The story of almost every capital city of the world is related to a water stream. The city of Paris is no exception, in fact due to its ancient history, the Seine river and the capital city share a long history of activity, prosperity but also drama: even nowadays, the symbol of Paris is a ship sailing and the moto “Fluctuat nec mergitur” means “floats but never sinks”… The first settlements were on the emplacement of the actual islands of La Cité and St Louis. Those settlements were protected by wooden fences. The site was rather exposed. The Vikings came up the Seine all the way from the Atlantic Ocean in the early centuries of Christianity, and during the 9th century, they managed to besiege and raid Paris. It came to such a point that the king of France decided to give Normandy to the Vikings in order to calm the situation down. The first Duke of Normandy was born in the person of Rollo the 1st. Up to the Middle Ages, the city center evolved around the Island of La Cité and during the Inquisition, people condemned of witchery were often burned to the stake on a small island just yards away from the western tip of La Cité, the Island of the Jews (which was attached to the island of La Cité at the end of the Middle Ages). The Palace of Justice, main residency of the kings of France up to the Renaissance, was also on the Island of La Cité. Hence the river held a crucial role all throughout the history of early Paris.
A map of the Island of La Cité in the Middle Ages showing the small islands which where later attached to it
with the creation of the Renaissance “Vert Galant” Square. One of those small islands called the Island “Aux Juifs” is where heretics were burned. Such was the fate of
Jacques de Molay, last of the Grand Maestres of the Templar Knights in 1314
The emblem and moto of Paris: “Fluctuat nec mergitur”
Up to the 17th century, the bridges which multiplied across the river were very often built upon, giving them exotic allures and turning them into intense business centers, thanks to their role of communication roads. The name Pont au Change given to one of them just shows that the money changing activity took place there. The Louvre tower, fortified western part of the wall of Philip Augustus built during the 13th century was made bigger and stronger than other parts of the wall for the purpose of confronting any enemy coming up the river. And from then on, an iron chain (which can no longer be seen) crossed the river, ready to be pulled up in order to block any unwelcome ship. On the other hand the Quai de Grève, a dock located yards away from the actual city hall, was an intense center of business harboring all of the merchandise brought in and out by boat.
The Place de Grève and its port, a central merchant place in medieval Paris
Apart from those historical and human elements, topography issues and natural disasters related to the river struck the capital. Floodings were recorded as early as the 4th century by Emperor Julian, even though the topography of the city was not exactly the same. It is no coincidence that the central right bank neighborhood was called “Le Marais”, “The Swamp”: in the first centuries of our era, this neighbourhood was a swampy, marshy area, just like most of the immediate right bank of the river.
Ancient map of Paris dating around 1000 showing how little developed and unwelcoming the right bank was.
Along the river’s right bank (upper part) is the inscription “Marais”, “Swamp”
During the past decades Parisians have heard of a once in the century phenomenon, an exceptional flooding. The latest recorded one before 2016 was in 1910, with a rise of 8.60 meters (8.74 yards) above standard level. The biggest registered flooding in Paris dates 1658 with a peak height of 8.90 meters. During this event, at least 60 people had died with the collapsing of parts of St Louis island bridges, which were made of wood like almost every bridge at the time apart from the first stone bridge called the Pont Neuf built in 1606, the Pont Marie in 1632 and the Pont de la Tournelle in 1656. This disaster was the starting point of a new legislation forbidding the construction of houses on such bridges. These brutal geographical events occurred all throughout time in Paris. Nowadays the historical marker of the Seine river’s height is the statue at the base of the Alma bridge called the “Zouave” (a reference to a World War I character) . In 1910, that figure had water up to the shoulders. In 2016, the rather brutal flooding which occured in Paris however only covered the “Zouave” up to the knee.
The Alma bridge “Zouave” in 1910
The Zouave in 2016
The flooding which took place this year in 2016 was, in regard to those mentioned above, rather tame. The 6 meter limit means flooding of neighbourhoods, but the 8 meter limit would cut off electricity and completely isolate some of the central districts of the city. Pictures of the 1910 events illustrate the impact of such a rise.
The Quai de Bethune during the 1910 floodings,
Paris Cityhall archives
Avenue Ledru Rolling in 1910,
Nerudein-Roger Viollet picture
The Boulevard Saint Germain in 1910,
BHVP/Roger Viollet pictures
It is a fact that the soil of Paris, which has a lot of limestone, can absorb a limited amount of water. Because a lot of the underground has been carved in for the creation of the catacombs and the metro railway over centuries, the underground’s capacity to absorb water has been somewhat fragilized. Here and then, we learn of a small collapse in a district of Paris. When the soil is saturated, the water has nowhere left to go. Which can have multiple consequences. Analysts have been warning people that the soil of Paris is getting more fragile. Discussions are now focused on the measures taken by authorities to prevent such disasters form happening. Compared with 1910, the population of Paris itself has not changed a lot, but the overall population including suburbs has passed from around 4 Million to about 10 Million… Furthermore, 100 percent of the population is now electricity connected, against 2 percent in 1910. Not to count cars, and electronic installations and services…
A very scenic picture of the quays of the Seine during the 2016 flooding
The river Seine grows bigger only a few miles before Paris with the convergence of the Loing River. Security dams and evacuation basins would unfortunately be of little help against an intense episode, as the water has to be evacuated one way or another… An evacuation canal would be a great solution. But political will and a massive investment of money are required to deal with the problem once and for all.
Pierre Terdjman, New York Times International Edition cover in June 2016,
the Seine flooded at the Gare d’Austerlitz