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The Curious History of the Paris Meridian

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Last Updated on 22nd November 2020 by Sophie Nadeau

Sure, everyone has heard of the Greenwich Meridian, the line from which all other lines of longitude are measured. Well, for the longest time, the Greenwich Mean Time Meridian line had a now often-forgotten competitor and alternative: the Paris Meridian.

Cutting its way through the heart of the french capital city, the invisible line is a hidden gem which many tourists pass over and yet fail to notice. But after you’ve enjoyed the Louvre Museum and marvelled at the view from Pont des Arts, go out in search of this little known curiosity…

The Curious History of the Paris Meridian

The origins of the Paris meridian

Once upon a time, each country would have had its own prime Meridian. However, this inevitably made shipping schedules, communications between countries, and world timing pretty tricky! As time went by, it was decided by an international community during the 17th-century that a ‘prime meridian’ be chosen and it was at this time that the Greenwich line was chosen to be used as such.

Perhaps rather interestingly, the original Greenwich Mean time line is not where the Royal Observatory is today but actually a short walk away, and as such is one of the lesser-kept secrets of the Greenwich area of London. Back in Paris, in the 17th-century, François Arago, worked out the precise calculations for the French meridian. Before this, it was thought to have existed around 20 degrees West of Paris!

Truth be told, France maintained its own Meridian right up until 1911 when it was forced to adopt international standards, by which point this was the Greenwich Meridian in London. Today, the Parisian meridian coordinates are as such: 2°20′14.03″

Is the Paris Meridian related to Paris Point Zero?

If you’ve read much about the offbeat side of Paris before, then no doubt you’ll have heard of Paris point zero. Situated on the Parvis de Notre Dame, steps away from the world famous cathedral (which is currently closed for reparations following the devastating fire of April 2019), Paris Point Zero is the location from which all other distances in the city are measured.

However, in spite of being a measurement marker, Paris Point Zero has nothing to do with the Paris Meridian. And while the Paris Meridian markers can still be spied across the cities (in the places where they haven’t been stolen or covered over during roadworks), the Paris Point Zero is likely to be under wraps for the next few years during the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral.

paris point zero

Where to see the Paris Meridian today

If you’re on the search for the Parisian meridian today, then know that, in spite of what you might think, you can actually follow this invisible line! You see, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets created Homage to Arago in Paris in 1994 (making both myself and these markers the same age!), which follows the invisible Paris Meridian line and comprises of 135 bronze medallions set into the pavement.

Following the invisible line from Porte de Montmartre in the North of the city and right down to Cité Universitaire in the South, it’s hard to miss the installation when wandering around the city. Unfortunately, over time, some of these medallions have been stolen. Nevertheless, enough remain to this day to be spied across the city and I personally spotted several near the Louvre Museum and close to Pont des Arts!

Elsewhere in the city, there’s a stone plinth which once held a statue commemorating François Arago himself! The famous French astronomer lived from 1786 and 1853 and, once upon a time, the 14th arrondissement hosted a monument to Arago, directly behind the French observatory.

However, head to the 14th today and all you’ll discover is an empty plinth. It’s thought that the metallic statue was melted down during the Second World War, thus rendering it one of the most curious sights in this part of Paris! Since the 1990s, there’s been a campaign to restore the statue

About Author

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, Paris, pizza, and history, though not necessarily in that order. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she's not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming her weight in sweet food. Currently based in Paris after studies in London, she's spent most of her life living in the beautiful Devonian countryside in South West England!

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