The golden dome over Napoleon’s Tomb can be seen from all over the city. To some history buffs, especially those interested in military history, the golden dome marks the final destination of something akin to a pilgrimage. To many others the golden dome of Les Invalides is just another pretty building in Paris. No matter what your interests, Napoleon’s Tomb is well worth the short walk from the Eiffel Tower.
Napoleon’s Tomb sits in the Église du Dôme, or Dome Church, built in 1706. The church is part of a larger complex in the 7th arrondissement of Paris called Les Invalides. The group of buildings, as its name denotes, was originally built as a hospital and home for veterans. The Musée de l’Armée (A French military museum), two other museums, fifteen courtyards, and the burial sites of many other French war heroes are now part of Les Invalides.
The French Baroque architecture of the Dome Church was inspired by the grand dome of Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. Architect Thomas U. Walter was impressed by the Église du Dôme on a visit to Paris and used it as inspiration for the design of the U.S. Capitol Building. San Francisco City Hall is also said to have been inspired by the Dome Church.
As beautiful and imposing as the outside of the church is, the inside may be more impressive. The heavy bronze doors used to enter the crypt are forged from cannons used at Austerlitz, one of Bonaparte’s greatest military victories.
Napoleon’s sarcophagus is the focal point of the église, sitting directly under the 351 ft. tall, painted, golden dome. The remains of the “Little Corporal” are encased in six separate coffins. The interior one is made of iron, the next mahogany, then two of lead, and one of ebony. The outer coffin is made of red porphyry (a volcanic, slate-like rock). The tomb sits on a green granite centerpiece surrounded by twelve pillars, known as the pillars of victory. Throughout the main room there are reliefs, statues, and inscriptions commemorating Napoleon’s victories.
Many other French military heroes find their final resting place at Les Invalides. Two side chapels contain the tombs of Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph and Jerome Bonaparte. There is a statue depicting soldiers carrying the coffin of Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during World War I, at his grave site. Les Invalides also contains the hearts of some French heroes, their bodies resting other places. Sébastien Vauban, a military engineer known for his skills at building and using fortifications, is one of the Frenchman whose heart was placed at Les Invalides.
Also not to be missed, especially by military enthusiasts, is the Musée de l’Armée. The military museum at Les Invalides houses statues, pictures, weapons, and equipment from every military era. There are suits of armor, artillery pieces, paintings, and over 500,000 other military artifacts.
The Musée de l’Armée and Tombeau de Napoleon was my second stop in Paris, only after the Eiffel Tower and Champs de Mars. Whether you’re a history buff or not, Les Invalides is definitely worth a visit and only costs a few euro.
A LITTLE ABOUT NAPOLEON BONAPARTE
The man who, at the height of his power, would rule Europe from Moscow to Gibraltar was born in Ajaccio, Corsica. Napoleon attended the Ecole Militaire (military school) in Paris. The French revolution opened the doors for people to advance based on merit and not just class. Napoleon, a gifted and ambitious officer, took full advantage of the new opportunity and quickly rose through the ranks. After suppressing an uprising in 1795, Napoleon was given command of the Army of Italy.
Napoleon achieved fame from his actions in Italy by beating back the Austrians with soldiers who were starving and barefoot at the beginning of the campaign. Napoleon then took his army to Egypt to disrupt England’s trade routes. Bonaparte turned the Egypt campaign, that was ultimately fruitless, into a public relations win at home. He had quickly taken Alexandria and won the Battle of the Pyramids making him more famous.
In 1799 Napoleon successfully overthrew the government of France and became First Consul. France was involved in constant war after that. The monarchs of Europe didn’t like a democratic France giving their people any ideas about self-rule. When Napoleon took power they didn’t like his ideas, such as the Napoleonic Code (including freedom of religion and merit over privileges based on birth), any better.
In 1803, needing money to finance constant war, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.. In 1804 he made himself Emperor. Napoleon won many famous battles on his road to power; Lodi, Pyramids, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland to name a few.
Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 started the decline of his empire and the invasion of Russia in 1812 sealed it. He was exiled to Elba in 1814, but returned to take power again in 1815. After Napoleon’s historic defeat at Waterloo he was sent into exile again, this time to the more remote island of St. Helena.
Bonaparte died on May 5th, 1821. He was buried on St. Helena until King Louis-Phillipe had his remains brought back to France. Napoleon had a state funeral in paris on December 15, 1840. He was buried at St. Jarome’s Chapel at Les Invalides until April 2, 1861 when he was moved to his current resting place at the Église du Dôme.