I think of all the Xavier Gonzalez murals painted for the New Orleans airport in 1938, the flight over Egypt might be my favorite story–though not necessarily favorite painting. I think there are aspects of all of them that make each unique in its own way, and I have come to appreciate the vision of Gonzalez in how he decided to portray the wonders of aviation as newly introduced to the world. By 1938 when Gonzalez undertook the murals, flight was emerging from its infancy, and commercial flying was moving into the skies.
The mural is described as a French biplane cruising over the great statues of Memnon, with the Nile River in the foreground, Egyptian columns with ‘lotus capitals’ to the right, and the ancient temples and tomb in the distant background (Save the Murals, Egypt, Friends of New Orleans Lakefront Airport).
A “first” in Egyptian flight (which in 1910 was still under British administration) was the 1910 Heliopolis Air Meet (Leiser, G. 2010. The first flight above Egypt: The Great Week of Aviation at Heliopolis, 1910. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20(13), 267-294). Twelve pilots and 18 planes entered the competition (some pilots brought more than one plane), including 2 French Bleriots, 4 French Voisins, 2 French Farmans, 2 French Antoinettes, 1 American Curtiss, and 1 German Grade. The Bleriot and the Antoinette were both monoplanes. That left only the Voisin biplane and Farman biplane as the possible plane depicted by Gonzalez. Photographs of both planes indicate the plane was a Voisin, although Gonzalez may have used a model that occurred a couple of years later than 1910. One of the Voisins was flown (or “driven” as was often said then) by Baroness de la Roche, on her first public flight (Trica, A. C., March 1910. Foreign news. In Aircraft, Volume 1. New York: New York).
The Statues of Memnon depicted are:
…twin monolithic quartzite statues of pharaoh Amenthep III, c. 1400 B. C. (Fred Stross, 1973, University of California-Berkeley)
Although the Colossi of Memnon are located further south of Heliopolis (Cairo) near Luxor, the flight routes of the air meet extended out into the desert away from the city, and might have extended as far as the statues. That would seem to be the reason for inclusion, other than artistic license, although they did not directly front to the Nile. Davis Roberts sketched the statues of Memnon on location in 1838, with the temples and tomb in the background, and lithographer Louis Haghe produced the print.
Davis Roberts, 1838, Retrieved from US Archives