Written and photographed by Ahmed Kafafi
The Suez Canal Museum in Port Said presents the history of the construction of the Suez Canal through colorful maquettes.
Port Said has been a historical city since its establishment, especially with the digging of the Suez Canal in 1869. It features several architectural styles as well as museums that bear witness to its glory through the ages. In August 2015, one feature was added to Port Said’s landmarks: the Suez Canal Museum, which when inaugurated, shed light on the history of the city that sits on the mouth of the Suez Canal. Located on Empress Eugenie Street in the heart of the “Foreigners’ Quarters”, the museum reflects an immaculately white 19th century French style, a building that had once served as the seat of the French consulate in Port Said with the opening of the canal. However, according to historical records, when it was nationalized after the 1952 revolution, the building turned into a housing for the missionary teachers who served in the community churches and schools in that coastal city. It sparked a special interest because it was said that Empress Eugenie of France rested there during her last visit to Port Said in 1901. The building had been deserted for the last 25 years until it was revived as the ideal place for a museum.
The brainchild of Ahmed El Essawy, founder and director of the Suez Canal Museum, the exhibits within the museum consist mostly of maquettes inspired by true photographs and paintings of events relating to the digging of the Suez Canal, as well as celebrations marking its inauguration to which several royals and dignitaries attended. Other panoramic maquettes depict the history of the city in the wake of the aggressions to which it was exposed respectively in 1956, 1967 and 1973. El Essawy, who has undertaken the design and execution of the fantastic maquettes, mentions: “The museum consists of three sections: the first is the excavation section, which shows how the work organized to dig the canal had streamlined. We depicted workers, foremen and supervisors as they toiled under hard conditions.
The second is the celebrations section in which we displayed the festivities that marked the inauguration that featured Khedive Ismail, the then ruler of Egypt as well as Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie and other European and Arab rulers.” El Essawy added “The third section focuses on the struggle of Port Said, along with the other canal cities of Ismailia and Suez, against the ambitions of colonial nations that aspired to restore the canal after its nationalization by late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The director also mentioned “We’ve made a point of making the work as informative as possible. We made a maquette displaying the Boursa (stock exchange house), which was located on the Manshiya Square in Alexandria, where Nasser announced the nationalization of the Canal. One of the things that people don’t know about the excavation of the world-famous water passage is that its construction that was undertaken through labor was enhanced by expansions accomplished during the rule of Khedive Ismail, who brought dredgers and mud barges especially for the purpose.”
The machines used for widening the Suez Canal were for the most part entirely metal, floating dredgers. The heavy scoops, attached to an endless chain and driven by a steam engine, removed mud, sand and gravel from the bed and dumped the extracted material via the chute, a sheet metal pipe cut in half. The chutes directed the extracted waste onto the bank and the workers kept the waste flowing using a sort of rake. Two dredgers could thus work at a distance of only two meters.
The ground floor displays original statues of Ferdinand De Lespess, who engineered the project, as well as some of his paintings. There is a plan to introduce a sound system to relate the history to visitors as they move from section to section.