Egypt

This page includes my grandfather's postcards from Egypt. Most of the postcards are from places along the Suez Canal.

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Aerial view of the Suez Canal [1]
Click image for enlarged view

Brief History of Egypt

I am not even going to attempt to summarise 5,000+ years of Egyptian history here but I have included some relevant background information about the places featured in the postcard collection.

The Suez Canal

Ferdinand de Lesseps

Every child of my generation learned that the Suez Canal was constructed by Ferdinand de Lesseps and revolutionised transport by providing a route from Europe to Asia which avoided sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Not a lot more thought was given to the matter - it was just there and everyone used it - although there have been times since when the impact of its unavailability has been clear to all. Whether children still learn about its construction I have my doubts. I imagined de Lesseps as a kind of French version of Isambard Kingdom Brunel but in fact he wasn't an engineer. Ferdinand Marie, Count de Lesseps GCSI (1805–1894) came from an ancient family whose ancestors can be traced back to the 14th century, and probably originated in Spain. Ferdinand's father Mathieu de Lesseps had been made a Count by Napoleon I and was a diplomat, as was his father before him. Ferdinand followed in the family tradition.

de Lesseps
Portrait of Ferdinand de Lesseps by Nadar [18]

In 1828 Ferdinand became an assistant to the French vice-consul at Tunis and in 1832 was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria, Egypt. While his ship was held in quarantine before being allowed into Alexandria, he read a book about the Ancient Suez Canal, otherwise known as The Canal of the Pharaohs or Necho's Canal which was thought to have been constructed from the River Nile to the Red Sea in the time of the Pharoahs but filled in 767 CE during a rebellion. This book, written under the instruction of Napoleon I, was one of the influences on de Lesseps that inspired him to pursue building a new canal.

Ferdinand became consul-general in Egypt and helped to influence the appointment of Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas'ud ibn Agha as the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt and became good friends with his son Mohamed Sa'id Pasha who was to succeed him. This proved decisive when the Suez Canal construction was projected.

Previous Canals

Quite apart from claims made for the Pharoahs, King Darius the Great of Persia, who reigned from 522 to 486 BCE, also claims to have constructed a waterway from the River Nile to Lake Timsah, near present day Ismailia on the route of the modern Suez Canal. A stele found by Charles de Lesseps in 1866, about 20 miles from Suez has been translated as follows:

"King Darius says: I am a Persian; setting out from Persia I conquered Egypt. I ordered to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. Therefore, when this canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended."

De Lessep's Canal

I gave an overview of the 'overland' route from Alexandria to Suez that was the only alternative to the 'Cape' route on the Introduction page.

In 1854 the first act of concession of land for the Suez Canal was granted to de Lesseps by Sa'id Pasha. The British persuaded the Ottoman Empire to deny permission to proceed for two years and invented spurious objections to it - some on (incorrect) engineering grounds. One of the biggest objectors was the railway engineer Robert Stephenson, who was quite frankly more interested in building a railway to Suez than a canal. Despite all objections, Sa'id signed a concession to build a canal on January 5, 1856. The story is long and complicated but well described in John Pudney's book Suez - De Lesseps' Canal' [37].

An International Committee had been set up in 1855 to consider the proposed route and construction and made its final report in 1856. The report confirmed the route, ports to be built, telegraph lines to be installed along the canal, ferries to be introduced, lighting of the Mediterranean coast and of the whole of the Red Sea to be provided, lighthouses, buoys and so on. The name of Port Said was suggested as the name for the port on the northern entrance.

Construction was long and arduous and is also described in detail in Pudney's book [37]. Some of the more difficult issues were related to the inaccessibility of the site with no transport, raw materials or even water supplies and each had to be tackled. Before much could be done the site of Port Said became an almighty workshop which included a water distillation plant and a factory for making pre-cast concrete blocks which would form the jetties. The ceremonious first pickaxe blow was struck by de Lesseps at the future Port Said on 25 April 1859 but it was not until 17 November 1869 that the canal was finally opened.

The first vessel to go through the canal after the official opening was Imperial yacht Aigle carrying Empress Eugenie of France. The Empress would lose her place in the nobility of Europe in 1870 when her husband Emperor Napoleon III was deposed, though she wasn't exactly left a pauper and her head remained firmly attached. The pair took refuge in England and lived in Chislehurst in Kent and later Farnborough Hill - her house there is now an independent Catholic girls' school. She lived to be 94.

Cutting
Cutting from 'The Illustrated Times' 11 December 1869 showing the yacht of Empress Eugenie

Ferdinand de Lessep's Suez Canal was a phenomenal success. Sadly his attempt to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama did not have such a happy ending - but that is another story.

Egypt Postcards

Port Said

The two unused colour postcards of Port Said were published by Ephtimios Freres of Port Said.

Port Said is at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal. It was built on the western side of the canal and faces Port Fuad built on its eastern side.

The image below is a view along the canal looking south and taken from near the entrance to the canal. The domed Suez Canal Authority Building can be seen on the top right. Several steamships are moored just off the canal - and presumably waiting for permission to proceed. Some are fitted with canvas awnings to provide shade.

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General view of Port Said

The image below is captioned 'Rue du Commerce'. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the major street names in Port Said were French, whereas now they have been changed to Arabic names - which is unsurprising. As a result, I am unable to identify exactly where this was - although I would think it would have been near to the basin next to the Suez Canal Authority Building.

The buildings are covered with signs advertising Colman's mustard, Hinshelwood's paints and engine oils, Isherwood's and other makes of cigarette, the Grand Continental Savoy Hotel, Shepheards Hotel, and the Ghezireh Palace Hotel. If you look at a magnified view of the image, you can just make out that the building with the Savoy sign has a sign saying 'James Slayght Shipchandler'. There are many rowing boats in the foreground - presumably belonging to people coming to town to sell or buy goods.

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Rue du Commerce Port Said

Kantarah

The unused colour postcard of Kantara was published by Ephtimios Freres of Port Said.

Kantarah or Kantara was the romanised spelling of this city which has parts on both sides of the Suez Canal. It is now known as El Qantara and this literally means 'the bridge'.

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Kantarah

In 2001, 'The Suez Canal Bridge', 'The Egyptian–Japanese Friendship Bridge', 'The Al Salam Bridge', 'The Al Salam Peace Bridge' or 'The Mubarak Peace Bridge' opened nearby.

So where did the name come from? The earliest map of the area I could find online was made by Veronese publisher Paolo Forlani in 1566 and shows the area between Suez and the Mediterranean Sea as just desert and hills. It reminds me of Tolkien's maps in The Hobbit, and Robert Louis Stevenson's map in Treasure Island. It shows no evidence of bridges, and nor did later maps I examined so, for once, maps - a great source of historical information - didn't help at all. There were certainly marshy areas in some places along the course the Suez canal would take but not near Kantarah.

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Extract from map of Egypt by Paulo Forlani in 1566 [34]

I finally found an answer in a 1920 academic paper by Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner (1879–1963). In an article about the military road through the desert from Egypt to Palestine [35], he claims that El-Kantareh was at one end of it. He based his claims on a number of papyri and sculptured scenes on the Hypostyle Hall in the temple of Karnak dating from about 1300 BCE. He argues that present-day Tell Abu Seifa - then known as Thel, and just a few miles to the East of present Kantarah, was at the start of the military road with the other end most likely at Rafah in Gaza - now the sole crossing point between Egypt and the State of Palestine.

The sculptures he examined showed the town of Thel spanning both sides of a canal, which is shown as full of crocodiles and with reedy banks - suggesting the water was not flowing. The fortress at Thel had buildings each side of the canal with a bridge between them. You had to go through the building to reach the bridge to cross. In fact Gardner claims that there is evidence of two canals at the site and that the name used by the local inhabitants was Gisr el-Kanatir - 'the crossing of the bridges'. The singular form el-Kanitir meaning 'the bridge' is thus the source of the placename Kantarah [35].

Whether or not Gardner is correct I couldn't say but it at least makes sense of the name.


The postcard is showing one of the 'Signal Stations' that were installed at intervals of about six miles along the entire length of the canal, apart from the Great Bitter Lake - 12 in all. Ships were dispatched along the canal in convoys, with the direction of passage alternating, as there was insufficient breadth for larger vessels to pass - apart from at certain points.

The signal stations were connected by telegraph, and later telephone, and reported on vessels as they proceeded through the canal. The signal stations could also control the traffic when necessary using a signalling system - one of these can be seen in the form of large black balls on the mast to the left of the image. I have been unable to locate a full list of signals other than these examples: [27]

  • Three cone-shaped signals pointed upwards: Stop Immediately
  • Four cones pointed upwards: Reduce speed - convoy from the south

I had not heard of the Mubarak Bridge until researching this page but have found that there are now at least five other bridges over the canal:

  • A floating or pontoon bridge at Port Said that opened in 2016
  • The Martyr Abanoub Gerges floating bridge or car ferry at West Quantara - a few miles from the Mubarak bridge
  • The enormous Martyr Ahmed El-Mansy floating bridge near Ma'diyah
  • The Taha Zaki Abdullah Bridge - also near Ismailia
  • Shahid Ahmed Omar Shabrawy Floating Bridge in Suez

Suez

The unused colour postcard of Suez below was published by Ephtimios Freres of Port Said.

Suez is located at the Red Sea end of the Suez Canal on the Gulf of Suez. Unlike Port Said, Suez has a long history.

There was a town named Kolzum close to the site of present-day Suez in the 7th century CE which was the eastern end of a later canal built between the Nile and the Red Sea. Both Kolzum and Suez were in ruins by the 13th century. In the 16th century the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghuri placed a defensive force at Suez as a defence against the Portuguese but Suez became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Portuguese attacked the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea in 1541 but failed to defeat it.

In the 18th century, Suez was the starting point for pilgrimages to Mecca via Jeddah, but fighting between the French and English in 1800 left the town in ruins once again. Its fortunes were revived by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.


It is not possible to confirm the exact location of this image due to the many changes in the configuration of the port of Suez since the original photograph was taken. Two fairly small steamers are docked at a rather scruffy-looking location. There are telegraph or telephone lines along the road. There is a large heap of coal next to the furthermost ship and, in front of that, some kind of compound with various packing cases and unidentifiable items; some kind of tubular object is partly sheltered by an awning. A few people can be seen on the dockside. Both ships look unsuited to northern climates so are presumably for local services or voyages to India. The rearmost ship must have a very small funnel as it cannot be seen - but it doesn't have rigging suitable for sails so must be a steamer. The bridges on both ships are little more than canvas shelters. The foremost ship has the number 487 on the side but I have not been able to identify it.

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Suez Port

Cairo

The unused colour postcards of Cairo were all published by Ephtimios Freres of Port Said.

Cairo is between 75 and 80 miles from the Suez Canal through which my grandfather travelled. I am doubtful as to whether he actually visited the place as a steward in his early 20s, but it is not out of the question. It seems more likely to me that he purchased these cards at Port Said to take home as souvenirs.


The postcard below is captioned 'La Citadelle'. The Citadel of Cairo or Citadel of Saladin is a medieval Islamic-era fortification in Cairo, Egypt, built by Salah ad-Din (Saladin) and further developed by subsequent Egyptian rulers. It was the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th centuries. It is now a preserved World Heritage site that contains several mosques and the Citadel, including its well and remarkable fortifications. There is a long and comprehensive history of it on Wikipedia at this link: [26]

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The Citadel of Cairo or Citadel of Saladin

The postcard below is captioned 'Entrance to the Kasr-el-Nil bridge'. It shows the bridge, correctly named Kobri el Gezira Bridge which spans the River Nile and connects downtown Cairo to Gezira Island and the Zamalek district. It was completed in 1871 but only lasted until the 1930s when it was replaced by the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. The four bronze lions at each end of the bridge were sculpted by Henri Alfred Marie Jacquemart (1824-1896) and have been transferred to the new bridge.

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Qasr al-Nil Bridge Cairo
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Qasr al-Nil Bridge Cairo from Google Earth [1]

The postcard below is captioned 'Monument du Khedive'. It shows an equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848), General of the Egyptian army, son of the Albanian Mehmet Ali and located at Opera Square. The monument has a stone base on which the rider sits with his horse, moulded in bronze. Ibrahim Pasha is portrayed in traditional clothes and a turban; he has his right arm extended and is looking slightly to his right. This is less obvious on the postcard but clearer on the image from Google Earth that follows.

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Khedive Monument
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Ibrahim Pasha statue Cairo from Google Earth [1]

The postcard below is captioned 'Egyptian Cavalry'. The Egyptian Cavalry Corps was established in 1828 by Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas'ud ibn Agha, also known as Muhammad Ali of Egypt and the Sudan. He also set up the Military Academy of Cavalry in Giza at Mourad Bey Palace, which was turned into a cavalry barracks. By 1839 the Cavalry Corps had 15 regiments stationed in various parts of Egypt. The cavalry are wearing the traditional fez or tarboosh hat - named after the Moroccan city of Fez and a symbol of the Ottoman Empire from the early 19th century.

Annoyingly, I have been unable to locate the site on modern maps or Google Earth.

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Egyptian Cavalry

The postcard below is captioned 'Temple'.

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Temple, Sphinx and pyramids

The temple in the foreground is subterranean and part of the the 'Khafre Temple Complex'. The pyramid, to the top left of the postcard, is the tomb of the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Khafre (Chefren), who ruled about 2558−2532 BCE. It is the second-tallest and second-largest of the 3 Ancient Egyptian Pyramids of Giza. The Sphinx, which is immediately behind the temple, may have been part of the Khafre complex.

The pyramid to the top right of the postcard is the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops), and is the oldest and largest of the pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Egyptologists conclude that the pyramid was built as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu and estimate that it was built in the 26th century BCE during a period of around 27 years.

The image below is a plan of the pyramid complex and I have marked with a large red X the approximate position that the photograph on which the postcard was based was taken.

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Giza Pyramid Complex plan [18]

The postcard below is captioned 'Village El-Potran near the Pyramids'. I can find no modern reference to the name and it may well have been engulfed in Cairo's urban sprawl.

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Village El-Potran near the Pyramids

Click on the link below to go to the page on Aden - the next port of call on the route from Tilbury to Australia.