Egyptian city of Port Said, where East meets West
PORT SAID, Egypt - The Egyptian city of Port Said, where the Mediterranean meets the Suez Canal, had been a key stopover in journeys connecting Europe and its colonies.
Today, the city is surrounded by a sense of oblivion despite traces of the legacy of the town that the English writer Rudyard Kipling once considered containing the certain dreadful and exact division between East and West.
Built as the construction of the Suez Canal was under way, Port Said was named after the Egyptian khedive at the time, Muhammad Said. He decided to establish the city, regardless of the difficulties, on land that artificially expanded the thin strip of sand between the Mediterranean and Lake Manzala.
The shortage of suitable land on which to build derived from its odd location and set conditions for the type of buildings that would fill the historic quarter of Port Said, including three- and four-storey structures with splendid facades singular for their wooden verandas, some of which can still be seen in the old town.
French architect Claudine Piaton noted that Port Said’s exceptional architecture was unique in the world. Many European overseas territories had galleries reminiscent of the Port Said verandas but hardly ever to the scale of those that decorate a few buildings in Port Said.
Some buildings in the historic quarter hold another architectural treasure in the form of arcaded facades inspired by those in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. This alternative to the wooden verandas started to appear after 1889 following limits imposed on the latter, which would be banned in 1921, Piaton said.
A short walk from the old quarter, the garden of martyrs commemorates with a large pharaonic obelisk the fall of Port Said, which is also known as the “Valiant City.” The monument is near the Military Museum, a gallery that displays depictions on the history of the Suez Canal and documentation on the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars.
The strategic position of Port Said near the Suez Canal turned the place into a hub of foreign workers and travellers who imprinted a cosmopolitan character to the city. Approximately three-quarters of the 15,000 people estimated to live in Port Said in the 1880s were reportedly Europeans. Yet, as noted by the historian Valeska Huber, that internationality never crystallised into the melting pot that surrounds other port cities, such as Alexandria.
In Port Said, Huber said, the idea of cosmopolitanism hid a sense of disappointment with the artificial nature of the town, which would earn a reputation as Egypt’s city of vice and sin. The role of Port Said as an important global place of transit is well captured in the initial sequence of “The Adventures of Tintin” comic album “Cigars of the Pharaoh,” which depicts the singular architecture of the city.
One of the areas most worth exploring to grasp the historical heart of Port Said is the waterfront quarter that runs on Palestine Street along the edge of the canal on one side and a line of late 19th-century and early 20th-century buildings on the other.
In one end of the raised boardwalk stands the base of what used to be a statue of the French diplomat and Suez Canal developer Ferdinand de Lesseps welcoming ships entering the waterway before it was removed in 1956 following the canal’s nationalisation. The corniche features other buildings of historical value, such as the Simon Arzt department store building, which was the first of its kind in the city.
At the southern tip of the waterfront, it is possible to take the Maadeya free ferry that connects with Port Fouad in a quick journey with unique panoramic views over the Suez Canal as well as the imposing administrative Suez Canal House and its distinctive green domes, erected in 1869 for the inauguration of the
Port Fouad, founded in 1925, preserves many French-inspired houses in tree-lined streets that stretch between the slender-shaped Juma Mosque in front of the ferry port and the Souk El Kebir Mosque, all reminiscent of its colonial era.