial lake. No doubt the most ingenious of these is a pyramid that seems to be emerging from the lake’s surface and which sits just off the axis itself. The pyramid was completed in 1992 and is meant to symbolize the harmony between Man and Nature. It was designed so that the wind, one of the Four Elements, would play with its layers causing a type of natural music to be created on this island reachable only by boat. Those who make the journey will find the pyramid is hollow and open on one side, revealing a blue azure-like interior. By coincidence or design, it has become a breeding site for migrating birds. Are they to represent the Egyptian Bennu bird—the phoenix—or are they instead references to those birds that carried the soul of the deceased? Or is it just coincidence?
For several years, little if anything happened. Then, in 2002, a red bridge was added to the complex, which crossed the river. In 2007, work began on the last stage of “the Path” which made it possible to walk from one end of the Axis to a circular island next to the submerged pyramid: the “Astronomical Island.” This island is intriguing, both in visual appearance and in name, providing a stellar connotation to the project. The remnant of an old sand pit, the island is equally unfinished, as it is expected eventually to see the installation of a sundial, a meridian stele, an observational staircase, and various other instruments that will make it true to its name. Whatever the axis of the Champs Elysées might represent, it is clear what the Axe Majeur is meant to be.
As mentioned, in 2007 the bridge over the Oise was extended so that it would finally reach the island. Why someone would build a bridge in 2002 and then wait five more years to build a relatively small extension that would complete the design is a question which a few have posed. The reason cannot be funding and it is clear that the timing was intentional and that, indeed, the entire project has followed a specific timeline. As with any sacred building, the creation of sacred space requires a knowledge of sacred time. And only by mixing those ingredients, correctly, can one perhaps realize the Greatest of Works.
This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 9 (2007).