visit the store The Pyramid of Austerlitz
by Philip Coppens The Pyramid of Austerlitz, outside of the Dutch city of Utrecht, has, at first sight, little mystery attached to it. We know when it was built. By whom. And even for what purpose. Or do we? Is there more to one of very few pyramids ever built on European soil?
We know the when. And, of course, the where. Austerlitz, as it is now known, is located in the center of the Netherlands. The “Zeist Camp” where it was erected dates back to what the Dutch have labelled “the French time”, the first decade of the 19th century, when the country was controlled by the French. The Zeist Camp was chosen as the location for the French troops that were stationed on Dutch soil because of its central position. Their leader was the French general Auguste de Marmont, a man who should probably be better known as he was one of the long-time friends and closest people to the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte.
Auguste de Marmont was born on July 20, 1774, into a military family from Châtillon-sur-Seine. His father tried to calm his son’s interest in the military, sending him to Dijon to learn mathematics before allowing him to inscribe in the artillery (the only branch of the military he felt comfortable for his son to join), where he soon met Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, he would become the General’s aide-de-camp, remained with him when the General was disgraced, and accompanied him on campaigns in Italy and Egypt. Napoleon once offered him his sixteen year old sister Pauline, the future Princess Borghese, but de Marmont refused the offer, saying he was too young to marry. However, he was apparently old enough to have an affair with the wife of a French captain who was stationed abroad. A child, Perrotin, was born and he would later publish his father’s memoires. In 1798, Marmont acquainted the daughter of the President of the French Bank, Anne Marie Hortense Perrégaux. They were married two months later, on April 12, 1798. She left to stay with his parents in Châtillon-sur-Seine, while her husband almost immediately left for Egypt.
An army of 18,000 people was lodged at the Zeist Camp, causing almost impossible problems on the local infrastructure and economy, who were often confronted by demands from de Marmont that were clearly not issued by someone who did not realize that the local villagers could not perform miracles when it came to water and food supplies.
The soldiers were primarily trained so that they would be prepared to stave off an English invasion, but as the troops were ready and no invasion came, the general decided to use this labour force for the creation of a lasting monument – a pyramid. To quote Marmont: “The troops had attained the highest level of efficiency, so I wished to occupy them differently. I had the idea to create an everlasting monument, which future generations in the centuries to come would remind them of our presence on this plane as well as immortalize the victories through which France and its leader had made the French weapons so renowned. But how would one construct such a monument? Here was the sum of my deliberations. A memorial constructed by the army needs to have a special character, which identifies its strange origins. Foremost, the work needs to be able to be divided amongst many hands; secondly, it should have cost the creators little or nothing, as soldiers are generally poor. […] The memorial should capture the attention because of its size, not for its artistic merit. It had to elevate the soul of future generations and so I had the idea that the names of the officers and soldiers who worked on it should be inscribed. The result of my thoughts was that I decided to construct a pyramid made of earth, covered with grass, where the sides would form an angle of 45 degrees with the ground surface. Such a simple, lasting monument would be protected from the destructive force of time; only the passions of men would be able to destroy it. It would create an effect in this region, for in a flat country like Holland a pyramid of such gigantic dimensions would appear to be a veritable mountain.” The pyramid was constructed from sand and earth, but it is said that the Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt was the inspiration for its erection. Marmont himself had seen the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World when he had campaigned with Napoleon in Egypt. Though he saw the pyramids, de Marmont was stationed in Alexandria, pretty much charged with making sure the city survived.
Wars come at a cost and Napoleon needed more money, which he hoped to receive from the “Batavian Republic”. Six million guilders were requested from the Dutch and when the ambassador initially refused, Napoleon decided to send Marmont to Amsterdam to “insist”. Four years later, de Marmont would return to the Netherlands, to be in charge of the French troops, which he would soon employ in the construction of his pyramid. He envisioned a pyramid like the Great Pyramid, with a flat top, upon which he would erect a wooden obelisk. De Marmont informed Napoleon that the monument was built for him, noting the wooden obelisk would not last long, but the pyramid itself would withstand the ages and would be seen from many provinces, because he had specifically chosen high ground for this marvel.
Construction of Marmont’s pyramid was vastly quicker than the Great Pyramid. The first mention of the idea dates back to September 4, 1804, when shovels and other tools were ordered, while construction began on September 9. At a massive table, the medals of the Legion d’Honneur were handed out, followed by an inspection of the troops and an outdoor banquet for which 240 people had been invited. The day culminated in a firework display. The real work began the following morning, at 5.30 am. The first task was to level the construction field. A dry moat was installed around the entire area. Everything was now ready for the construction of the pyramid and de Marmont himself participated by carrying sand, making sure his bag of sand was the first to give rise to the pyramid.
After six days, the pyramid measured eleven metres. It took a mere 27 days before the structure rose to its final height of 36 metres. A central core at the top remained open; here, in leaden containers, the names of the men who had participated in this work was going to be placed, before this would be filled up. On top of this stood the thirteen meter high obelisk, which had taken five more days of construction.
In March of 1805, four plaques were delivered that would each grace one side of the pyramid. Each plaque would be visible from the four approach roads to the pyramid. Everyone was allowed to climb the pyramid, though there was someone on guard; there was even a small prison, so that any trespassers could be locked up!
Remarkably, though de Marmont had built the monument, though everyone knew it as “Marmont mountain”, he had never asked for building consent from the local landowner. He realized this did not guarantee “everlastingness” for his pyramid, and so on April 16, 1805 he bought all the grounds involved with his pyramid, including a mansion known as Henschoten. On September 5, 1805, de Marmont was once again in front of a notary, as he left the use of Henschoten to three soldiers, Louis Faivre, Jean Baptiste La Rouche and Barend Philpsz. It was their task to maintain the pyramid, as well as cultivate the lands that came with the property.
Marmont, with army, left the Netherlands in 1805 for Germany and would never return. It is in the ensuing military campaign that the Battle of Austerlitz would signal Napoleon’s defeat over the Russian and Austrian troop. As a tribute to this event, on August 2, 1806, the new king of the Netherlands, Louis Napoleon, renamed the “Marmont mountain” as it had come to be known to “Pyramid of Austerlitz”. De Marmont was obviously not pleased when he learned of this news in 1807. On March 24, from his headquarters in Spalato (Split, Croatia), he wrote a letter saying that laws had been flaunted in this decision, for on October 22, 1805, the government had indeed officially listed the structure as “Marmont pyramid”.
In this letter, de Marmont states that the reason for the construction was that the entire region would remember the name of the French ruler – de Marmont. Some have observed that de Marmont showed his true colours here, for officially, the pyramid had been built in honour of Napoleon! But it seems Napoleon was aware of his friend’s ambitions, as he sometimes referred to him as “King Marmont”. The Dutch king did not change his decision. The pyramid was hastily built, and hastily began to show signs of aging – prematurely. The wooden obelisk soon began to mimic the Tower of Pisa. A heavy storm during the night of November 20, 1805, completely toppled it. An eagle which had graced the top of the obelisk was removed, stored in safety. The obelisk was re-erected again, but by May 1807, it was once again leaning and was known to cause potentially serious damage if another strong wind swept through the complex. Everything was done to get it straightened out, a task that lasted two months but didn’t help. It was eventually removed on orders of King Louis on July 12, 1808, while the remains were sold at public auction. The problem was that there simply was no foundation to the structure on top and the pyramid was… just a pile of sand.
The pyramid itself was in need of restoration, but once done, the central staircase leading to the top began to collapse, while the stone plaques disappeared. It is said that over subsequent years, the locals used everything they could use from the pyramid, and it seems the three guards left by de Marmont did not or could not protect it.
Disappointed, in 1816, de Marmont sold the pyramid and the surrounding land to the Hubert M.A.J. van Asch van Wijk, who would later become mayor of the nearby city of Utrecht. It was at this time that three French soldiers/guards left their duty, each receiving 2000 guilders from de Marmont to help them on in their life; the donation was well-received by each of them.
Once, de Marmont had great plans for this pyramid: he wanted to see it covered with stones, work that was costed at 72,750 guilders and which was subsequently never accomplished. He always knew that the wooden obelisk would not last long and it was his intention to create an enormous statue on the top of the pyramid, made from cannons that would be conquered in future battles. But those victories never came and so it seems that de Marmont decided to sell, a year after the Battle of Waterloo.
It is accepted knowledge that the pyramid inspired the “Lion of Waterloo”, a pyramid-like hill built by King Wilhem I in Eigenbrakel, near the Belgian capital of Brussels, to remember the Battle of Waterloo, which signaled Napoleon’s demise. The hill marks the location where Wilhem’s son was injured in battle. One can wonder whether the Pyramid of Waterloo was meant to “oppose” the Pyramid of Austerlitz, seen as an everlasting symbol of the power of Napoleon.
After Napoleon’s defeat, de Marmont was made a peer of France and a major-general of the royal guard, as well as a knight of the Order of the Holy Spirit and a grand officer of the Order of St Louis. Later troubles meant that he followed the king in exile, which meant that he was never allowed to return to France. He wandered in Central and Eastern Europe, before he settled in Vienna. He died at Venice in March 1852, the last living Napoleonic Marshal. In 1894, Johannes Bernardus de Beaufort, who was owner of the domain, as well as mayor of Woudenberg, the town to which Austerlitz belonged, decided to recreate the obelisk on top of the mountain. This time, the structure was made in stone. It too, though, soon began to lean as, like the wooden obelisk, the structure was once again without an adequate foundation.
The pyramid remained in a sorry state throughout the 20th century. Efforts were made to open it to the public, but this was not always a safe or profitable idea. The bicentenary of the pyramid would occur in 2004 and so a series of renovations were carried out from 2001 onwards. But the weather conditions were not co-operating with the – in retrospect – shoddy restoration works. The dry summer of 2003 meant that the steps did not settle well, while heavy rainfall in 2004 caused new problems for the structure’s stability. A new restoration occured in 2007 and 2008, successfully this time, for in 2008, the pyramid could finally be opened to the public, in a manner that visitors could actually climb the hill, thanks to the installation of a metal framework. De Marmont So, no mystery. Or is there? The monument was officially completed on Sunday, October 12, 1804, with great festivities and a firework display. On the surface, the date would have been chosen as it was a Sunday and therefore ideal for a festival. But the next day was October 13, the date primarily linked with the demise of the Knights Templar. Though there is no real historical evidence to link the Templars to the Masons, there is definitely a symbolic link between both organizations. And it was specifically in Napoleon’s time that Masonry was responsible for merging the ancient lore of Ancient Egypt and the story of the Knights Templar into one, new myth. As Napoleon was a Mason himself and influenced by their thinking, was there some importance in completing this pyramid in time for the date associated with their demise?
Equally, what did de Marmont mean when he said that the monument had to display its “strange origins”? From his own explanation, there appears to be nothing strange about it.
Further analysis has shown that the pyramid is part of an alignment, linked with the “slot Zeist” and the St Joris Church in Amersfoort. There would even be connections to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Pyramid in Egypt itself, which would mean that de Marmont was far more than we give him credit for.
We definitely do know that the site was chosen quite specifically, to do with it being high ground, so that people could see it clearly, and it was clearly meant to be seen much further than what is visible today. It was also located – approximately – in the centre of the Netherlands and could thus be seen as a “navel” – a centre – which is what pyramids are often depicted to be in mythology. And so, whether intentionally or not, de Marmont created a pyramid that fits neatly in line with what pyramids were all about: linked with the power of the king, located in the centre of the universe, to display his control over it. And – not coincidentally – replaced with the pyramid hill of Waterloo, when Napoleon’s regime had collapsed. For then too, a new pyramid needed to be built!