Aside from its universities, the arrondissement is a cultural hub, gathering in its perimeter several 18th century churches, a synagogue, the Paris Mosque, as well as several museums and the Arab World Institute (AWI).
Every week, from May to October, the AWI organises a walking tour of historic Paris, to give tourists and residents alike an insight into just how far back the Arab connections with the French capital go.
‘The heart of Paris has few obvious traces of the ties France has with the Arab world and so a walking tour was devised to show people facets of the city with this in mind,’ says Marie Georges Nadi, a historic Paris tour guide with AWI.
‘We also realised that an Arab presence manifests itself in places of religious interest, such as the Saint Julien Le Pauvre Church, which is a Melkite Greek Catholic church, the Paris Mosque and in the university area here in the fifth,’ says Nadi.
The meeting point for the walking tour is the Collège de France on Rue des Ecoles where early teachings of Arabic first took place under King François 1st (1515-1545). It was in 1530 that he ordered the teaching of Greek, Hebrew and Arabic at the college.
Thus, it was over half a century ago that ties with the region began. This era also coincided with France becoming the first Christian nation to establish a diplomatic alliance with the Ottoman Empire. This initiated a flow of diplomats, intellectuals, tourists and students from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa and by the end of the 18th century, relationships with the Arab world were strong. It was a common sight to see someone dressed in Middle Eastern attire and the characters even made their way into engravings, watercolours and oil paintings of the period.
When the AWI – the cultural product of a partnership between France and 22 Arab countries – launched its two and a half hour walking tour of Arab historic sites in the Latin Quarter six years ago, its primary goal was to educate the public by exploring France’s links to the Arab world. Now part of their mission is to help shed some light on the historic past of first and second-generation French citizens, their grandparents’ language and civilisation.
‘This area is marked by the presence of the church and teaching was mainly carried out on the Isle de Cité [a small island in the middle of the Seine] in the grounds of Nôtre Dame Cathedral. During the 13th century, students and professors tried to separate themselves from the religious teachings of the church and move toward a more liberal education system. They also physically moved away to an area across the Seine in fifth arrondissement that was set up as a new education hub,’ explains Nadi.
Students from all over the world came to learn and lived in dormitories, which grouped people together from their nationality, hence the street names in the area like Rue des Anglais (English Street) or Rue des Irlandais (Irish Street).
During the Crusades, an awareness of the Orient was created and its scientific, mathematical, medical, astronomical and technological superiority over the West pushed professors, who were also monks, to travel to the Middle East to learn from scholars there.
‘In 1453 when Constantinople became Ottoman, what had been a scientific interest in the Arab world became a political interest and to combat Muslims who were on Europe’s doorstep, we had to know them, not just their religion but also their language,’ Nadi tells us.
So, Oriental language studies were introduced slowly at the Collège de France and teachers – who were monks usually from Rome – taught Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and Persian.
A stone’s throw away from the College towards the Seine is where printing presses were once established to produce books for the universities. Arabic books were also printed to feed the demand for the new colleges teaching Oriental languages. Books were also translated into Arabic in a knowledge-sharing capacity.
However, today, just an eclectic selection of bookshops pepper the streets around the schools as the printing presses have moved elsewhere.
Now known as an area of Paris where old meets new, the fifth continues to draw a trendy crowd of students, actors of French cinema and arty types. The neighbourhood has become prosperous and garnered a somewhat bourgeois reputation as it relies on its intellectual past.
A colourful sweet shop on Rue Monge, run by a man who simply goes by George, has therefore found the perfect market for his luxury treats. He sells more than 70 types of regional sweets from all over France. ‘We sell by the weight and have a customer base that is very varied from people who arrive in chauffered limousines to school children who pop in on their way home,’ he says.
As the walk continues, it moves past minimalist hotels on streets corners, more bookshops, florists, specialist art galleries and concludes at one of the oldest churches in Paris; the Saint Julien Le Pauvre Church built between 1165 and 1220.
Throughout the 19th century many Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians came to Paris from the Melkite-Greek Catholic religion. As their numbers grew, they were given permission to open a place of worship. In 1888, the Saint Julien Le Pauvre, previously part of the Hotel-Dieu Hospital was rented out to the faithful, who took on a big renovation task.
It is still one of the most important points of worship for Christian Arabs in Paris and it carries out mass in Latin every week. This polished Parisian neighbourhood is built on such a solid history that remnants of it cannot help but permeate through to the hip and trendy arrondissement it is today.
The students are still there and for some coming from the Arab world, they may find themselves retracing the steps of their ancestors – they just have to know where to look. The romantic, glamourous and fashionable Paris known to most, just got another string to its bow.