How a tent owned by Louis XV and Napoleon went to monastic Greece

Remnants of a tent used on campaign by Napoleon Bonaparte are in safekeeping at Esphigmenou Monastery. Postwar French governments, among others, have asked to buy these priceless relics of French history, at any price, but the Mount Athos authorities have always refused. The monastery has two pieces (the only parts missing from the whole, which would enable the French to completely reassemble the great commander’s tent). One is 3×3 meters in size, the other 1×0.37 meters, with gilt-embroidered scenes, which the monk guiding us described as idolatrous. From evidence collected by monks who have conducted research, the tent segments were donated to Esphigmenou in 1819 by Patriarch Gregory V, who was hanged by the Turks two years later. How they fell into his hands is unknown. What is known on Mount Athos is that Greek pirates seized Napoleon’s tent from a ship carrying it and other equipment to Alexandria, when Napoleon had occupied Egypt. Three segments of the tent were sold, while the fourth (the large and small pieces) went to the Phanar and ended up on Mount Athos. Experts say the tent is a masterpiece of 18th century tapestry and gilt embroidery, crafted by the famous Gobelin works in Paris. The tent belonged to Louis XV, and after his death came into Napoleon’s possession. The larger part was sometimes used as curtain in the entrance of the simple church, but for the past few decades it has been placed in a glass display case for safekeeping in the monastery’s vestry. The abbot permitted us to enter the crypt where the relics are kept, which can be reached only by a laborious scramble in the dark up 25 steps carved into the inner wall of the church. This safe, secret storeroom is constructed in such a way, the abbot told us, that in a crisis all the relics can be removed in 10 minutes. There are 300 unique manuscripts and 5,000 books, «all documented and in an excellent state of preservation.»

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