Once feted as a triumph of nineteenth-century engineering and regarded as the linchpin of Britain’s empire, the Suez Canal nowadays seems as the author Joseph Conrad described it: “a dismal but profitable ditch”, connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Except around the harbour mouths or where ships are glimpsed between sandbanks, it’s a pretty dull waterway relieved only by the interesting cities of Port Said and Ismailiya.
Foreigners generally unfairly overlook both Port Said and Ismailiya, prejudging them on the basis of Suez, a neglected and untidy city but a vital transport nexus between Cairo, the Sinai and the Red Sea Coast. The Canal scarcely impinges on the leafy, villa-lined streets of Ismailiya, once the residence of the Suez Canal Company’s European staff and now a popular honeymoon destination for Egyptians. By contrast, with its evocative waterfront, beaches and duty-free shopping, Port Said feels like Alexandria minus its cultural baggage – and a place that’s somehow more authentic as a maritime city.
The first attempts to connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean are usually attributed to Necho II (610–595 BC). However, it was Persian emperor Darius, around 500 BC, who completed the region’s first canal, linking the Red Sea and the Great Bitter Lake, from where an older waterway connected with Bubastis on the Nile and from there on to the Mediterranean. Refined by the Ptolemies and Trajan, these waterways were restored by Amr, following the Muslim conquest, and used for shipping corn to Arabia until the eighth century, when they were deliberately abandoned to starve out rebels in Medina.
The idea of a direct Red Sea-Mediterranean canal was first mooted – then vetoed – by Napoleon’s engineers, who miscalculated a difference of ten metres between the two sea levels. The later discovery of this error encouraged junior French consul Ferdinand de Lesseps to present his own plan to Said Pasha, who approved it despite British objections.
Work began in 1859 and continued throughout the reign of Said’s successor, Ismail, who went bankrupt attempting to finance his £19 million sterling investment. In 1875, he was forced to sell his shares to Britain – swooping before France could make an offer – for £4 million sterling. When the Canal opened in 1888, its vast profits went abroad with the Suez Canal Company, while two world wars transformed the Canal Zone into the world’s largest military base.
Post World War II
In the wake of World War II, guerrilla attacks in the Zone led to the British assault on Ismailiya’s police barracks, sparking Cairo’s “Black Saturday”. After the 1952 Revolution, Egypt demanded the British army’s withdrawal and a greater share of the Canal’s revenue, and when the West refused to make loans to finance the Aswan High Dam, Nasser announced the Canal’s nationalization (July 26, 1956). Britain and France agreed to use Israel’s advance into Sinai that October as a pretext for “safeguarding” the Canal by bombarding and invading its cities. But by standing firm and appealing to outraged world opinion, Nasser emerged victorious from the Suez Crisis.
The 1967 War with Israel, and the subsequent “War of Attrition”, led to the closure of the Canal until 1969. The Egyptians then stormed the Israeli-fortified Bar-Lev Line along the Canal’s east bank during the 1973 10th Ramadan/Yom Kippur War. Although the Canal was reopened in 1975, both sides remained dug in on opposite banks until 1982, when Israel withdrew from Sinai.
The cities of the Canal Zone played an important role in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of President Mubarak in early 2011, notably Suez, where anti-regime protests were a catalyst for demonstrations throughout the country. In February 2012, 74 people were killed at a riot at a football match in Port Said. Many believe the violence was politically motivated, and rumours that the police had failed to intervene sparked days of clashes across Egypt in which a further sixteen people died.
ISMAILIYA is popular with Egyptian tourists and honeymooners, who come to enjoy the beaches along Lake Timsah. While many might think that the place came into being with the building of the Suez Canal in 1862, historical research dates human settlement in the region to biblical times – the area is mentioned in the Bible itself. Today the city has a schizoid character, defined by the rail line that cuts across it. South of the tracks lies the European-style garden city built for foreign employees of the Suez Canal Company, which extends to the verdant banks of the Sweetwater Canal. Following careful restoration, its leafy boulevards and placid streets, lined with colonial villas, look almost as they must have done in the 1930s, with bilingual street signs nourishing the illusion that the British Empire has just popped indoors for a quick cocktail. North of the train tracks is another world of hastily constructed flats grafted onto long-standing slums, and a quarter financed by the Gulf Emirates that provides a cordon sanitaire for the wealthy suburb of Nemrah Setta (Number Six).
Around Easter time, Ismailiya is a good place to witness the spring festival of Sham al-Nessim, when families picnic in the park between the Sweetwater Canal and Lake Timsah, vehicles are decorated with flowers and little girls compete for the coveted title of “Miss Strawberry”. Even better is the “Doll-Burning” or Limbo Festival, held a week later. Its curious title refers to a hated nineteenth-century local governor – Limbo Bey – effigies of whom were torched by the citizenry. Ever since then, it has been customary to burn dolls resembling your pet hate: footballers are popular targets whenever Ismailiya’s club does poorly. The dolls are burned on the streets after dark.
Founded at the start of the Canal excavations, PORT SAID (Bur Said in Arabic) was by the late nineteenth century an important port where all the major maritime powers had consulates. It was long synonymous with smuggling and vice, and the French adventurer Henry de Monfreid was amused by the Arab cafés where “native policemen as well as coolies” smoked hashish in back rooms, supplied by primly respectable Greeks. Nowadays, this bustling city of around 540,000 remains an important harbour and fuelling station for ships passing through the Suez Canal. A faintly raffish atmosphere lingers and its timber-porched houses have something of the feel of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Before the downturn in tourism caused by the global financial crisis and the Egyptian revolution, Port Said had been attempting to lure tourists away from Alexandria by promising better shops and less crowded beaches. These days, however, aside from day-trippers from the cruise liners, foreign tourists seldom visit the city.
On the southern side of the city centre, the area around Ahmed Shawki and Al-Guesh streets, close to the Arsenal Basin, are good places to see some of Port Said’s dusty nineteenth-century European-style colonial houses, which although dilapidated remain wonderfully evocative. Sadly, with new constructions springing up constantly, these buildings may not be there much longer.
Unlike Port Said and Ismailiya, SUEZ (Es-Suweis in Arabic) has a history long predating the Canal, going back to Ptolemaic Klysma. As Arabic Qulzum, the port prospered from the spice trade and pilgrimages to Mecca throughout medieval times, remaining a walled city until the eighteenth century. The Canal brought modernization and revenues, later augmented by the discovery of oil in the Gulf of Suez, though the city was later devastated during the wars with Israel. Today most of Suez’s 490,000 inhabitants live in prefabricated estates or the patched-up remnants of older quarters, while noxious petrochemical refineries, cement and fertiliser plants ring the outskirts. The city is mainly used by travellers as an interchange between Cairo, the Sinai Peninsula and Hurghada. There is a distinct lack of things to do in Suez, and although local people are friendly, modest dress is advised.
An imposing statue of the pharaoh Tuthmosis III stands at the western end of Al Corniche street, which overlooks the Bay of Suez; meanwhile, on either side of the road at the eastern entrance, you’ll see statues of two tigers growling and crouching as if ready to pounce. Signifying strength, they were built to guide ships through the canal. Similar tiger statues, destroyed by the Israelis in the 1967 war, originally stood on either side of the Canal’s entrance.
The premier Suez activity is, of course, to take a trip to the port area to look at the enormous freighters and supertankers on the Canal. Don’t be tempted to take photographs, however; it’s illegal, and there are security officers stationed in the area. In the spring, migratory birds of prey (including Griffon vultures and eagles) make an arresting sight.
Heading from the Canal Zone to the southern part of the Sinai you’ll cross the Canal via either the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel (12km north of Suez) or the car ferry (7km north of Ismailiya), which runs almost non-stop during the day. Destinations in the northern Sinai, which is very unsettled at the moment, are served by the passenger ferry at Qantara (Arabic for “bridge”), 44km from Ismailiya and 80km from Port Said, and the nearby 4.1km Ferdan Suspension Bridge.
A couple of kilometres to the south is the Ferdan Railway Bridge, built on the site of an old track constructed to transport army troops to Gaza during World War I, but dismantled by the Israelis in 1968. The world’s largest retractable bridge, with a span of 340m, it was devised in the late 1990s, when a rail network running the Orient Express was planned, linking Egypt to Turkey and Europe via Palestine, Israel and Lebanon. This has since been put on hold, but you can still see the bridge – which sits alongside the Canal when not in use – in operation daily (9–11am & 9pm–1am) to allow trains and cars to cross the Canal.
The 163km long Suez Canal, the world’s third longest, generally handles up to fifty ships a day (though its full capacity is 75) with an average transit time of fifteen hours. During its closure in the early 1970s, supertankers were built to travel around Africa – and proved too large to pass through Suez once it reopened. The Canal was subsequently widened in places, but is still not wide enough for continuous two-way traffic. In 2008–2009, the canal earned a record $5.11 billion, but the subsequent fall in global trade means this may not be matched for some time to come. For more information, visit w suezcanal.gov.eg.