Egypt’s Ismailia remains off the beaten track
ISMAILIA - Situated on the west bank of the Suez Canal, halfway between Port Said and Suez and near Lake Timsah, Ismailia stands as one of the great examples of a modern Egyptian city that remains off main tourist destination itineraries despite having played a prominent role in recent history.
Named after Khedive Ismail when he took power in 1863, the city, known before as Tusun and Timsah, was founded by the French developer of the Suez Canal Ferdinand de Lesseps as a base to coordinate the waterway’s construction and accommodate workers and engineers. Following the inauguration of the canal, the headquarters of the Suez Canal administration was in Ismailia, which helped it flourish.
The beginnings of Ismailia were closely intertwined with the French presence because they were authorised by the khedive to plan and own the city in preparation for the inauguration of the canal. The French-designed layout with five axial neighbourhoods — two European, two Greek and one Arab — is clear when strolling the streets of Ismailia’s historic centre, especially near the tree-lined squares.
Within the blurred limits of the old French colonial city of Ismailia is an impressive villa where de Lesseps was based, considered the last example in the city of the chalets ordered by the Suez Canal Company in the mid-1850s from a French firm from Normandy.
The International Museum of the Suez Canal Authority, reportedly erected at the site of the historical administrative building of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), is under construction. In the same area is the SCA historical exhibition, established in the building where the canal’s navigation traffic was controlled in its early years. The two-storey gallery traces the story of the waterway in thematic halls that range from its digging stage until its nationalisation and to the present day.
A freshwater canal pumping water to Ismailia from the Nile River along the shore of Timsah Lake helps create a long, gardened promenade, dotted with picturesque bridges, that runs south to city’s historic neighbourhood.
Following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, Ismailia expanded but remained owned by the French, so the former’s intervention in its urban development was minor and the city grew in all directions following a French-inspired model. The most singular neighbourhood developed at that time was what some call the French-designed British quarter, which stretches from the eastern edges of the European quarters and the promenade along the freshwater canal.
One of the most prominent buildings of the area is Ismailia Museum erected in 1934 at the entrance of the quarter. Considered one of the oldest museums in Egypt, the small gallery was established to display ancient artefacts found during the construction of the waterway.
The rest of the quarter, filled with well-preserved, colonial-style villas of two-to-three storeys made of wood and bricks and with large gardens, draws one of the quietest and most charming parts of the canal-side city. The size of the chalets stands in contrast to similar buildings in the city of Port Said, which tend to be significantly higher.
Ismailia experienced a marked transformation following Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in 1956 with the expulsion of European workers from the company and the city and their replacement by locals.
What had been a city planned along colonial lines grew without a clear urban design. Ismailia was also affected by wars with Israel, even if the damage was less important than Suez, and it was evacuated from 1968-75 when the canal was closed.
Despite changes since the 1950s, Ismailia has kept the grand nature of its old quarters, featuring a city with several historical layers that mirror major events that have shaped it.