by Angkor Database
What is the origin of the "Iron Palace", often called "Napoleon" or "Suez", erected in the precinct of the Royal Palace of Cambodia in the 1860s or 1870s?
Publication: ADB Online Research Document #45
Author: Angkor Database
Languages : English, French
It is now the oldest building of Phnom Penh Royal Palace, the "Napoleon III","Suez", "Iron" or "Felicity" Pavilion, depending on sources. But what is its history, exactly?
Nowadays, the structure is still called 'Prasat Napoleon' or 'Prasat Dek' in Khmer by the people of the palace, according to sources close to the Royal Palace in January 2024, ប្រាសាទដែក, 'Prasat Dek', meaning The Iron Palace. All buildings of the Palace being sacred, they hold the name prasat, kh: ប្រាសាទ, th: ปราสาท, derived from Sanskrit prāsāda प्रासाद, for 'castle', 'palace' or 'temple'. Adhémard Leclere [see below] stated in 1916 that it was called Palais Doseti or Dosoeti, an awkward transcription of Tusati (Pali) and Tushati (Sanskrit) [see below].
We've been attempting to weave our way through French colonial accounts, and a few remaining Cambodian sources, to retrace the origin of this iron, steel, brick and mortar structure that takes us back to the troubled times of King Norodom I's reign.
Independent researcher Philip Coggan raised the delicate subject in his July 25, 2021 contribution to CNA, The Unknown Origin of The 'Napoleon' Pavilion, hinting to the hypothesis that said pavilion was bought by Cambodia-based middlemen for King Norodom at the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris. We didn't locate any reference to that cast iron structure in the abundant literature devoted to that Exhibition, and anyway we have found traveler's accounts showing that the 'iron house' was on the Royal Palace grounds as early as 1870.
Before that, Jacques Népote, in his 1973 PhD thesis on Le palais royal de Norodom I: description et analyse structurale de la symbolique du Palais Royal de Phnom Penh, conceded that "we know nothing, or practically nothing, about the Palace before 1920." The researcher noted that the Pavilion has been "quite miraculously spared" during the successsive remodelings of the Palace, first in the 1940s, then with the 22 September 1958 inauguration of the krum uttam priksa raja pallank (High Council of The Throne), for which the 'Winter Palace' had been demolished but the "Pavillon de Suez" a été miraculeusement épargné et subsiste à moitié enserré dans ce nouveau bâtiment." [“ the 'Suez Pavilion' was miraculously spared and remains half-enclosed in this new building.”] While endorsing the Ismailya-1876 reassembly version, this author contributed two important facts: 1) King Norodom himself called the pavilion braḥ dināṃṅ tusti, "Place of Tushita", Place of Joy, then known as vimean tusti, Chariot of Felicity, and "more simply" as damnak daek, "Iron Residence" (p 196); 2) the Pavilion was erected "astride the kambaen kaev, south of the Throne Hall", as part of the "modernization" of King Norodom's palace (p 86).
Royal biographer and Royal Palace historian Julio Jeldres is not entirely satisfied with the widespread version of the origin of the pavilion, a version initially put forward by French colonial administrator Paul Collard in his Cambodge et Cambodgiens, Paris, 1925 (p 94), : "Le veritable essor de Phnom-Penh date de l'epoque a laquelle S.M. Norodom vint s'y fixer, le representant de la France s'y etablissant également. Le commerce trouva dans cette installation definitive la protection, la securité, toutes les garanties dont il a besoin et que complete une position géographique merveilleuse. Depuis 1866, le palais ne cessa de se batir dans l'enceinte de murs crénelés dont il s'etait enveloppé. En 1869, le gouvernement francais offrit au roi le chalet d'ou l'imperatrice Eugenie avait assisté a l'inauguration du canal de Suez. Norodom en fit sa demeure. ll trouva charmantes les galeries circulaires, les croisees a vitraux, les fines colonnes en fer forgé. Elles forment, du reste, un ensemble élégant et coquet. Et, depuis la couronne imperiale qui en surrnonte le dome jusqu'aux ecussons portant l'initiale de Napoléon, commune aux deux princes, tout rappelait au monarque cambodgien le souverain de l'Occident qu'il disait considérer comme son pere et dont il gardait un pieux souvenir." ["The real growth of Phnom Penh dates back from the time when H.M. Norodom came to settle there, and the representative of France also established himself there. In this definitive installation, commerce found protection, security, all the guarantees which it needs and which complements a marvelous geographical position. Since 1866, the palace has continued to be built within the enclosure of crenellated walls with which it was surrounded. In 1869, the French government offered the king the chalet from which it Empress Eugenie had attended the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Norodom made it his home. He found the circular galleries, the stained glass windows, the fine wrought iron columns charming. They certainly form an elegant and stylish composition. And, from the imperial crown at the top of the dome to the crests bearing Napoleon's initial, common to the two princes, everything reminded the Cambodian monarch of the sovereign of the West whom he said he considered his father and whose he kept a pious memory."]
Problem is: at this stage, we have found not a single evidence of 1) the fact that this elegant structure was gifted by the French emperor, or by the Third Republic which took over France after Napoleon III's abdication and exile in 1870; 2) the fact that it had been first erected in Egypt for Empress Eugénie. One version still given at the Royal Palace is that the pavilion was initially built for that purpose - the Suez Canal inauguration on 17 November 1869 - but never assembled there.
As for the "N" monogram, the one in Phnom Penh does not look like the ones used by the French emperor during his reign:
The earliest account? Merchant Navy Captain L. Charles at Phnom Penh Royal Palace, 1870
In Cambodia in 1870 to solve the case of a Chinese bussinessman, "Captain L. Charles" recounted in his 1881 publication: "Un jour, je rencontrai le roi; j'eus peine à tenir mon sérieux. Entouré de sa garde, Nom-Rodon avait une tenue bizarre: coiffé d'uhe casquette de général de division, le torse couvert d'un gilet blanc semblable à une veste de pâtissier, sur le tout le grand cordon de la Légion d'honneur; jambes nues, les reins ceints du pagne. Il se montra charmant. Lefaucheur m'invita de sa part à visiter sa petite maison. On lui avait construit un pavillon insensé. La température du Cambodge est d'au moins 35°. Figurez-vous un local étroit, presque rempli par un billard, le tout garni de tapis en laine, une seule porte. «Mon cher, dis-je à Lefaucheur, en s'enfermant la avec quelques légumes, du poivre et du sel, et en poussant la porte, vous ·aurez le pot-au-feu.» Sans rire, cet interprète modèle me répondit : «Sa Majesté est satisfaite.» ["One day, I met the king; I had difficulty maintaining my seriousness. Surrounded by his guard, Nom-Rodon wore a strange outfit: a division general's cap on his head, his torso covered with a white vest resembling a pastry chef's jacket, the great cordon of the Legion of Honor on top of it; bare legs, his loins girded with a loincloth. He welcomed me charmingly. Lefaucheur invited me on his behalf to visit his little house. They had built him an insane pavilion. The temperature in Cambodia is at least 35°. Imagine a narrow room, almost filled with a billiard table, all lined with wool carpets, only one door. "My dear fellow," I said to Lefaucheur, "by locking yourself in there with a few vegetables, pepper and salt, and pushing open the door, you will have the stew ready.” Without laughing, this model interpreter replied to me: “His Majesty is satisfied.”]
French Navy doctors Roux and Vidal mentioning a visit to the Pavilion in 1879
"Quinze jours au Cambodge, Moeurs, Coutumes, Superstitions, Légendes: Excursion dans les provinces de Roléia-Paier et Compong-Leng", par MM. L.C. Roux et J.M. Vidal, Officiers du Corps de Santé de la Marine (Souvenirs intimes), Société Languedocienne de Géographie (3 installments, June, September and October 1884 [Vidal mentions he wrote the account in 1882])
"Le palais du roi, une des curiosités de la ville, est l'ensemble de constructions les plus disparates, de tout âge et de tout genre, qu'on puisse imaginer. Des jardins et des cours quelquefois spacieuses séparent certains bâtiments les uns des autres, donnant ainsi à l'enceinte de toutes ces habitations une étendue considérable que délimitent de hauts murs festonnés et percés à intervalles égaux de grandes portes. Sur le frontispice de ces portes, hautes de sept à huit mètres, on remarque les trois lettres N. R. M., trois consonnes du mot Norodom, surmontées d'une
couronne royale. Quand on pénètre dans le palais par la porte principale qui fait face au mât de pavillon royal, point autour duquel stationnent les quelques bateaux composant la flottille de Norodom, le premier local qu'on rencontre affecte la forme d'une riche pagode cambodgienne et porte le nom de salle du trône. Ce nom désigne assez son importance et sa destination. Quant à son intérieur, il présente divers genres de décoration, parmi lesquels bon
nombre de fresques ou imitations de fresques, couvrant le plafond, et laissant voir distribuées, en autant de panneaux, les nymphes les plus variées de la mythologie. [....] A gauche de la salle du trône, et disposés parallèlement à elle, on voit divers bâtiments, sortes de grands hangars dans lesquels l'air circule en toute liberté, les murs de soutien étant ici remplacés par des colonnades en bois, peintes ou dorées. Le plus important de ces bâtiments est réservé aux danses des femmes et aux représentations particulières que de rares artistes, de passage à Phnom-Penh, viennent donner au roi c'est, en somme, la salle des fêtes du palais. Toujours sur la gauche et après cette ligne de constructions, vient une vaste cour rectangulaire, qui donne accès à la maison de fer construite il y a quelques années et où le roi reçoit le plus souvent. Avant d'y arriver et un peu sur la droite, on remarque un kiosque élégamment dressé et servant à abriter la musique du palais. C'est la que les musiciens Tagales viennent jouer pour le Roi quand le besoin s'en fait sentir. D'autre part, le jeudi ou le dimanche, vers cinq heures du soir, ces artistes se transportent dans le jardin du protectorat français pour y exécuter les plus beaux morceaux de leur répertoire, composé en grande partie de danses et airs espagnols.
On arrive à la maison de fer après avoir gravi une douzaine de marches. Cette construction, tout en fer comme son nom l'indique, s'élève sur un soubassement carré, est entourée de vérandahs et possède un étage que surmonte un belvédère cet étage, absolument inoccupé, pourrait servir au besoin de salle de réception. Au rez-de-chaussée, la pièce principale est un salon plus long que large, meublé à l'européenne, sur fond bleu. Une table ronde en occupe le milieu, et sur cette table richement surmontée de divers objets d'art, la plupart en métal précieux, l'observateur distingue forcément le crachoir de Sa Majesté, petite urne en or massif enrichie de pierres précieuses. C'est là que nous étions reçus le plus souvent, lorsque j'accompagnais mon collègue, que son service réclamait au palais. ["The king's palace, one of the city's curiosities, is the most disparate collection of buildings, of all ages and types, that one can imagine. Gardens and courtyards, sometimes spacious, separate certain buildings from one another. others, thus giving the enclosure of all these dwellings a considerable extent which is delimited by high scalloped walls pierced at equal intervals with large doors. On the frontispiece of these doors, seven to eight meters high, we notice the three letters N. R. M. , three consonants of the word Norodom, surmounted by a royal crown. When you enter the palace through the main door facing the royal flagpole, the point around which the few boats making up the Norodom flotilla are stationed, the first room you encounter takes the shape of a rich Cambodian pagoda and carries the name of throne room. This name clearly indicates its importance and its destination. As for its interior, it presents various kinds of decoration, among which good
number of frescoes or imitations of frescoes, covering the ceiling, and showing distributed, in as many panels, the most varied nymphs of mythology. [....] To the left of the throne room, and arranged parallel to it, we see various buildings, sort of large hangars in which the air circulates freely, the supporting walls being replaced here by colonnades in wood, painted or gilded. The most important of these buildings is reserved for women's dances and the special performances that the rare artists passing through Phnom Penh come to give to the king; it is, in short, the palace's banquet hall. Still on the left and after this line of buildings, comes a large rectangular courtyard, which gives access to the iron house built a few years ago and where the king most often receives. Before arriving there and a little to the right, we notice an elegantly erected kiosk used to house the palace's music. This is where the Tagales musicians come to play for the King when the need arises. Furthermore, on Thursday or Sunday, around five o'clock in the evening, these artists travel to the garden of the French protectorate to perform the most beautiful pieces of their repertoire, composed largely of Spanish dances and tunes.
We arrive at the iron house after climbing a dozen steps. This construction, made entirely of iron as its name indicates, rises on a square base, is surrounded by verandas and has a floor topped by a belvedere. This floor, absolutely unoccupied, could be used as a reception room if necessary. On the ground floor, the main room is a living room, longer than it is wide, furnished in European style, with a blue background. A round table occupies the middle, and on this table richly topped with various objects of art, most of them in precious metal, the observer inevitably distinguishes Her Majesty's spittoon, a small urn in solid gold enriched with precious stones. This is where we were received most often, when I accompanied my colleague, whose service was required at the palace.]
"Je me souviens encore de la première visite que je fis au roi en 1879, me trouvant de passage à Phnom-Penh. Le Dr Hahn, médecin do la marine, qui devait m'introduire, m'avait bien recommandé de ne point être sobre de paroles, le roi aimant beaucoup à causer avec les Français. En ce temps-là, le monarque était soi-disant souffrant, et le Dr Hahn avait mission d'aller le visiter tous les soirs. Sur la remarque que je lui fis, que Sa Majesté pourrait bien ne pas être aise de me recevoir, il me répondit qu'elle était prévenue de ma visite et que son indisposition était trop légère pour en tenir compte dans cette circonstance. Là-dessus, nous arrivâmes à la maison de fer et fûmes bientôt introduits dans le petit salon. Après les salutations et présentations d'usage, nous nous assîmes sur un sopha, le roi occupant
le milieu de l'appartement et ayant à sa gauche M. Faraut, qui faisait alors office d'interprète. Tout d'abord, mon collègue prit la parole pour demander au roi des nouvelles de sa santé puis, ayant donné quelques renseignements et indiqué quelques prescriptions, la conversation roula sur toutes sortes de sujets, et finalement sur la pluie et le beau temps. ["I still remember the first visit I made to the king in 1879, finding myself passing through Phnom Penh. Dr. Hahn, a naval doctor, who was to introduce me, had advised me not to be sober in speech, the king being very fond of talking with the French. At that time, the monarch was supposedly ill, and Dr. Halin had the mission to go and visit him every evening. On the remark that I made to him , that Her Majesty might not be happy to receive me, he replied that she had been informed of my visit and that her indisposition was too slight to take it into account in this circumstance. Thereupon, we arrived at the iron house and were soon introduced into the small living room. After the usual greetings and introductions, we sat on a sofa, the king occupying
the middle of the apartment and having on his left Mr. Faraut, who then acted as interpreter. First of all, my colleague took the floor to ask the king for news of his health then, having given some information and indicated some prescriptions, the conversation turned to all kinds of subjects, and finally to the rain and the good weather.]
"[...]Dans l'écusson royal, qui surmonte l'autographe que nous donnons ci-contre, on remarque sur fond blanc et surmontée de la couronne royale à sept étages, l'épée sacrée du royaume reposant couchée surdeux vases superposés, deux urnes en métal précieux au-dessus desquelles brille une flamme. Cette épée porte le nom de Phra-Khan, et elle fut donnée jadis par Indra aux rois du Cambodge. On prétend qu'au moment des guerres civiles et
comme signe précurseur de noirs événements, l'arme sacrée se recouvre alors de taches de sang mais, dès que vient la fin des troubles, on ajoute que ces taches disparaissent comme par enchantement." [In the royal crest topping the autograph, we notice on a white background and surmounted by the seven-tiered royal crown, the sacred sword of the kingdom resting lying on two superimposed vases, two precious metal urns above which a flame shines. This sword bears the name Phra-Khan, and it was once given by Indra to the kings of Cambodia. It is claimed that at the time of civil wars and as a harbinger of dark events, the sacred weapon is then covered with stains of blood but, as soon as the troubles end, it is added that these stains disappear as if by magic."]
American bussinessman Frank Vincent's account from his 1872 visit to Norodom I
from The Land of the White Elephant, pp. 279-288. The detailed description refers to the first buildings erected by the French Protectorate for King Norodom, from which we can deduct that the Cambodian sovereign was not residing in the 'Iron House' in 1871-1872, but was using it as his "private office".
"The palace is but just completed. It was planned and its erection was superintended by a French architect,
but it was built throughout by Cambodian workmen. The construction and furnishing is thoroughly European in nearly every part. Entering at the grand central door, the hall leads direct to the reception room, and this opens into the parlour. Upon the right of these rooms is the dining-room, and upon the left 8the library, staircase, and billiard-room. Billiards? Yes, verily, and the King of Cambodia plays a 'good safe game.' In the rear of this building are the apartments of the harem, and not at all ill-looking were many of the saffron-powdered damsels the stranger chanced to espy. The ceiling and walls of the parlour were frescoed in as fine style as many in Grosvenor Square or Fifth Avenue ; upon the floor lay a velvet carpet ; the window frames held panes of stained glass ; upon a large bow-window were the King's arms and name - Ong Somdetch Norodom Phranarowdom - and below the word 'Campuchia' (Kamphuxa, or Cambodia). The walls were hung with elegant mirrors and paintings ; upon the marble-top centre table was a set of gold chewing (betel) and smoking apparatus ; upon side tables were costly clocks, barometers, Chinese and Japanese carved ivory goods, bronzes and vases; and from the ceiling depended a beautiful chandelier. There is, however, no gasometer yet working in Panompin [Phnom Penh], but surely it would not be a very long step in advance of the numerous modern importations of the palace.
"The dining-room contained black walnut furniture, and upon the side-boards were massive silver table services. On the walls were large steel engravings of 'Napoleon Ill at Solferino,' and 'Prince Malakoff at Sebastopol.' Upon one of the tables was a music-box, about four feet long by two in width - a magnificent instrument, manufactured in Paris. His Majesty having obtained the key, wound it up for our amusement. It played eight selections from popular Italian operas in a sort of orchestral style-there were flutes, drums, cymbals, and bells. But the most curious and wonderful part was a bird, about two inches in length, which stood in a small grotto of leaves in the side of the box,
and which would turn to the right or left, raise its wings, open its mouth-disclosing the tongue-all in correct time to the music. It was a perfect marvel of mechanical skill, and would bear the closest inspection. This bird was covered with fine feathers of natural hue, and no joints could be detected even when it turned its head. Thinking it might prove an interesting novelty, I showed the King the calendar-dials of the days of the week and of the month-upon my watch; but he had one of that kind, he said, and having fetched it, strange to say, the watch was made by the
same firm in Geneva as my own. But there were some improvements other than mine possessed, and some differences in their mounting. The King's watch told also the month and the stages of the moon - new, full, and the quarters - and was besides a repeater. The cases were most elegantly jewelled; upon the front was a row of large pearls round the rim, and within this circle was the crown, composed of rubies, +sapphires, topazes, and emeralds, and below the royal cypher N. in diamonds of different sizes ; a large diamond was set in the extremity of the stem-winder ; the reverse had also a circle of pearls, and within it the coat of arms or seal of His Majesty most elaborately carved and engraved-in low relief-and in Etruscan gold. This watch was made, at the King's
order, in Geneva and Paris, and cost 5.000 francs.
"We next went into the billiard-room, which was gaily decorated with what might be styled ' rather fast'
pictures; upon one of the tables was another gold betel set, one of the urns being nearly of the size of a half bushel measure and entirely of gold. The Cambodians and Siamese will possess none but the genuine metal. Some of their articles they stain red, others a deep yellow ; both are beautiful, and the engraved arabesque work is superb and very different from anything we have in the West. Crossing the hall we next entered the library, which is furnished in green throughout; the walls were covered with green paper; the Brussels carpet was of a dark green, and the leather-seated and backed chairs were of the same colour. Upon the walls were .la rge maps of the different continents of the world and fine engravings of Napoleon Ill. In one corner was a glass case, containing a small collection of books upon general literature in the French language, uniformly bound in red morocco, with the King's arms stamped upon their covers. In another corner was a large geographical globe and some portfolios of maps and charts, and in another a black walnut writing-desk, with proper materiel. A magnificent bronze clock adorned the mantelpiece, and upon the centre table, besides large piles of books and a. student's lamp, were two marble statuettes, busts, the one of (wonders will never cease) Goethe and the other of Schiller. The King seemed to take much pride in calling attention to various articles in this room, though he probably understood their uses or applications less than the contents of any other room of the palace.
His Majesty then led the way upstairs, where the rooms were of the same size and arrangement as those below. The parlour and sitting-room were but little less elegantly furnished than those on the first floor. Two of the rooms contained small glass cases, in which were placed gold and silver fete and dinner services and the European cut-glass dinner sets ; they were furnished with marble-seated sofas, clocks, and mirrors, and the ubiquitous gold betel and tobacco utensils. The two remaining apartments were used as bedchambers: that of the King was rather plain in its furnishing ; the bedstead was of black walnut, similfar to our own ; the pillows only were different, being little, hard, square bags, with gold-embroidered ends. The King presented me with a small lace bag, which contained, he said, a dozen different kinds of flowers, and with similar ones his bed was always perfumed, after the Cambodian fashion. The toilet service was of gold ; the floor was covered with matting, and a few engravings hung upon the walls. The other bedroom was similar in contents, except that some of the pictures were rather plain-spoken ; the toilet service of this chamber was silver, manufactured in European style. Then we all went up to the observatory, where a small telescope is mounted, and stepping out upon the roof enjoyed an excellent view of the river and adjacent country; but little of the city, however, could be seen, owing to the dense vegetation. An iron ladder leads to a small platform still higher. His Majesty did not wish to ascend, but the interpreter and myself mounted, and
were rewarded by a little more extended view. While upon the roof the King reiterated again and again that in building this palace he only and solely wished to surpass any edifice of like nature in the city of Bangkok, and it must be admitted he had succeeded."
And then, page 291: "Directly before the palace building is the private office of the King, a handsomely furnished little room where His Majesty receives all visitors on business; behind it are the reception halls,
in process of erection and nearly completed. These buildings, built of brick, with tiled roofs and gaily
ornamented in the Siamese style, are quite imposing." Now, could this have been the "Iron House"? It does fit Roux& Vidal's descriptions a few years later.
It is impossible to precisely date Moura's account, only that it should have occured between the end of 1872 (since he mentions that he had accompanied King Norodom I during the royal visit to the Philippines in August 1872 'a little while ago', and January 1879, when he left Cambodia for France after representing the French Protectorate for almost eleven years. The "beautiful, European-shaped house" on the rightern side of the Throne Hall is not described, but it could have been a structure different than the typical colonial-style buildings, since it was "much admired by the Cambodian people". Jacques Népote (op.cit., p 85) thought that building mentioned by Moura to be the vimean akas, the Phimeneakas.
"Un mur d'enceinte en carré de quatorze cents mètres de développement entoure les constructions et les jardins de la résidence royale. De la porte d'honneur qui s'ouvre sur la face orientale, on découvre l'immense salle du trône, recouverte de toits à pentes raides, avec fronton armorié et surmonté d'une immense trompe d'éléphant relevée et dorée. A la droite de la salle du trône, on distingue une belle maison de forme européenne, qui fait l'admiration des Cambodgiens et dont le plan est dù à un architecte français. De l'autre côté de la salle du trône sont deux hangars contigus, couverts de pailles de riz, sous lesquels le roi donne journellement audience à ses mandarins. C'est aussi là que les danseuses de la cour vont exécuter leurs intéressants ballets les jours de fête. Ce palais tient un espace immense, où sont disposés avec assez d'ordre des établissements de toute espèce : un atelier de forge et d'ajustage, des ateliers de peinture, de dorure, de sculpture, d'orfèvrerie, une caserne ct des corps de garde, la trésorerie, le secrétariat, des salles d'attente spéciales pour les Européens, les princes, les bonzes, les mandarins, une salle de dépôt pour les palanquins et les parasols royaux, une école, des remises et écuries, des magasins, etc." ["A square outer wall fourteen hundred meters long surrounds the buildings and gardens of the royal residence. From the Celebration gate opening on the eastern face, we discover the immense throne hall, covered of steeply sloping roofs, with an armorial pediment and surmounted by an immense raised and gilded elephant's trunk. To the right of the throne room, we can see a beautiful European-shaped house, which is much admired by Cambodians and drawn by a French architect. On the other side of the throne room are two adjoining sheds, covered with rice straw, under which the king daily gives audience to his mandarins. This is also where the dancers of the court will perform their interesting ballets on feast days. This palace takes up a vast space,where establishments of all kinds are arranged in a fairly orderly manner: a forging and fitting workshop, painting, gilding, sculpture, goldsmith workshops, barracks and guardhouses, treasury, secretarial office, special waiting rooms for Europeans, princes, monks, mandarins, a storage room for palanquins and royal parasols , a school, sheds and stables, stores, and so on."
in L'Univers Illustré, September 1875
The "artist's view"engraving above came with the following text: "Le dessin que nous reproduisons a la page 576 représente un pavillon en fer destiné pour S.M. le roi du Cambodge. On peut voir en ce moment cette élégante construction, toute montée, dans les ateliers de M. Ducros, ou ont éxécutées les magnifiques grilles du parc Monceau. A diverses reprises déja, Sa Majesté cambodgienne, dont on connait toutes les sympathies pour la France, s'est adressée a l'industrie de notre pays et lui a confié l'éxécution de commandes importantes. Recemment encore, la statue equestre de Norodom I attirait les regards des promeneurs aux Champs-Elysees." ["The drawing that we reproduce on page 576 shows an iron pavilion intended for HM the King of Cambodia. We can currently see this elegant construction, fully assembled, in the workshops of Mr. Ducros, where the magnificent grids of Parc Monceau were also were made. On various occasions already, His Cambodian Majesty, whose sympathies for France are well known, has addressed the industry of our country and entrusted it with the execution of important orders. Even recently, the Norodom I equestrian statue has attracted the attention of walkers on the Champs-Elysees."]
If the date of this publication, 1875, does not prove that the Pavilion was still in Paris in 1875, the comments are important as they show that the structure 1) was clearly made on order for the King, 2) had nothing to do with some Egypt-bound 'leisure pavilion' for Empress Eugénie, and 3) probably shared the same history than the equestrian statue (see below).
Pavilion of Joy
In his Cambodge, fetes civiles et religieuses (1916, Paris) Adhémard Leclere mentions the "iron house" in four instances, calling it twice "Palais Dosoeti" or "Doseti", a designation we couldn't figure out until researcher Philip Coggan pointed out to us in February 2024 its similarity to "Tusti", a Pali word for Tusita, one of the six spiritual words of the Desire Realm (Kāmadhātu), located between the Yāma heaven and the Nirmāṇarati heaven, to be reached through meditation, the place where, according to many Buddhist texts, Queen Maya, the Buddha's mother, was reborn after passing away seven days after her son's birth. Once again, that name expresses the spiritual significance vested by the Cambodian royals in that particular structure.
- "Le préah Hó est le petit pavillon carré qui se trouve à droite de la maison de fer, et à droite de la porte ouvrant sur la rue qui sépare le palais du véath Préah Kèv. C'est là que sont gardés par les bakous le préah khân ou glaive sacré et la lance du Vieillard aux concombres, le fondateur de la dynastie." [The Préah Hó is the small square pavilion which is located to the right of the iron house, and to the right of the door opening onto the street which separates the palace from the Préah Kèv véath. This is where the Bakus guard the preah khan or sacred sword and the spear of the Old Man of Cucumbers, the founder of the dynasty."] (p. 267)
- Regarding Tan-Tok, the King's birthday celebration: "Les ministres avaient, en janvier 1904, imaginé une nouveauté qui eut le plus grand succès. Ils avaient fait dresser au milieu de la place du palais Doseti, qui s'étend entre la grille delà maison de fer (ou palais Dosoeti), la salle des danses, et les murs sud et est de la cour publique, une énorme représentation, en papier collé sur des lamettes de bambous, de l'animal [chevre] qui a donné son nom à l'année au cours de laquelle est né le roi Noroudâm." ["In January 1904, the ministers had conceived a novelty which met the greatest success. They had erected in the middle of the square of the Doseti palace, which extends between the gate of the iron house (or Dosoeti palace), the dance hall, and the south and east walls of the public courtyard, an enormous representation, in paper glued to bamboo strips, of the animal [goat] which gave its name to the year in which King Noroudam was born."] (p. 326)
- "Les religieux ont prié jusqu'à dix heures du soir. A ce moment, les chefs religieux des musulmans sont
venus les remplacer et dire, en langue arabomalaise, les prières que leur culte permet en l'honneur
du roi; ils ont formulé des souhaits, et toute la nuit leurs voix nasillardes ont murmuré dans la grande salle.
De leur côté, à la table d'exposition des notables annamites, dressée dans le palais Dosoeti, on fait les
memes souhaits de prospérités et on dit des prières propitiatoires." ["The monks prayed until ten o'clock in the evening. At this time, the religious leaders of the Muslims came to replace them and say, in the Arabo-malese language, the prayers that their faith allows in honor of the King; they made wishes, and all night their nasal voices murmured in the great hall. For their part, at the exhibition table of the Annamite notables, set up in the Dosoeti palace, they make the same wishes for prosperity and chant propitiatory prayers."] (pp. 331-2)
- "On avait élevé dans la première cour du palais royal, entre la salle publique des danses (roun-ream)
et le mur d'enceinte au sud, devant la maison en fer du roi, un phnâm, ou mont, Kailàsa, image du pic
célèbre de l'Himalaya où, disent les livres sacrés de l'Inde et du Cambodge, le dieu Shiva règne en
son paradis et a célébré le kôr chûk de son fils Ganesha." ["In the first courtyard of the royal palace, between the public dance hall (roun-ream) and the enclosure wall to the south, in front of the king's iron house, they had erected a phnâm, or mount, Kailàsa, image of the peak famous of the Himalayas where, say the sacred books of India and Cambodia, the god Shiva reigns in his paradise and celebrated the kôr chûk of his son Ganesha."] (p. 452)
These notations are important as they show that, far from being some "leisure pavilion" where King Norodom, and latter King Sisowath, would entertain their fancy for European elegance (or lack of), the "iron house" was fully integrated in the religious ceremonies held at the Palace.
The 1867 Purchase Theory
In his travel notes taken from July 1907 to June 1909, Dr. Hendrik Muller was under the impression that King Sisowath actually lived in the "iron house": "On my first day, at five in the afternoon, I am received by King Sisowath I. After the résident-supérieur and I enter the white-walled palace grounds, we alight in front of a small, insignificant house consisting of two salons. The king lives in the unpainted iron house next door, which his predecessor bought at the first Paris Exhibition of 1867 and which has two storeys. We are received by Mr. Okanka Kralahom, the "minister of the palace, finance and fine arts". He wears the same common tight-necked white tunic as we do. With his head uncovered he makes a distinguished impression and speaks quite reasonable French. The king receives us in the backroom. Like the antechamber it is small, low and cluttered with an ugly collection of misplaced and incompatible European furniture. His Majesty is extremely friendly [...]. Comfortably seated with us at a round table, he gets up to present us with cigars from a gold box studded with diamonds, he even lights the matches for us, and has us served before him. He toasts my queen with champagne and then starts to relate how, during his childhood, his parents would tell him stories of old Holland. [...] The annuity of 600 thousand piasters, which he received from the French government for his civil list, is spent almost entirely -- hardly leaving anything for himself -- on his favorites, the court, and especially his extensive ballet company." [pp 105-7]
Claudius Madrolle, in his popular To Angkor (Saigon to Phnom Penh) (Paris, Hachette, 1913, p. 27), tends to agree: "Le Prah Tineang Tevea Vinnichhay, ou « Salle du Trône » est un grand bâtiment en bois, de forme cruciale, mesurant 40 metres sur 17, décoré de glaces, de dorures et restauré pour le sacre de S. M. Sisovat. Le sol est en mosaïque. Le trône, en bois sculpté et doré, est au centre. A gauche de cette salle, est l'entrée du » quartier réservé » au roi ; la garde royale en surveille l'accès, qui est interdit. Dans cette cité royale, le Prah Tineang Banh Yong, édifice en briques, avec au rez-de-chaussée une salle d'attente et un salon meublé à l'européenne où le roi reçoit dans l'intimité. - Un jardin dessiné à la française. - Le Prah Tineang Phimeanakas, et le Prah Tineang Viméan Dossedy ou « Palais de fer » qui figura à Paris à l'exposition de 1867." [The Prah Tineang Tevea Vinnichhay, or “Throne Hall” is a large wooden, cruciform building, measuring 40 by 17 meters, decorated with mirrors and gilding and restored for the coronation of H. M. Sisovat. The floor is mosaic tiles. The throne, in carved and gilded wood, is in the center. To the left of this room is the entrance to the “reserved quarter” for the king; the royal guard monitors access, which is prohibited. In this royal city, the Prah Tineang Banh Yong, a brick building, with on the ground floor a waiting room and a European-style furnished lounge where the king receives in privacy. - A French-style garden. - The Prah Tineang Phimeanakas, and the Prah Tineang Viméan Dossedy or “Iron Palace” which appeared in Paris at the 1867 exhibition." Curiously, Madrolle deleted this part in the second edition of the famous guide (1927).
Gregor Muller, in his Colonial Cambodia's 'Bad Frenchmen' (2006, Routledge, 312 p), and Marie Aberdam, in her "Élites cambodgiennes en situation coloniale, essai d’histoire sociale des réseaux de pouvoir dans l’administration cambodgienne sous le protectorat français" (1860-1953)" (doctoral thesis, Université Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris, 2019), have carefully studied the influence at the Cambodian court of French private businessmen or "middlemen" such as Frédéric Thomas Caraman, Paul Le Faucheur (who became the father-in-law of Minister of the Palace Thiounn Veang), Félix-Gaspard Faraut, Alexis Blanc, Alphonse Mercurol, or the larger-than-life Marie Antoinette Marrot.
In L'Indo-Chine francaise (Souvenirs) (1905, Vuibert et Nony, Paris, Paul Doumer (1857-1932), who acted as Governor-General of French Indochina from 1897 to 1902, gives a vivid (and quite arrogant) description of the complex balance of power between the Royal House of Cambodia, the French administration and the French wheeler-dealers in Phnom at the end of the 19th century:
"La prodigalité dont Norodom fait montre en achetant très cher des produits de l'industrie française de mauvais goût et de médiocre qualité, ne l'empêche pas de consacrer une forte part de ses gros revenus à l'entretien de sa cour, de tout ce qui constitue le faste cambodgien traditionnel. Il a un nombreux harem de femmes et de concubines, une troupe de danseuses choisies, des serviteurs de tous rangs en nombre indéfini, une garde royale de cavaliers et de fantassins, de superbes éléphants de travail et d'apparat; il a un trésor composé de pierreries, de lingots, d'or et d'argent monnayé; il a des bijoux de grand prix, des armes luxueuses. C'est quelque chose du satrape de la Perse ou du rajah de l'Inde. L'Annamite riche et raffiné, comme le Chinois, s'entoure de beaux vases, de soieries, de peintures et de broderies d'art, d'objets sculptés clans des pierres fines. ll n'a pas la hantise barbare du Cambodgien, de l'Hindou, pour les choses éclatantes, l'or brillant, les pierreries. J'ai eu maintes raisons et des occasions multiples de déposer le roi Norodom, de lui donner la retraite à laquelle il avait tous les droits. La première occasion favorable
s'est présentée au moment même de mon arrivée en Indo-Chine. Le mécontentement dont le Roi m'avait fait part à notre première entrevue, était le résultat d'un conflit déjà long entre le souverain et le Résident supérieur [then Charles Thomson, ADB], conflit tout récemment résolu en une véritable crise. Le représentant de la France avait pris sur les ministres cambodgiens une autorité entière, leur commandait et en était aveuglément obéi. Avec leur concours, il venait de retirer tout ce qui restait de pouvoir au Roi. ["The lavishness that Norodom displays by purchasing very expensive, of bad taste and mediocre quality, industrial products from France does not prevent him from devoting a large part of his large income to the maintenance of his court, of everything which constitutes traditional Cambodian splendor. It has a numerous harem of women and concubines, a troupe of chosen dancers, servants of all ranks in indefinite number, a royal guard of horsemen and foot soldiers, superb working elephants and appearance; he has a treasure composed of precious stones, ingots, gold and coined silver; he has jewels of great price, luxurious weapons. He is something of the satrap of Persia or the rajah of the India. The rich and refined Annamite, like the Chinese, surrounds himself with beautiful vases, silks, paintings and artistic embroidery, objects sculpted from fine stones. He does not have the barbaric obsession of the Cambodian, of the Hindu, for the dazzling things, the shining gold, the gems. I had many reasons and multiple opportunities to depose King Norodom, to give him the retirement to which he had all the rights. The first favorable opportunity presented itself at the very moment of my arrival in Indo-China. The discontent which the King had expressed to me during our first interview was the result of an already long conflict between the sovereign and the Superior Resident [then Charles Thomson, ADB], a conflict which had recently resolved into a real crisis. The representative of France had taken complete authority over the Cambodian ministers, commanded them and was blindly obeyed. With their help, he had just removed all that remained of power from the King.]
[...] Il fallait que le gouvernement cambodgien continuât de fonctionner seul, par ses méthodes· et ses procédés traditionnels, qu'il n'empruntât à peu près rien à la nation protectrice, ni personnel, ni moyens d'action; que les colons français ne vinssent pas troubler de leurs exigences la quiétude de l'administration et l'apathie des indigènes. Et, à part la révolte de Norodom qui ne se contentait pas de la part qui lui était faite, le Cambodge était bien près de cet idéal rêvé. Il restait un royaume asiatique que la civilisation ne touchait guère. Les gouverneurs cambodgiens demeuraient maîtres dans les provinces, maîtres de faire et surtout de ne rien faire; la justice, les emplois publics, les faveurs continuaient à se vendre; les jeux florissaient, ruinant la population, détruisant les familles, favorisant
l'esclavage pour dettes non encore aboli; les voies de communication étaient dans l'état où la nature les avait mises. L'empreinte de la France, inexistante dans le royaume, n'avait sa marque que dans les objets de style rococo admis au Palais de Norodom. C'était peu, vraiment!" (pp 231-4)
"Jusque la, les seuls colons. qui se trouvaient dans le royaume étaient des comme,rçants habitant Pnom-Penh: Il y en avait, du reste, un fort petit nombre, guère plus d'une demi-douzaine. Deux d'entre eux, associés depuis leur lointaine arrivée au Cambodge; MM. Faraut et Vandelet, avaient une parfaite connaissance du pays. Ils étaient bien vus du Roi et avaient dû à cela de pouvoir faire quelques bonnes affaires. C'étaient, d'ailleurs, des hommes intelligents et instruits, des commerçants de toute honorabilité. Mais, dans l'état précaire du commerce cambodgien, ils étaient, comme leurs confrères, à la merci de la malveillance soit du Roi, soit du Résident supérieur, et c'est cette sujétion, au premier abord inexplicable chez des hommes que leur situation de colons devait rendre indépendants, qui me frappa lorsque je m'entretins avec eux." (p 244)
In March 1876, the French professional bulletin Les Nouvelles Annales de la Construction published a two-page spread about an 'Iron, Cast Iron and Brick Pavilion built for the King of Cambodia' (in the section "Maisons de ville et de campagne"[Townhouses and Country Houses], just crediting 'M. Ducros a Paris' as the builder. The notice for Planches 13 and 14, signed by C.A. Oppermann -- a former civil engineer, founder of this review and several other publications, author of a Traité complet des chemins de fer, économiques, d'intérêt local, départmentaux, vicinaux, industriels, agricoles, tramways, américains, voies de service fixes ou mobiles (Paris, 1867) --, stated explicitely that the pavilion had been constructed in Paris by Ducros, before being sent to Cambodia in "89 crates containing decorative and roofing elements, 172 cases of T iron beams, 92 columns, in total 353 parcels with an overall weight of 60 tons." No mention of Egypt, at all.
The author went on describing the reassembly process in Cambodia, noting that the kit had been conceived to "be reassembled without the help of specialized workers", and that the builder has declined to say how much the entire process has cost, but...while it is obvious that all that happened way before 1876, we are not told when, exactly. Another point of interest is the assertion that this pavilion was initially designed "for many possible uses, as a venue for European-style functions or possibly as a rostrum on a racecourse, as a show space for a revue, as a meeting place for hunting parties, as a buffet or orchestra stand in an outdoor fair." (cols 34, 35)
What have we been able to glean about the master artisan? Julien-Léopold Ducros was a successful 'serrurier' (locksmith, generic term applied to iron and cast iron masters, until 1878, when they were recognized as 'ferronniers', 'skilled metalworkers') established 18 boulevard Richard-Lenoir, Paris, with workshops 45 rue des Boulets, also in Paris. He executed some major iron works, including the grids of Parc Monceau (installed in 1861) and Bois de Boulogne, a group statue for the Saint Michel Fountain, the Monumental Gate at 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, as well as the Argentinian Pavilion and the Cashmer-Indian Fabrics Pavilion (Fresnais-Gramagnac Pavilion) for the same event, as well as, probably, the Pavillon de Repos for Empress Eugénie at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. And the Royal Palace pavilion, then. His son with Augustine Delaunay, Georges Ducros, born in 1864, graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as certified engineer-builder in 1886. As some point, he authored his work as 'Ducros Freres'.
In his above mentioned thesis, Jacques Népote mentions that the following document was kept at the Royal Palace 'Bureau des Annales' : "Anonyme (Okhna Prahna Thippedei), Historique du Pavillon en fer-dit Pavillon de Suez, slnd, 2 pages dactylographiees en fr". This document seems to have disappeared in the 1970s, during the civil war, and might have been of scarce interest for our research, as Népote noted that it was reproducing....the Paul Collard's 1925 version quoted above. Let us add that at the beginning of the 1970s, when Népote was completing his research on the Palace, the Khmer Republic's 'Ministry of the ex-Palace' barred him from entering the royal precint anymore.
A note about "bad taste": French authors of the time tend to mock the "bad taste" of the European-made items displayed at the Palace. Yet, the French artisans and builders behind those were far from being second-rate. For instance, the grid surrounding the first courtyard in the 1866 version of the Palace was made by...Ducros for Guillaume Denière, a student of goldsmith masters Aimé Chenavard and Henri Labrouste, who replaced his father at the head of Maison Denière, official supplier of Louis-Philippe, Napoleon III, viceroy of Egypt Mohamed Saïd Pacha, the Russian embassy in Paris, and so on. Thanks to his wife's family, Deniere became an influential asset management advisor, being named Regent of Banque de France, presiding over the Société générale from 1869 to 1886, and administrator of Crédit foncier colonial. [source: Pierre Verlet, Les Bronzes dorés français du XVIIIe siècle, Picard, Paris, 1987, p 378-381.]
A ship or a pavilion? Gifting the remains of French Second Empire
In 'L'Indochine française de 1886 a 1889' (Etudes d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, T. 5 (1953), pp. 184-223), Professor Marcel Blanchard, studying the intricate power struggle between different branches of the French administration, wrote: "Le Roi s'ennuyait un peu? Que ne voyageait-il pour se distraire! Lui, Constans, l'invitait a venir en France pour la prochaine exposition internationale ou seraient rassemblees toutes les merveilles du monde. Le roi craignait les voyages en mer et la promiscuite d'un grand paquebot. Qu'a cela ne tint! Lui, Constans, ferait réparer a l'intention de Norodom le yacht (Peluse) sur lequel l'Imperatrice Eugenie s'en était venue inaugurer le canal de Suez et qui, depuis, gisait a Toulon, abandonne et inutile dans un coin du Mourillon. Et le Roi alors, mis en confiance, de faire ses confidences a un interlocuteur si bien disposé. Il n'avait plus assez d'argent et ne savait comment joindre les deux bouts. Il y avait cette histoire du jeu des 36 betes au sujet de quoi les mechants MM. Thomson et Filippini l'avaient roulé. Que Sa Majeste se rassurat! Foi de Constans, toutes les autorisations nécessaires seraient donnees. Ecoutons les commentaires de Richaud, successeur de Constans: "1er juin 1888. - Le retablissement du jeu des 36 betes a soulevé au Cambodge un vif sentiment d'indignation...Les banques, meme etrangeres, avaient refuse toute avance aux fermiers, ne voulant pas se faire les complices d'une cause de ruine pour le pays... Les cadeaux recus par M. Constans a la suite de cette concession ont produit a Saigon un vif sentiment d'etonnement et d'indignation." ["The King was a little bored? Why wouldn't he traveling to have some fun! He, Constans, invited him to come to France for the next international exhibition where all the wonders of the world would be brought together. The king feared sea travel and the promiscuity of a large liner. Never mind! He, Constans, would repair for Norodom the yacht (Peluse) on which the Empress Eugenie had come to inaugurate the Suez Canal and who, since then, had been lying in Toulon, abandoned and useless in a corner of the Mourillon. And the King then, taken into confidence, to confide in such a well-disposed interlocutor. He no longer had enough money and did not know how make ends meet. There was this story of the 36 beasts game about which the evil Messrs. Thomson and Filippini had deceived him. Let His Majesty be reassured! Faith of Constans, all the necessary authorizations would be given. Let's listen to them comments from Richaud, successor to Constans: "June 1, 1888. - The reestablishment of the 36 beasts game aroused in Cambodia a strong feeling of indignation...The banks, even foreign ones, had refused any advance to the farmers, not wanting to becoming accomplices in a cause of ruin for the country... The gifts received by Mr. Constans following this concession produced a strong feeling of astonishment and indignation in Saigon."] The French official here mentioned was Jean Antoine Ernest Constans (1833-1913), the first Governor-General of French Indochina in 1887-1888.
Named after the ancient Egyptian city of Peluseum, the Peluse was a Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes "paquebot-poste" launched on February 2 1863 at La Ciotat, France, a 2172-ton, 1-propeller steamer 93.5 meter long (then 103 m after 1869) and 9.7 meter wide, aboard which guests of honor (not Empress Eugenie, who was onboard the imperial yacht L'Aigle, right ahead of Peluse), including famous French writer Théophile Gautier, sailed for the first time the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869 lavish inauguration, taken apart in Toulon in February 1891. Then again, Third Republic archival confusion could have been played here, as there were three ships in the Peluse Class, Peluse, Moeris and Said...
This is a reported, registered "gift", so why the fact that the Pavilion had been 'given' by Napoleon III was never documented? There is a list of 'donations' made by the French Emperor in the 'Maison de l'Empereur' Fund at the French National Archives.
Charles Demire, in L'Indo-Chine: Cochinchine française, Royaume de Cambodge, Royaume d'Annam et Tonkin, Challamel, Paris, 1884 (3d edition) noted page 232: "Dans l'île qui se trouve en face de Phnum-penh et dont la pointe est occupée par la douane cambodgienne, la France possède une concession qui s'étend à la fois sur la rivière d'Oudong et sur le grand fleuve, avec faculté d'y construire une citadelle. Non loin de là est mouillé le yacht
du roi, petit vapeur qui lui a été donné par le gouvernement français. Il y a toujours un bâtiment de guerre français en station à Phnum-penh." [On the island facing the city, with its tip controlled by the Cambodian Customs service, France holds a concession which extends both over the Oudong River and the Great River, with the possibility of building a citadel there. Not far from there is anchored the king's yacht, a small steamer given to him by the French government. There is still a French warship stationed in Phnum Penh."] But then the gifted ship seen on the Mekong River in 1881 or 1882 couldn't be the Peluse, allegedly gifted in 1887.
And to make things ever more puzzling, Adhémard Leclere (op. cit., p 258) states that the "royal yacht" was Le Lutin, "which was wrecked by a fire on the coast of Annam on March 3, 1903". Admittedly, during the last two decades of his reign, King Norodom had an entire flotilla of ships provided by the French colonial administration, as Julio Jeldres pointed out to us.
So, on which vessel did King Norodom reached Saigon for his third and last visit on April 6 1888? The dispatches of the time give us scarce information: "The King’s yacht, preceded by a launch carrying the princes’ seven sons and entourage, passed the Messageries-maritimes and was saluted by 21 cannons. On board, we heard the music of Norodom, composed by a Tagal, whose band played the Marseillaise and other pieces, including the Marche des Volontaires by Olivier Métra. It’s funny, said Dumoulin, this habit of receiving sovereigns to the accompaniment of operetta pieces and tunes we would hear at the Château-Rouge!" (Source: Historic Vietnam Blog)
Another puzzle: King Norodom I's Equestrian Statue
Adhémard Leclere (op. cit., p 351-2) is at the origin of the theory that the enigmatic statue was a hoax: "A l'est et en face du temple, au centre de l'espace demeuré libre, on a dressé la statue équestre en bronze du roi Noroudâm, sur un socle moyennement élevé, entre quatre colonnes qui supportent un ciel plat doré, très cambodgien, mais du plus déplorable effet. Le roi, vêtu d'un costume de général, salue avec un bicorne emplumé et porte sur sa tunique
quelques décorations. Une grille entoure la statue (Cette statue équestre est en fait une statue de Napoléon III
sur laquelle on a fixé une tête de Noroudàm. Elle fut longtemps placée sur le bord du fleuve, puis, lors de l'érection du temple, transportée dans la grande cour où elle est aujourd'hui. La grille de ce temple, promise en fer forgé, fut livrée en fer, et puis refusée par le roi; mais comme le contrat était habilement rédigé, l'affaire fut portée devant le tribunal et le roi fut condamné à la payer. Il refusa de l'installer autour de sa statue; puis, vingt ans plus tard, il la laissa placer devant la porte principale du temple, au bas de l'escalier de l'est." ["To the east and opposite the temple, in the center of the space remaining free, the bronze equestrian statue of King Noroudâm has been erected on a moderately high base, between four columns which support a flat golden sky, very Cambodian in style but with the most deplorable effect. The king, dressed in a general's costume, salutes with a feathered cocked hat and wears on his tunic some decorations. A grid surrounds the statue (This equestrian statue is in fact a statue of Napoleon III
on which a head of Noroudàm was affixed. It was located for a long time on the banks of the river, then, when the temple was erected, transported to the large courtyard where it is today. The gate of this temple, which was supposed to be in wrought iron, was delivered in plain iron, and then rejected by the king; but as the contract was skillfully drawn up, the matter was brought to court and the king was ordered to pay it. He refused to install it around his statue; then, twenty years later, he allowed it to be placed in front of the main door of the temple, at the bottom of the eastern staircase."]
A few years later, Paul Doumer (op. cit, p 236), claimed the following: "Un des commerçants français établis au Cambodge persuada le souverain qu'il devait, pour assurer sa glorieuse renommée, avoir à Pnom-Penh sa statue, une statue monumentale, équestre pour être digne d'un puissant monarque. Muni d'une commande en forme, pour un prix forcément très élevé, et de plusieurs photographies de l'auguste modèle à reproduire, il se rendit en France. On était aux environs de 1872. Notre commerçant découvrit chez un fondeur une statue équestre de Napoléon III, achevée au moment où éclata la guerre et restée en magasin. On pouvait se la procurer à bon compte, au prix de la matière. Mais, comme Napoléon ne ressemblait pas du tout à Norodom, la tête de la statue fut sciée; une tete pouvant passer pour celle d'un Canibodgien fut modelée d'après les photographies, fondue et soudée sur le corps de l'empereur des Français. Quelques mois plus tard, la statue arrivait à Pnom-Penh; elle fut trouvée magnifique
et élevée devant le palais royal, en face du fleuve majestueux. L'énorme cheval et le corps de Napoléon III, surmonté de sa tête d'emprunt,portent dès aujourd'hui jusque vers le ciel ct diront aux âges futurs la gloire du roi Norodom. Ils diront aussi, aux gens informés, que la destinée des hommes et des choses est parfois bien étrange!" ["One of the French traders established in Cambodia persuaded the sovereign that he must, to ensure his glorious reputation, have his statue in Pnom-Penh, a monumental, equestrian statue to be worthy of a powerful monarch. Equipped with a formal order stating a necessarily very high price, and with several photographs of the august model to be reproduced, he went to France. It was around 1872. Our merchant discovered at a foundry an equestrian statue of Napoleon III, completed at the time where the war broke out and thus remained in store. It could be obtained cheaply, at the price of the material. But, as Napoleon did not at all resemble Norodom, the head of the statue was sawed off; a head that could pass for that of a Canibodgian was modeled after the photographs, melted and welded onto the body of the French emperor. A few months later, the statue arrived in Phnom Penh; it was found magnificent and raised in front of the royal palace, facing the majestic river. The enormous horse and the body of Napoleon III, topped with his borrowed head, carry today to the sky and will speak to future ages of the glory of King Norodom. They will also tell informed people that the destiny of men and things is sometimes very strange!”
This version, challenged by Steven Boswell in his enjoyable King Norodom's Head: Phnom Penh Sights Beyond the Guidebooks (NIAS Press, 2016, 320 p, ISBN 978-8776941789), was adamantly rejected ["a completely baseless legend"] by researcher Olivier de Bernon in his essay on 'Les inscriptions de la statue équestre de Norodom I' (Seksa Khmer, num 1, 1999, pp 94-8), in which he stresses that "this statue was without any doubt was made for King Norodom two years after Napoleon III's death", as the name of the sculptor and maker, as well as the date, are engraved on the pedestal: "EUDE Sculp. 1875 J. RANVIER FAB(ant) Paris". Quite so, but the engraving states (in French and in Khmer) that it was dedicated to "the first Cambodian King" in 1860...The author suggests the engraved pedestal was initially made for a votive statue dedicated to...King Ang Duong, and concludes: "L'énigme est ainsi déplacée mais il faut bien avouer qu'elle demeure entière car on ne dispose en l'état d'aucune clef pour identifier la statue votive dont il a pu être question." [“The enigma is thus shifted, yet remains unsolved, we must admit, it must because we currently have no way to identify the votive statue that may have been there.”]
Another, perhaps more convincing refutation of the common version about the head substitution is that, according to the architect in charge of restoration of the Chan Chaya Pavilion at the Royal Palace, Men Chandevy, confirmed to us recently (January 2024) that there is absolutely no trace of soldered joint at the basis of the royal head.
As for Louis-Adolphe (né Jean-Louis) Eude (26 Oct. 1818, Arès, France - 8 Apr. 1889, Paris), a French sculptor known for his neo-classic sculptures (L’Amour (1847), Omphale (1859), Retour de chasse (1877), La Force (Opéra Garnier), Diane and other statues for the Palais du Louvre), he is generally credited for the Monument à Norodom Ier, the equestrian statue here discussed.
Before & After the 1991 Restoration
There a few descriptions of the Pavilion dating from the 1950s, and one, by Lucretia Stewart, in 1990, right before the post-civil war restoration conducted on the occasion of King Sihanouk's solemn homecoming on 14 November 1991. Didier Repellin (b. 17 Sept. 1948, Bergerac, France), a renowned architect specialized in restoration of historic monuments, now with RL&A firm in Lyon, France, was in charge of the 438,000 USD project and confided to Washington Post reporter William Branigin on Oct 28, 1991: "It was almost going to collapse. The building's wooden frame was bady rotted, and two precast zinc crowns on top of the pavilion were riddled with bullet holes by Khmer Rouge soldiers." And the journalist added: "Perhaps more startling than what the Khmer Rouge ruined at the Royal Palace was what they left behind. At the nearby Silver Pagoda, a temple built in 1892, a floor consisting of 5,800 silver tiles weighing more than six tons has been left intact, as has a Buddha statue made of more than 200 pounds of solid gold and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds, the largest of them 25 carats. Also still there are a variety of other priceless artifacts, including two smaller diamond-studded gold Buddhas.
In February 2024, following this study's publication, Didier Repellin called us to kindly share with us the following insights:
- The initiative towards a major restoration of the Pavilion came from the Cambodian government (Samdech Hun Sen was the prime minister since 14 January 1985) at the prompting of Cambodian architect Phuoeng Sophean ភឿង សុភ័ណ្ឌ in 1989-1990 (23 April 1958, Siem Reap - 6 Oct. 2020, Phnom Penh). [Phuoeng Sophean, who had escaped the Khmer Rouge to Thailand and to France, obtained his diploma in June 1986 at Grenoble Faculty of Architecture, and worked as a junior architect with Repellin in Lyon. In 1988, he decided to move back to Cambodia and started a successful career, designing public buildings such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and serving as Secretary of State of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, General Secretary of the Cambodian Association of Architects, and Dean of RUFA Faculty of Architecture.]
- The "gift from Napoleon III" version was accepted "essentially because we thought that the Napoleon mention would encourage the French authorities in funding the project, but in fact the French Ministry of Culture wasn't interested, and we had to set up five "chantiers-ateliers" [workshop projects] in order to get sponsoring volunteers joining in the restoration site.
- "There are definitely distinctive decorative motives typical of the French Second Empire style, I would say typical of the 1850s-1860s, for instance the cast iron flower garlands on the railing, the faux-marbre and flowers motives that initially decorated all walls inside and outside (and had been coated with ocre paint at some point), the curtains and rugs (which were remade as they were, but stolen from the Pavilion shortly after the inauguration)."
- 27 young Cambodian volunteers, gathered by Phuoeng Sophean from Siem Reap [his hometown] orphanages, enthusiastically joined the work site, "their names, along with those of the French volunteers, were listed on a parchment we inserted into the pressed-zinc "closed crown" at the top of the building, a crown that has been recast recently and will replace the original one soon."
- Shortly after Norodom Sihanouk's return to Cambodia on November 14, 1991, the restored pavilion was re-inaugurated by the Prince (he was reinstated as King in 1993) , with all participants to the work project in attendance and a French delegation led by then-French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. "Sihanouk was cheerful, really happy with the restoration of that historic building, and animatedly chatted with the young volunteers as the French officials were 45 minutes late."
Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China, Jonathan Cape, London, 1951, 317 p
"The Royal Palace at Pnom-Penh is a single-storey affair, and quite obscured, except from the river’s bank, by other buildings. It is pagoda architecture and one feels that if the pinchbeck glitter of the gilding could be subdued it would provide, perhaps, a charming and discreet lakeside ornament. We have seen buildings of this kind so often in Colonial exliibitions that we have come to associate them with impermanence, and even suspect that they may be sup¬ plied in sections with simple instructions for erection. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Palace was built by the French soon after Cambodia became a protectorate. But even the ancient and notable pagodas of Luang Prabang turn out later to be not very much better as buildings, however far superior their decoration may be.
Behind the high, screening wall, the palace proved to consist of several separate buildings, all ofwhich, except those containing the private apartments, could be visited on a set tour, for which a guide was provided. Among this cluster of lacquered, box-like edifices, their roofs curled up as if by the scorching sun, there was one of solidly incongruous stone. This was a house presented by Napoleon III to Queen Eugenie and then taken down and sent here as a gift to the Cambodian monarch of the day. It looked like the permanent administrative offices, stolid and matter-of-fact, on an exposition site, squatting among the lath and plaster which after a few months would be taken down and cleared away. The presence of the European interloper gave a clue to the contents of the pavilions themselves. These were frankly museum exhibits of the past two centuries of royal history. Some of them were strangely revelatory. The only building winch could be described as internally impressive was the Silver Pagoda, and then it was impressive rather as a curiosity. Here for the first time one glimpsed the East of the traveller’s tale; prodigious, garish and wasteful. If the kings of Cambodia had never felt the urge to build an Escorial or a Caserta they had at least floored a pagoda with 5000 blocks of solid silver, and although the aesthetic effect was no choicer than that to be had from walking on the polished deck of a battleship, there had at least been fine, profligate squandering of precious metal."
Paul Fuchs, Fetes et Cérémonies Royales au Cambodge d'hier
"Dans la cour qui s'étend au sud du palais du Trône, on voit une construction à étage d'aspect insolite en ces lieux. Une légère armature métallique dessine balcons et vérandas, au centre de la façade une marquise surplombe le perron, le cadran d'une horloge orne le fronton, au milieu du toit un petit belvédère domine l'édifice. C'est le pavillon de Suez, le premier bâtiment définitif en maçonnerie de l'actuel palais royal. Il fut édifié à Ismaïlia pour être la résidence de l'impératrice Eugénie lors de l'inauguration, le 16 novembre 1869, du canal de Suez. S.M. l'empereur Napoléon III l'offrit ensuite à S.M. Norodom 1er. Démonté et transporté à Phnom Penh, il fut remonté (où nous le voyons aujourd'hui) en 1876. Y est installé actuellement le service des archives du Palais. A l'ouest de ce pavillon s'élève un immeuble à étage, entouré d'un péristyle, abritant les services administratifs du Palais, le siège du Haut Conseil du Trône et le musée royal." ["In the courtyard which extends to the south of the Throne Palace, we see a two-story construction with an unusual appearance in these places. A light metal frame outlines the balconies and verandahs, in the center of the facade a marquise overlooks the steps, the dial of a clock adorns the pediment, in the middle of the roof a small belvedere dominates the building. It is the Suez Pavilion, the first definitive masonry building of the current royal palace. It was built in Ismailia to be the residence of Empress Eugénie during the inauguration of the Suez Canal on November 16, 1869. H.M. Emperor Napoleon III then offered it to H.M. Norodom I. Dismantled and transported to Phnom Penh, it was reassembled (where we see it today) in 1876. The Palace archives service is currently located there. To the west of this pavilion stands a two-story building, surrounded by a peristyle, housing the administrative services of the Palace, the seat of the High Council of the Throne and the royal museum."](p 143).
The Pavilion in 1980, shortly after the Vietnamese intervention
Then a freelancer reporter based in Bangkok, with publications in the Washington Post, covering the Cambodian exodus into Thailand in 1979 and 1980, researcher John Burgess went to Phnom Penh in April 1980, -- the Vietnamese forces had entered Cambodia on 25 December 1978, ousting the Khmer Rouge rulers --, and spent "two weeks in the country, including a drive around the Tonle Sap and overnights in Siem Reap and Battambang, on a visa from the new Heng Samrin government." [3 Feb. 2024 communication to ADB].
John Burgess was kind enough to share with us these two photographs of the Iron House at the time."I have no idea what the pavilion was used for at that time, and I can’t remember if I looked inside it", he told us. "My Cambodian government guide, who accompanied me to the royal compound - you needed a pass to get in -said that 30 Vietnamese were stationed there, but that Cambodians retained the keys of the palace."
A 1990 Account, right before the 1991 Restoration
Lucretia Stewart, Tiger Balm (1992), pp 171-4 [The author was already aware of the planned visit of French President Francois Mitterrand to Cambodia, which happened on 11-12 February 1993]
"One Sunday morning I took a cyclo to the Royal Palace. Small naked brown children were splashing in the waters of the Sap River and couples were strolling in the wide boulevard along the riverfront. My guide book had held out the prospe a ride on an elephant but there were none to be seen. The Royal Palace, which consisted of a number of different buildings, all housed in an enormous walled courtyard, was originally built in wood in 1866 on the site of the ancient citadel Banteal Kev. The present palace was re-built in brick in 1913 by King Sisowath, Sihanouk's great-great-uncle, and, though Khmer in style, was designed largely by French architects. Its various buildings included the Throne Hall; the Royal Treasury; the Silver Pagoda; the Pavilion containing a huge footprint of the Buddha; the bell tower; the Chan Chaya, meaning the Shadow of Moon, the pavilion where Cambodian classical dancers perform and from which the king would address his people; and an exquisite and anomalous little house in belle époque style had been a gift to King Norodom from Napoleon III. It been given originally by the Emperor to Queen Eugénie and dismantled and sent to Phnom Penh in 1866 [note that there is no mention of Suez here].
It is something of a miracle and a mystery that the Khmer Rouge, who murdered nineteen members of Sihanouk's imme family including his favourite son and daughter, chose to des neither the palace, where Sihanouk was kept under house a between 1976 and 1979, nor the National Museum, and the for remained to this day, an astonishingly opulent sight in contemporary Phnom Pent where few buildings were intact, let alone in a state of repair. The roofs of the palace were covered with green, gold and blue tiles which glinted in the sun, creating a literally dazzling effect, matched by the sumptuousness of the royal apartments
"A plump young woman with a cheerful moon-face called Miss Ramsey (meaning sunrise) showed me sound. In the throne room was the coral hammock and gold poles from which the king and queen would supervise the first planting of the rice. Then came the coronation throne complete with ceremonial parasol, on which the king was permitted to sit only once in his life, and another even more splendid structure for the queen, made, said Miss Rasmey, like a "ship floating on the sea", which was covered with a sort of canopy and which could be ascended by three different little staircases of ten red and gold steps. There was a day-bed for 'when the King is tired of talking', seven gilded sedan chairs and bundles of fine bamboo sticks, apparently for the royal policemen to beat 'disorderly persons three times'. Off a hall from the throne room were the royal bedrooms, one for the king, one for the queen, each with an extravagantly gild bed. During the seven days following the coronation ceremony when the king and the queen were required to sleep separate they spent their nights here, moving afterwards to the royal residence.
"The walls were decorated with scenes from the Ramayana (Reamker, as the Khmer version of the epic is called), the air thick with incense from the joss-sticks burning in front of a gold Buddha and the whole effect was utterly gorgeous. Miss Rasmey pointed out the 'chatting room' where the king would rest under a seven-tiered parasol and perhaps discuss the future with the royal fortune-teller. She drew my attention to the building set aside for the king's dresses' and another pavilion which she described as the king's dancing hall and not to be confused w the afore-mentioned Pavilion of the Shadow of the Moon wh sat over the entrance to the palace complex. This was a rectangular structure, open on all sides to the elements, the roof supported by linde winged caryatids oddly reminiscent of Busby Berkeley girls weighing one kilo. I enjoyed the novel sensation of solid silver under my bare feet. We wandered along, looking at faded sepia photographs of Sihanouk's ancestors and presents betowed on him and them by foreign heads of state, and Miss Rasmey reeled off statistics, such as 9,584 diamonds and ninety kilos of gold - which I dutifully wrote down but I have no recollection what they applied to. [...]
"Napoleon III's gift was a sorry sight in the midst of all this gleaming green and gold. Most of its windows were broken, the pink marble steps that led to the front door were cracked and chipped and the delicate wrought-iron bannister was rusty. But a few panes of stained glass still remained, bearing Napoleon's crest and the letter 'N'. Two Cambodian teenage boys followed me into the building. They said that it was the first time they had ever been inside because it looked so shabby. They asked me whether I could get them permission to visit the Silver Pagoda which was only visitable with special permission from the Ministry of Information and Culture - as a result of which few Cambodians ever went there."
The 1991 restoration in the Bulletin de l'Association pour la Conservation des Monuments Napoléoniens (ACMN)
in Bulletin de Liaison de l'ACMN, n 18, 2d semester, 1991, p 47, 52. The 'official' version of the pavilion's origin is not questioned at all. The Napoleon Foundation is mentioned as a possible sponsor for restoration works, we do not know if that prospect ever materialized.
"Activités - Phnom-Penh
"Nous étions conviés le 28 octobre dernier à assister, dans la grande salle du musée Guimet à Paris, à la projection de nombreuses diapositives remarquablement commentées, se rapportant à la restauration du pavillon Napoléon III existant dans l'enceinte du Palais Royal de Phnom-Penh. Nous n'avons pas l'intention ici de refaire l'historique de la construction de ce pavillon en 1876 ni de sa restauration en juillet et aoat 1991, mais sachez seulement qu'il s'agit du pavillon qui servit à abriter l'impératrice Eugénie le 6 novembre 1869, lors de l'inauguration de canal de Suez. Ultérieurement, l'empereur Napoléon III fit don de ce pavillon au roi Norodom 1er.
"L'association "Jeunesse et Patrimoine" entreprit la restauration de ce pavillon qui se trouvait dansun état de délabrement avancé après vingt années de guerre dans ce pays. Là intervient l'incroyable. Grâce à l'action d'un jeune architecte cambodgien, de deux spécialistes français du bâtiment, de vingt sept volontaires français bénévoles pour la plupan étudiants et de vingt sept orphelins kmers, en 80 jours ce pavillon fut restauré. entièrement et sera même inauguré à nouveau d'ici quelques temps. Hélas, et là nous comprenons fort bien, actuellement il manque à cette association 600 000 francs afin de pouvoir payer les dernières dépenses engagées. Il fut dit dans l'assistance que la Fondation Napoléon avait été pressentie... attendons et espérons.
"Nous hommes et femmes de terrain, nous tenons à féliciter vivement cene assocaauon et tous leurs membres bénévoles pour cet immense travail accompli, nous touchant doublement car monumental et napoléonien!"
Activities - Phnom Penh
"On October 28 , we were invited to attend, in the Paris Guimet museum main hall, the screening of numerous remarkably commented slides relatiedto the restoration of the Napoleon III pavilion within the grounds of the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. We do not intend here to retrace the history of the construction of this pavilion in 1876, nor its restoration in July and August 1991, but just know that it is the pavilion which was used to house the empress Eugénie on November 6 1869, during the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Subsequently, Emperor Napoleon III donated this pavilion to King Norodom I.
“The “Youth and Heritage” association undertook the restoration of this pavilion, which was in an advanced state of disrepair after twenty years of war in the country. Here the incredible comes. Thanks to the action of a young Cambodian architect, of two French building specialists, twenty-seven French volunteers volunteering for most students and twenty-seven Kmer orphans, in 80 days this pavilion was completely restored and will even be inaugurated again within a short time. Alas, and here we too well understand, this association is currently missing 600,000 francs in order to be able to pay the latest incurred expenses. It was said in the public that the Fondation Napoléon had been approached... let's wait and hope.
“We, hands-on men and women, would like to warmly congratulate this association and all their volunteer members for the impressive work accomplished, to which we relate doubly since it is both monumental and Napoleonic!”
Ahmedabad architecture student Payushi Goel in Rethinking the Future blog [undated]
In an interesting shortcut, the author titles her piece Napoleon III Pavilion by Neak Okhna Tep Nimith Mak, the name of the Cambodian architect presented as the mastermind behind the second Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in the years 1886-1903. Then:
"At first glance, the Napoleon III Pavilion, located south of the Throne Hall, seems almost out of place. Amongst the imposing traditional, Khmer inspired buildings, with yellow gliding roofs in the Royal Palace of Cambodia, the Pavilion stands out due to its distinctive Colonial design and exquisite iron fretwork of its balconies, which gives it a dollhouse appearance amidst the traditional buildings. The incongruous, grey cast-iron building, in immaculate white exteriors, with a domed clock tower and observation gallery, was the first permanent structure on the site of the Royal Palace. With financial assistance from the French Government, Napoleon III Pavilion was refurbished in 1991. Today, photographic exhibits, as well as a collection of royal memorabilia such as busts, gifts from visiting dignitaries, glassware, royal clothing, and other artifacts, are on exhibit inside the Pavilion. Other than these, glass cases containing royal silver and china tableware are displayed on the lower floor, whereas, on the upper floor, royal portraits are displayed, including the oil portraits of King Sihanouk. Additionally, there is also an anteroom with paintings on subjects ranging from Venetian canals to Chinese landscapes and a room glinting with gleaming medals. Above the stairs, the austerity of the building is relieved by the display of a collection of silk costumes elaborately embroidered in a gold thread by Queen Kossomak, the present king’s grandmother, for the royal dancers."
Main photo: the late Poum Measbandol posted this photo of the Pavilion shortly before his premature death in December 2023.
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Tags: Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, French Indochina, French governors & residents, King Norodom I, King Sihanouk, King Sisowath, Royal Ballet of Cambodia, architecture, French traders, Protectorate, Queens & Kings of Cambodia
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