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Port Cities in World History


Port Said, Egypt: Canal Gateway to Global Hub?

Howard J. Dooley


     Port Said is a relative newcomer to the history of port cities, just 157 years old in 2016. The site, a low sandy strip on Egypt's northeast Mediterranean coast, at the eastern edge of the Nile Delta, was chosen by Ferdinand de Lesseps as the starting point for building the Suez Canal. On April 25, 1859, he ceremonially broke ground on the beach, raised the Egyptian flag, and named the city for Viceroy Mohammed Said. Port Said began as the construction camp from which the Suez Canal was excavated from north to south through the Isthmus of Suez. 1 The new city became the gateway to what was world's greatest organizational and engineering marvel when it opened in 1869.

     Port Said started as a single-row of barrack-huts planted on piles on an open beach.2 A temporary wooden lighthouse and a landing jetty followed within a month. Piers were built from April 1860 to create a small port to bring in supplies. In 1865 construction began on a deep-water harbor through which construction equipment, supplies, and personnel could be funneled. Two massive breakwaters were built by sinking a row of prefabricated concrete blocks manufactured on site from harbor sand and lime, a brand-new construction technique. The breakwaters provided protection for one of the largest harbors on the planet, built where experts thought impossible and where no materials existed for its construction.3

     A week before the canal's inauguration, Port Said acquired it's first landmark: a lighthouse in the form of an octagonal tower painted with vertical black and white stripes to make it visible by day from fifteen miles away; at night, it beamed two flashes per minute of 1,250,00 candlepower that were visible twenty miles out to sea.  The 185-foot lighthouse, too, was an innovation, the first structure built of reinforced concrete.4

     Port Said was erected on landfill dredged to make the harbor. It originated as a European town exported to the Middle East, laid out on a grid with buildings imported as kits. In 1862, buildings began to be set on concrete foundations and masonry cemeteries were created above ground because salt water in the subsoil made burial impossible. The new town became the largest workshop in the world.  Steam–powered dredgers and other newly invented devices were assembled there before joining other giant machines digging their way through the Isthmus.5 Metal plants, cement works, earthmovers, cranes, and distillation plants required by the builders were also serviced in Port Said. This maintenance function meant that, from then to now, a key population of Port Said consists of engineers and technicians. The town's population rose from 5,000 in 1864 to 8,000 in 1867. By May 1869 the Isthmus had become a construction camp of 42,400 people: 22,800 Europeans and 19,600 Arabs. 6

Figure 1
  Figure 1. Lighthouse and Breakwater at the Entrance of the Suez Canal, Port Said. The Illustrated London News, No. 2255, Vol. LXXXI, July 22, 1882. (January 13, 2016)  

     Construction of the canal took a decade, from ground breaking in April 1859 to completion in November 1869. Nearly 100 million cubic yards of sand and stone were excavated to create a channel 24 feet deep and 98 miles long that ran from the Mediterranean at Port Said to the Gulf of Suez.

     On November 16, 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated by Viceroy Ismail in a splendid ceremony at Port Said. The Viceroy invited all the crowned heads of Europe, plus 1,000 notables, among them authors Dumas, Ibsen, and Zola. The harbor was jammed with eighty flag-bedecked ships. Attending royalty were led by the Empress Eugénie of France, and included Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary; Dutch Crown Prince Hendrik; and Prussian Crown Prince Frederick. The guests of honor came ashore for a formal blessing of the canal by an ecumenical assembly representing the Muslim, Coptic, Catholic, and Greek-Orthodox religions. The next day, November 17, a convoy of sixty ships led by the French yacht Aigle began their progress southwards, to Ismailia where tens of thousands of invited and uninvited guests gathered for two days of partying.7 The convoy resumed on the 19th and the ships' procession concluded with a triumphal entry into the Gulf of Suez on the 20th.8  The five-day bash far outdid celebration of the other great engineering project completed in 1869: the transcontinental railroad across the United States, inaugurated on May 10th, by the driving of the "Golden Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah.

     A unique artifact survives from what was the party of the century: the cast-iron Pavilion constructed at Port Said for the pleasure of the Empress Eugenie of France as a temporary residence and viewing stage for the ceremonies marking the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. In 1876, Emperor Napoleon III made a gift of the structure to his friend, King Nordom of Cambodia. Despite its refurbishment in 1991, largely paid for by the Government of France, it was still in poor condition until relatively recently, when  it has been reported to be serving as an exhibition hall annex of the Cambodian Royal Palace Museum in Phnom Penh. The building serves as a reminder of the close relationship between France and the royal families of France's client states/ dependencies in Indochina, as well an example of 19th European achievement in ironwork structures such as the Eiffel Tower, constructed in 1889.9

Figure 2
  Figure 2. Iron House: The Pavilion of Napoleon III, shipped as a kit from France and assembled for the use the Empress Eugenie during the inauguration of the Suez Canal, November 1869. In 1876, Napoleon III made a gift of the structure to his friend, King Nordom of Cambodia. It is now at the Cambodian Royal Palace, Phnom Penh. Photograph courtesy of Marc Jason Gilbert c. 2009.  

Figure 3
  Figure 3. Interior staircase of the Pavilion of Napoleon III. Royal Palace Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photograph courtesy of Marc Jason Gilbert c. 2009.   

     With the passage of the first toll paying ship later in November, the canal began its transformation into a highway of commerce.  Ships paid their tolls on arrival at Port Said and took on a pilot for the first half of the canal, along with an auxiliary rudder invented in 1872. Vessels also took on coal to power their steam propulsion systems, because no sailing ships could use the canal. Coal became the major import into Port Said, and during the 1870s the town became the largest and most efficient coaling station in the world.10

Town Space and Architecture

     Port Said was where Western ideas of urban space met the East.  Port Said was planned to become a city, laid out on a checkerboard pattern with wide, straight streets intersecting at right angles. Port Said's streets were lit by gaslight in 1876, and by 1891, only nine years after New York, Port Said had electricity.11  Its rigid geometry was in marked contrast to traditional Middle Eastern city, with narrow and winding medieval alleys. Egypt's Viceroy Ismail was impressed, and sought to emulate the European model by reconstructing parts of Cairo in belle époque style.12

Figure 4
  Figure 4. Port Said overview looking north towards the Mediterranean c. 1900. Postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders. Rice University. Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA.) (January 13, 2016)  

     Port Said's private buildings were a hybrid style, combining the inclined roof of Europe, to ward off winter rains, with the veranda of Asia, to moderate the heat of summer.  Height restrictions emulating Paris limited building height to five stories. Colonnaded ground floors provided shaded walkways for pedestrians and shoppers.13 Above ground level ornate wood balustrades became typical of Port Said, as did louvered shutters that could be adjusted to block the sun while manipulating air currents to ventilate the rooms. Later complicated ironwork decorations and elegant moldings were added to facades as the Beaux-Arts style, popular across the European colonial world, and Moorish revival designs embellished the city. Today, Port Said is still characterized by intricate wooden balconies and high verandas that overhang old wooden doors and faded pastel facades. Though many have been torn down and replaced with standard modern concrete and glass, those that remain leave Port Said with an appealing, albeit fading, colonial ambience.14    

Figure 5
  Figure 5. Port Said, Rue du Commerce. Original Postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 12, 2016).  

     Port Said acquired its iconic landmark building in 1895: the Suez Canal Administration building, begun in 1890 and built in Moorish revival style to the design of Charles Marette. With its three green domes and white arcades, it is the most picturesque building in the canal zone, still a proud symbol of both the city and the canal. Its function was the maritime traffic control center for ships entering the canal from the Mediterranean and headed south to the Red Sea.

Figure 6
  Figure 6. Suez Canal Administration Building, Port Said. Author's photograph.  

       Navy House at the entrance to the canal proper, just south of the Canal Administration Building, was a bit less prominent but also a landmark.  It was first called Maison Hollandaise, built as a center for Dutch trade interests, complete with a casino and hotel. After the British occupation in 1882, the Royal Navy bought it and made it its headquarters, renamed Navy House.

     After the death of Ferdinand de Lesseps on December 7, 1894, the canal company decided to erect a memorial to him and his vision. On November 17, 1899, the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Suez Canal, a 24-foot bronze statue was unveiled atop a 31-foot pedestal on the jetty at Port Said. The sculpture showed him wearing the grand cordon of the Legion of Honor, holding a map of the canal in his left hand, and with his right arm half-extended towards the waterway's entrance, the city of Port Said, and the East. Port Said thus acquired its greatest monument, a tribute to his dream and its realization as the greatest organizational and engineering achievement of the 19th century.

Figure 7
  Figure 7. Monument to Ferdinand de Lesseps, 1899. Original postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 12, 2016).  

     The waterfront was lined with stores, offices, and commercial signs e.g. for Cook's Tours and Johnny Walker scotch. The most prominent commercial landmark was the Simon Arzt department store and souvenir emporium, founded by a Jewish immigrant from New York. The shopkeepers adapted the hours of their stores to the times of arrival of the passenger ships and made the whole town one vast market.

Figure 8
  Figure 8. Postcard showing the arrival of a steamer, Port Said, Egypt. Photographer: Lehnert & Landrock, Cairo. (January 13, 2016) The ship is probably the Le Porthos, a liner of the Compaigne des Messageries Maritimes, which served on the Marseille-Saigon-Haiphong route from its launch in 1914 to 1939.  

Cosmopolitan Community

     Port Said's population had reached 10,000 when the canal opened in 1869; by 1882, it had grown to 18,332.  It was a cosmopolitan community from the start.  The canal administration was French, both its staff and operating language. French was, of course, the town's lingua franca.  The canal company's workshops and engineering facilities were in Port Said, operational headquarters was located in Ismailia, while upper management and the board of directors sat in Paris.

Figure 9
  Figure 9. The French Cathedral and Kitchener Street, Port Said. (Mayorkino, A.K.) Original postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 18, 2006)  

     The British community grew after London purchased a bankrupt Egypt's shares of the Canal Company in 1876, and after 1882, the British controlled customs and the local police. The British sniffed that Port Said was a "hardship post", isolated and insular in comparison with other more sophisticated outposts of empire such as Alexandria, and the British community coexisted with the French in a kind of " touchy rapport".  By the 1930s the British community was overwhelmingly Maltese, who acquired British nationality as result of living in a Crown Colony.15

     The merchants were mainly Greek, Italian, and Jewish16. The Greek community began with 5,000 workers who helped build the canal and many stayed to open businesses after its opening. The Italians arrived as engineers and technical personnel and like the Greeks stayed on.  A small Jewish community began soon after the canal opened. Just twenty people by 1882, it grew to 400 by the 1897 census, peaked at 1,009 in 1926, and slipped to 864 by 1947.

     The texture of life in the flourishing cosmopolitan community of the 1930s is nostalgically recalled by Sylvia Modelski, in her memoir Port Said Revisited.  The daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper, she vividly describes the frenzy stirred by the cry, "A ship is coming!", and recollects how the foreign communities joined in celebrating their holidays. Bastille Day, July 14th, served as the festival day for the whole city as well as the French national holiday. The British marked Empire Day on May 24th, the day of Queen Victoria's birth. The Italians celebrated September 20th, the anniversary of Garibaldi's entry into Rome. The Austrians marked the birthday of Emperor Franz Josef on August 18th. The Greeks kept Easter and Epiphany as their major festivals. 17

     In 1886, Egyptians were 63 per cent of Port Said's 20,000 inhabitants; in 1897, they were 57 per cent of its 42,300 people; and by 1899 they were 49 per cent of the city's 49,000 inhabitants.  The Egyptians originally lived apart from the Europeans in an "Arab town" to the west. It was divided according to the origins of the inhabitants, as workers from the Delta gathered with their families in one location while workers from Upper Egypt, who did most of the coal-heaving, resided in another section. In 1891 the European town was reserved for Europeans while its Arabs were limited to workmen, boatmen, coal-heavers, and police, but after 1900 the dividing line dissolved, the two communities joined together, and Egyptians and Europeans mingled in the streets. The coal heavers doubled their productivity and trebled their pay, to 8d. per ton.18

Figure 10
  Figure 10. Port Said, Native Quarter. Original Postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 14, 2016).  

Figure 11
  Figure 11. Mosque at Port Said. (Lichtenstern & Harari). Original postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 18, 2016).  

The Wild East

     In its early years, Port Said was a frontier settlement. A visitor in 1873 observed that with its brand-new buildings, unpaved and dark streets, "Port Said seems quite American", like a town in the Wild West. Until night transits began in 1887 when the canal was lit with electric lights, all southbound ships had to stop in Port Said overnight. Passengers and crew who had been penned up on board ship came ashore looking for souvenirs and nightlife. In its raffish heyday, Port Said was Egypt's sin city, whose cafes "filled with roulette tables banned elsewhere in Egypt made gambling and drink into their main sources of income". In this new town set in the "Wild East", the threat of crime "compelled many men to carry revolvers after nightfall" until gas-lights, introduced in 1876, reduced the crime rate.19 After Britain took charge of law-and-order in Port Said in 1882, the "over-colorful elements that had earned a certain reputation for the city in its early years were relegated to the western edge of town, near Lake Menzaleh". There, Port Said's brothels thrived for years, making the city an intercontinental sex capital and initiation center for young white men traveling East of Suez.20 Workers in the sex trade were both Egyptian and European. Foreign prostitutes came from Italy, France, Greece, Russia, and Romania; throughout Egypt, Greeks were the most numerous, though there were also many Jewish women from eastern Europe and Russia. Like other Europeans, the prostitutes enjoyed extraterritorial privileges under the Capitulations, outside the jurisdiction of local police and legal systems. The Europeans served foreign visitors and men of the Egyptian elites while the clientele of Egyptian prostitutes were mainly Egyptians, poorer Europeans, and British soldiers.21 This "sin city" survived well into the 20th century until, in 1949, its removal began in earnest.22   

Around The World Via Suez

     The success of the Suez Canal was not instantaneous. Despite the fanfare that marked the opening, nearly a decade passed until it fulfilled its promise as a trade and travel route. Once the canal route won acceptance by 1879, it marked "the greatest technical change in the history of ocean shipping since the voyage of da Gama."23 Using the waterway dramatically cut the distance from Europe to India e.g. from Marseilles to Bombay was 10,600 miles via the Cape of Good Hope versus 4,600 miles via Suez, a savings of 6,000 miles. The Suez shortcut made it the vital artery of trade during the first great era of globalization.

     Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873, imagined his hero Phineas Fogg beginning a race around the world in London, and by Day Six had him passing through Port Said on a steamer headed south to Suez and the Red Sea.  He made sure to go to the British Consulate to get his passport stamped as proof of visitation for his wager. Fogg was not interested in the sights of the canal zone, only the clock and ship schedule to get to the next stop—Bombay—on his globe circling itinerary. The book was a best seller and demonstrated the feasibility of "globe-trotting" tourism.24    

  Figure 12. Map of Port Said, 1885, with Hotels and Consulates. From Baedeker, Karl. "Egypt, Handbook for Travellers. Part 1. Lower Egypt, with the Fayum and the Peninsula of Sinai" (K. Baedeker: Leipsic, London 1885). From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 19, 2016).  

     Thomas Cook, inventor of the travel agency, who had attended the canal's opening25, launched global tourism with the first organized tour around the world in 18811882. It sailed outwards from Britain and east via the Suez Canal. From 1884 onwards, world tours became fashionable, as the Grand Tour was globalized, and the world divided into the traveling nations and the toured nations.26 Port Said became a mandatory port of call as the tours called at a string of port cities from the Mediterranean through the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Grand hotels became landmarks in their own right e.g. Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  In Port Said the Eastern Exchange Hotel, built in 1890, became a favored stop for globetrotters. Framed by elaborate cast iron verandas, it was dubbed "The Iron House" by locals. 

Kipling: Romance Of Suez

     The newly united world was divided by Rudyard Kipling, who brought the Suez Canal into literature as well as the popular imagination.27 He coined the term "East of Suez" in 1887 as a synonym for Asia in contrast to Europe. He used "East of Suez" in several journalistic pieces, and then in Mandalay recalled his youth in India and Burma and romantic homesickness for Asia: Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst; For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be….On the Road to Mandalay.28 Popularized through verse and song, "East of Suez" passed into literature as well as became a popular idiom. In "East of Suez' Kipling shifted the frontier of Europe eastwards from the Balkans to the isthmus at the junction of Asia and Africa, which he made the focus of three continents instead of two. 29

     Port Said, said Kipling, was where the East began. The city embodied in itself the function of the Suez Canal as "the gate of East and West." At the entrance to the Suez Canal the lingua franca of the Levant gave way to the lingua franca of the East. Port Said also marked the beginning of "the well remembered smell of the East, that runs without change from the Canal head to Hong Kong,"30 and "The smell of the East, One & Indivisible, Immemorial, Eternal, and above all, Instructive."31 Indeed, Kipling located the precise dividing line between the East and West in the heart of Port Said. In Letters of Travel, he identified the Canal Company garden, near the famous lighthouse, as the place that "marks a certain dreadful and exact division between East and West."32

     Port Said, for Kipling, was a universal rendezvous, where if you wait long enough you will meet most of those you have known in life.  The city at the head of the canal was like Charing Cross Station in London or the Nyanza Docks on Lake Victoria: "There are three great doors in the world where, if you stand long enough, you shall meet anyone you wish…At each of these places are men and women looking eternally for those who will surely come."33

     Through the canal also passed what Kipling dubbed the Exiles' Line, the administrators "bound in the wheel of empire", "the chain-gangs of the East from sire to son", who served in India for five or six generations. In the Suez Canal the father retiring from Indian service might pass his son going out to take up the family's duties. 34

     Kipling, writes D.A. Farnie, rendered the Suez Canal holy, conferring magical significance on Port Said, the Suez Isthmus and Canal. He highlighted it as the common frontier of two civilizations, as meeting place of East and West, and as a stage on the road to Mandalay.  Thus Kipling introduced the idea of Suez as the great divide between East and West. He endowed the utilitarian canal with a mystical aura, transforming it into a romantic highway and an increasingly sacred stream, the icon of the British Empire.35 

Port Said: Global Crossroads

     By the turn of the century, Port Said had developed into a global city, with a cosmopolitan population of 49,000 people that serviced 300,000 passengers and sailors a year. In 1900, 3,500 ships a year passed through the gateway city of the great artery of globalization. British flag shipping dominated traffic, as it would every year from 1870 to 1965, followed by the ships of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Japan, Italy and Norway. The premier shipping line was the P&O, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the "Unofficial Fleet of the Empire.", whose competitors included Messageries Maritimes, North German Lloyd, the Hamburg American Line, the Netherland Steamship Line, and Nippon Yusen Kaisha (N.Y.K.).36

     Coal bunkering was Port Said's top business. The port was the world's busiest coaling station; in the peak year of 1911 the city imported more than two million tons that was stockpiled to refuel the steamships of the era. Coal was loaded by porters who carried fifty-pound bags up gangplanks to the waiting ships. The coal-heavers were all Egyptians recruited from Upper Egypt.  It continued into the 1930s until oil fuel displaced coal.37

     With the beginnings of the Middle East oil industry, Port Said also became an oiling port. The Standard Vacuum Oil Company, founded in 1904 as an export refinery by Standard Oil, established three oil tanks on the Asiatic shore fed by a pipeline under the canal. Oil tanks were built in Port Said in 1911 that stored imported oil. As shipping began to convert to oil fuel, coal imports slowly declined and oil imports rose.38

     After the turn of the century, the economy became diversified with the development of a salt industry. 200 saltpans were laid out in the eastern part of Lake Menzaleh modeled on those of Provence. Sicilian foremen supervised Arab workmen and exports began in 1901. Salt became the chief manufacture of Port Said and the ideal export product, a cheap commodity that provided payable ballast for southbound ships.39

     In 1902, a free port area excluding the town proper was established, demarcated by an iron railing along the Francis Joseph Quay. Rising expectations encouraged the development in 1902 of a new suburb on the north foreshore, where a grid of streets was laid out and reclaimed land was put up for sale. As the center of town began to shift northwards, the lighthouse, originally on the seaside, was surrounded by buildings.  The four-and-a-half miles of beachfront on the Mediterranean developed into a seaside resort to rival Alexandria, anchored by the new Casino Palace Hotel, opened in 1907.40

Figure 13
  Figure 13. Port Said, cabanas at the beach resort on the Mediterranean. Original postcard from the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). (January 14, 2016).  

     By the eve of the First World War, Port Said's population had increased to 56,543, two-thirds of the people in the Isthmus of Suez. Its European and Arab towns, still separate in 1900, had joined to together.  From 1911, the port city expanded to the Asian side when the Canal Company began to construct a new site for its workshops. The new town of Port Fuad was dedicated to engineering, and housing was built there for Canal Company staff.  It became an "island of French elegance and order. Its sole purpose was to house Canal Company executives, employees, and extensive workshops."41 The twin cities were linked by a cross-harbor ferry in 1912 that continues to run, still free, today.

Figure 14
  Figure 14. Cross-canal free ferry linking Port Fuad (above) and Port Said. Author's photograph.  


     De Lesseps had conceived of the Suez Canal as great highway to promote global connectivity and hence peace. He was warned, however, that he was creating an artificial strait that was destined to become a strategic prize and future battleground.

     In 1882 and again in 1956 Port Said was target for European imperial expeditions to occupy Egypt and depose a troublesome nationalist leader. In 1882, a popular revolt led by Colonel Arabi Pasha against Anglo-French control of Egypt's finances provoked a British invasion. On August 20, 1882, Port Said was occupied by British sailors and marines. Into the canal sailed a fleet of thirty-two ships that proceeded to Ismailia where they landed troops who moved west towards Cairo to defeat the Egyptian rebels at Tel-el- Kebir and begin the British occupation of Egypt. 42 Britain's takeover triggered the "Scramble for Africa" that marked the climax of the European imperial era.

     In 1956, the British military presence in Egypt that had begun in Port Said came to an end at Port Said.  Fulfilling the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Suez Base Evacuation Agreement of 1954, on June 13, 1956 the last British troops pulled out without any ceremony. On June 18th, "Independence Day", President Gamal Abdul Nasser raised the Egyptian flag over Navy House to celebrate the liberation of Egypt's land after seventy-four years of British occupation. The city's population stood at 178,000.

Figure 15
  Figure 15. In this June 18, 1956 file photo, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser waves in response to cheering supporters as he moves through Port Said to raise the Egyptian flag over the Navy House. Flag-raising was part of ceremony in which Egypt formally took over guardianship of the Suez Canal after British occupation of more than 70 years. (AP Photo, File) The Associated Press. http://sandiegouniontribunenews/2015/aug/05/ap-was-there-egyptian president-nationalizes-the/ (January 19, 2016).  

     But Port Said's role was not yet over. A month later, on July 19th, the United States and Britain reneged on an offer to finance Nasser's key development project, construction of the Aswan High Dam. Nasser decided to pay for the dam from the profits of the Suez Canal. His decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company a dozen years before its concession was set to expire in 1968 was announced to a jubilant crowd of 250,000 in Alexandria on July 26th. Embedded in Nasser's speech were repeated references to "de Lesseps"; it was the code-word that signaled Egyptian troops to takeover the Canal Company's offices in Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez.43  In Egypt and throughout the Arab world Nasser was acclaimed a hero, while in Port Said a crowd sought to overturn the statue of de Lesseps, whom they regarded as a symbol of imperialism.

     By July 1956, 397,434 toll paying ships had transited since 1869.44 Oil had become the most important cargo and the tanker its iconic ship. Egypt's nationalization was denounced in London and Paris as "theft", though Nasser promised to compensate the Canal Company's shareholders. The governments of Britain and France resolved to recover control of the waterway in the name of "internationalization" and use the crisis to overthrow the Nasser regime. Port Said was the target of Operation Musketeer, a joint Anglo-French expedition to occupy the canal-zone down to Ismailia, then pivot west towards Cairo to topple Nasser in a repeat of 1882.45

     Finding a suitable pretext for military action ultimately led to Anglo-French "collusion" with Israel. As agreed in a secret tripartite protocol signed October 24 near Paris, Israel would attack Egypt through the Sinai apparently threatening the Suez Canal; Britain and France would then demand that the belligerents withdraw from the canal zone to enable Anglo-French forces to move in to protect the waterway. Israel launched its assault on October 29, and advanced towards the canal; London and Paris issued ultimatums to both sides to pull back from the canal on October 30, and when Egypt rejected the ultimatum, their air offensive against Egypt began on October 31. British and French paratroopers descended on Port Said and Port Fuad on November 5 to pave the way for an amphibious landing. The next morning, the Anglo-French invasion fleet of 140 ships with 500 aircraft and 80,000 men arrived off the city. At dawn on November 6 the beach resort area was bombarded, helicopters delivered troops, and landing craft began ferrying tanks ashore for the dash down the canal.

     The small Egyptian army force in Port Said, with just four self-propelled guns, had no chance of stopping the landing.  Nasser saw the battle in psychological terms and acted accordingly.46  Small arms were distributed to the civilian population, who took on the task of defense and resistance. Their guerrilla activities held up a huge combined operation modeled on a World War II landing, delaying any southward advance down the canal until 7.00 p.m. on November 6. Five hours later a cease-fire forced by American opposition orchestrated by President Dwight Eisenhower, Soviet threats, and pressure in the United Nations halted the invasion just twenty-three miles south of Port Said.47

     Port Said as a whole was not badly damaged, but some areas, including a city block for which the Egyptians had fought hard, had been destroyed, a shanty town burned down, and Navy House, symbol of British dominance and a nest of Egyptian resistance, demolished by British bombs.48  It was enough to provide dramatic photos of destruction which Egypt trumpeted to the world. Egypt's media hailed Port Said as "Stalingrad on the canal" and emphasized the civilian dead of the "martyred city."49

     Pressured by the U.S. and the U.N., British and French forces evacuated Port Said on December 22nd, and Egyptian forces triumphantly re-entered the city on December 23rd. The statue of de Lesseps at the harbor entrance was dynamited off its pedestal and toppled into the harbor. The empty plinth still stands today.50

     Europe's last great amphibious expedition ended in a fiasco. In the decade-and-a- half that followed the Suez Crisis, the British presence in the Middle East, and British and French empires in Africa came to an end. Thus Port Said played a role in both the 1882 "Scramble for Empire" and after 1956 the "Scramble from Empire."51

     After the Suez Crisis, the canal closed for five months, longer than ever before in its history, although Egypt had only sunk block-ships in Port Said harbor and the canal and not damaged the banks. Nasser delayed final salvage work until Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip on March 7, 1957, reopening the canal on his terms on April 9, 1957. Under full Egyptian management in the form of the Suez Canal Authority, the next decade was a prosperous one. The canal was widened and deepened to accommodate supertankers. At its peak year in 1966, 21,250 ships passed through Port Said and the canal.52

     Port Said ended its era as a European city, and most of its foreign community departed, ending its cosmopolitan ambience. It developed as a new Arab city, becoming Bur Said from 1959. It lost some of its tourist traffic and suffered a decline in its fuel bunkering and provisioning services, but was rewarded with an Obelisk to honor its 974 dead resistance fighters and a Victory Museum in 1959. New holidays were celebrated with festivals on July 26th, and December 23rd, to mark the successive stages of Egypt's triumph over imperialism in 1956.53

Arab-Israeli Front Line

     Port Said next became battleground in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. In the Six Day War of June 1967, Egypt lost the whole of the Sinai Peninsula; Israeli forces dug in on the East Bank of the canal from north to south.54 Once more, Port Said's harbor and the Suez Canal were blocked by sunken ships.

     In danger of shelling from Israeli forces positioned a few miles east, most of Port Said's population of 320,000 evacuated the city. They spent the next seven years as refugees in Nile Delta towns 40 miles to west. The city they left behind lost all semblance of the once-flourishing gateway of the canal. During the War of Attrition55 between March 1969 and August 1970, Israeli artillery hammered the waterfront, turning it into a honeycomb of ruins. Few people remained behind in the derelict city.56

     On October 6, 1973, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal to storm fortifications of the Israeli Bar-Lev line. Their initial success restored Arab pride and when the guns fell silent three weeks later, Egypt began direct talks with Israel. In January 1974, Egypt and Israel agreed to a "zone of disengagement" manned by the U.N. Emergency Force as a first step toward a final peace. When Israeli forces withdrew into Sinai, President Anwar Sadat quickly announced his intention to reopen the canal.  Port Said, about twenty percent destroyed, and the other canal cities began digging out from the ruins. Egyptian firms demolished condemned buildings and cleared rubble filled streets.  American, British, French and Egyptian task forces raised ten large ships and sixty minor wrecks submerged since June 1967; fifteen aircraft, numerous tanks and trucks, 3,200 bombs, seventy-eight missiles, 686,000 mines and 50,000 other explosives were removed from the canal and its banks.57

Figure 16
  Figure 16. Israeli tank captured during the October 1973 War on display at the Port Said Military Museum. Author's photograph.  

     During 1974 a million refugees who had fled Port Said and other ghost towns along the canal began to return home. By the spring of 1975, the canal was clear of debris, and ready for reopening. On June 5, 1975, at 10.00 a.m., the hour shipping had halted on June 5, 1967, Sadat, standing in a white admirals uniform in front of the green domed Suez Canal Authority Building, declared Port Said a free commercial zone and the opening of the canal for shipping. As a 21-gun salute boomed, he boarded the destroyer 6th of October to lead a seven-ship flotilla to Ismailia. It was not as elaborate as the ceremony that marked the first opening in 1869, but impressive nonetheless.

Prosperity And "Persecution"

     Port Said prospered after the end of the Egyptian-Israeli wars. In 1975, Sadat designated the city as Egypt's first "public free zone". The free zone meant that the city was exempt from custom tariffs, an advantage that prompted construction of factories that became major exporters of garments to Europe and the U.S.. The designation also benefitted shopkeepers, as it became a destination for Egyptian shoppers to buy cheap imported goods.58  Port Said thrived, becoming known as Egypt's "city of opportunities" for its prosperous business atmosphere. In 2010, it was ranked first among Egyptian cities by the United Nations Development Program based on life expectancy, annual income, and educational attainment.

Figure 17
  Figure 17. Container ship of Israel's Zim Shipping Line passing through the Suez Canal. Author's photograph.  

     Port Said's reign as Egypt's main business hub began to slip after a visit by President Hosni Mubarak in 1999. Then a poor local man, known as El-Arabi, approached Mubarak and was shot dead by the presidential guard. Evidently Arabi tried to give something to President. The official version is that he attempted to stab Mubarak. Skeptics argue he was carrying a letter he wanted to hand to the president. In 2002, Mubarak cancelled Port Said's duty-free status after twenty-five years, claiming a high- rate of smuggling that cost the state millions of pounds in customs duties. Pressured by massive protests, the shut-down was changed to a phase-out over a five year period, then repeatedly postponed. In practice, most of the privileges attached to the free zone effectively ended in 2002. As the city's economy deteriorated, Port Saidis believed their city was being persecuted by the central government, fueling resentment toward Cairo.59

     On January 25, 2011, demonstrations began in Cairo against the Hosni Mubarak regime; he stepped down as president a month later.  Egypt's first free elections produced a new Egyptian government with an Islamist majority in Parliament, and in 2012 Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected President with fifty-one percent of the vote.

     In Egypt, soccer rivalries are often as bitterly contested as political battles. In February 2012, a riot after a soccer match between Port Said's club, al-Masry, and Cairo's al-Ahly, left 74 dead and 1000 injured. A year later, a court in Cairo condemned 21 Port Said fans to death, triggering protests that killed 47 more. With the police unable to regain control, President Morsi declared a state of emergency and ordered the army into the city. Locals believed that Morsi was scapegoating Port Said in order to placate al-Ahly supporters.60 Port Said residents flouted the state of emergency, and as the army stood by, demonstrators marched through the streets chanting "Leave, Mosri, leave!" and cursing the Muslim Brotherhood.

     The unrest in Port Said made President Morsi seem powerless as the state appeared to wither away. Amid the security and economic mayhem, with a nationwide loss of confidence in the president, the courts, and the police, the only institution left with any respect was the army.61  Many Egyptians called on the army to step in to rule the country and topple the regime of President Morsi. On July 3, 2014, Defense Minister General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi staged a "military intervention", detaining Morsi, suspending the constitution, and banning the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2014, Al-Sisi was elected President with more than ninety percent of the votes cast.

Rebirth As a Global Hub

     Through all the tumult, the Suez Canal was never disrupted. Port Said continues to serve as the main gateway for commercial ships sailing to and from Europe, Asia, and Africa. From 8 to 10 percent of global sea trade passes through the canal, generating about $5 billion in annual revenues for Egypt in transit fees ($150$200 per container) from about 17,000 ships. Ports in Europe, though, are able to charge $2000$3000 per container for value added services, which the Suez area at present cannot provide. Hence, the potential for developing services to generate added revenue is substantial.

Figure 18
  Figure 18. Suez Canal Authority Pilot boat meeting vehicle transport ship south of Port Said. In the background on the Sinai side of the canal is the war memorial to "The Crossing" by the Egyptian army October 6, 1973. Author's photograph.  

Figure 19
  Figure 19. SCA pilot boat approaching Italian vehicle transport ship in Suez Canal. Author's photograph.   

     On August 5, 2014, President Al-Sisi made a surprise announcement, the launch of a New Suez Canal mega-project, to expand the existing waterway and develop the isthmus into a global trade hub. The current channel would be widened and deepened to accommodate the world's largest container ships and a parallel channel dug to allow two- way traffic. The project aims to increase shipping traffic to 97 ships per day by 2023, from the current 49, and canal revenue from $5.3 billion at present to $13.5 billion in 2023.62  

     The corollary Suez Canal Corridor Project aims to transform the canal zone into a world-class center for trade and industry. The cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, long marginalized by Cairo, will be assigned a leading role in national development. Over twenty years they will receive major investments that could generate a million new jobs, going a long way to address the grievances that fueled instability. In the first phase, Port Said and Suez will be transformed into global warehouses. Port Said East, a satellite city located on the Asian side of the canal, will be turned into "one of the world's most important container seaports, transshipment hub, global logistics and trade center".63 In later phases, an industrial zone will be established to host industries, and a "technology valley" set up in Ismailia, with six new tunnels under the canal to connect the banks of the waterway. 

     Work began immediately after the announcement on the new forty-five mile long segment of the canal, with an accelerated timetable: instead of three years, Al-Sisi asked that it be completed in one. Under army supervision, the new parallel channel was excavated "24/7", and finished in mid-July 2015. President al-Sisi formally inaugurated the "New Suez Canal" in a lavish ceremony on August 6, 2015, a day declared a national holiday. Two huge container ships headed processions in each direction, marking  the beginning of two-way traffic for the first time in the canal's history.

     Port Said's prospects now look much improved. Its prized duty-free status has been restored, and cruise ships are returning. The city's population is estimated at 628,000, and together with Port Fuad the metropolitan area totals about one million; another 250,000 people will be added when the planned residential center for East Port Said is built. With the canal, a container port, a shipyard, and as terminus of the SUMED oil pipeline, it is already Egypt's 2nd most important seaport, and Egypt's third most important city, after Cairo and Alexandria. If the city develops into the flourishing port complex envisaged in Egypt's mega-project plan, and the Suez Canal Corridor development transforms the canal zone as projected, Port Said's best days should lie before it, not behind it. As the Suez Canal approaches its 150th anniversary, in 2019, this fabled but faded port city that now spans two continents—a distinction it shares only with Istanbul—maybe on the eve of rebirth as a new global hub of the 21st century. 

Figure 20
  Figure 20. Howard Dooley at the helm of a Suez Canal Authority pilot boat. Author's photograph.  

Howard J. Dooley (Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor of History at Western Michigan University (since 1970), where he teaches courses in World History and the Modern Middle East. His fascination with canals originated with his dissertation on the historiography of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Among his publications are contributions to Wm. Roger Louis and Roger Owen (eds.), Suez 1956: The Crisis and its Consequences (Oxford, 1989), and Antonio Donno (ed.), Ombre di Guerra Fredda: Gli State Uniti del Medio Oriente durante gli anni di Eisenhower, 1953–1961 (Cold War Shadows: The United States and the Middle East During the Eisenhower Years, 1953–1961) (Naples, 1998). He has visited both the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal.


1 Zachary Karabell, Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 153157, 274.

2 D.A. Farnie, East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History 1855–1956 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 55.

3  John Pudney, Suez: De Lesseps' Canal (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 9195; Andre Siegfried, Suez and Panama (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940), 108.

4 "Radiating History", Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, September 2329, 2010,

5 Pudney, Suez, 115123.

6 Farnie, East and West, 64, 72, 82.

7 Pudney, Suez, 150161.

8 S.C. Burchell, Building the Suez Canal (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 1125; John Brinton, "Suez: A Centennial", Aramco World, September-October 1969, 25, 3236.

9 My thanks to Marc Jason Gilbert for the descriptive text was well as the images of the Pavilion, which he has included in the world history workshops and conferences he has conducted in Cambodia since 2009 under the auspices of the World History Association and/or the Cambodian National Training Institute and Pannasastra University of Cambodia

10 Farnie, East and West, 123124.

11 Sylvia Modelski, Port Said Revisited (Washington DC: Faros, 2000), 31.

12 James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 114115, 120, 122, 126, 128.

13 Fassil Demissie, Colonial Architecture and Urbanism: Intertwined and Contested Histories (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 69.

14 "Egypt's Threatened Heritage: Port Said's History Breathes Its Last", Al-Ahram Weekly On-Line, October 2531, 2012,

15 Modelski, Port Said, 133135

15 Farnie, East and West, 405

17 Modelski, Port Said, 9698, 130154.

18 Farnie, East and West, 404, 410.

19 Farnie, Ibid. , 124125

20 Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 108.

21 Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and the Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 193195

22 Modelski, Port Said, 131.

23 Farnie, East and West, p. 360.

24 Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), 3444.

25 Pudney, Suez, 141142.

26 Farnie, East and West, 384.

27 Ibid., 386391. 

28 Rudyard Kipling, "Mandalay", in The Writings and Prose of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 11, Verses, 1889–1896 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899), 42.

29 Farnie, East and West, 388. 

30 Rudyard Kipling, The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 9, The Light That Failed (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925), 304.

31 Rudyard Kipling, Letters of Travel, 1892–1913 (Mattituck, NY: Amereon, Ltd., 2001), 26.

32 Rudyard Kipling, "Egypt of the Magicians", The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling, Vol. 28, Letters of Travel, 1892–1913 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), 257.

33 Rudyard Kipling, "The Limitations of Pambe Serang", in Ellery Queen, ed., The Literature of Crime: Stories by World Famous Authors (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1950), 147.

34 Rudyard Kipling, "The Exiles' Line",

35 Farnie, East and West, 389.

36 Hugh Schonfield, The Suez Canal in Peace and War, 1869–1969 (Carol Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1969), 206209; Farnie, East and West, 451, 453).

37 Modelski, Port Said, 9495.

38 Farnie, East and West, 408, 581.

39 Ibid., 407.

40 Farnie, East and West, 410.

41 Modelski, Port Said, 53.

42 Pudney, Suez, 190192.

43 Kennett Love, Suez: The Twice Fought War (New York, 1969), 341350. There is a huge literature on the Suez Crisis of 1956. See Howard J. Dooley, "The Suez Crisis 1956: A Case Study in Contemporary History" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1975) and Howard J. Dooley, "Select Bibliography", in Wm. Roger Louis and Roger Owen, eds., Suez 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 411415.

44 Farnie, East and West, 721.

45 Howard J. Dooley, "Great Britain's 'Last Battle' in the Middle East: Notes on Cabinet Planning during the Suez Crisis of 1956", The International History Review 11 No. 3 (August 1989), 486517. 

46 Keith Kyle, Suez: Britain's End of Empire in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 445.

47 See Howard J. Dooley, "Eisenhower Affronta la 'Questione Orientale': Gli Stati Uniti e la Crisi di Suez" [Eisenhower Faces the 'Eastern Question': The United States and the Suez Crisis], in Antonio Donno, ed., Ombre di Guerra Fredda: Gli Stati Uniti del Medio Oriente durante gli anni di Eisenhower, 19531961 [Cold War Shadows: The United States in the Middle East during the Eisenhower Era, 19531956] (Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1998), 419493.

48 Love, Twice-Fought War, 618621.

49 Kyle, Suez, 502503.

50 The statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps has been raised, restored, and rests in a warehouse in Port Fuad. The work was paid for in the 1990s by the French government. Eventually it may be restored to its pedestal.

51 Wm. Roger Louis, The Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 5.

52 Hugh J. Schonfield, The Suez Canal in Peace and War (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1969), 205.

53Love, Twice-Fought War, 637.

54 See Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). 

55 See Lawrence L. Whetten, The Canal War: Four Power Conflict in the Middle East (Boston: The MIT Press, 1974).

56 William Graves, "New Life for the Troubled Suez Canal", National Geographic 147 no. 6 (June 1975), 792817.

57 Robert Arndt, "Suez: The Reopening", Aramco World 26 no. 5 (September/October 1975), 3239.

58 Elias Antar, "Suez Reborn", Saudi Aramco World 28 no. 5 (September/October 1977), 2632; Burton Bernstein, Sinai: The Great and Terrible Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1979), 245247.

59 Moktar Awad, "The Troubles of Port Said" Foreign Policy (March 12, 2013),

60 Evan C. Hill, "The Republic of Port Said", Foreign Policy (January 30, 2013),

61 Aleem Maqbol, "Resentment Still Felt Beneath as Calm in Port Said", BBC (March 17, 2013),

62 Patrick Kingsley, "Egypt To Build New Suez Canal", The Guardian (August 5, 2014),

63 "Sisi, Mamish Discuss East Port Said Project Development", The Cairo Post (June 26, 2015),

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