Port Said: Intersection between East and West

I came here to Port Said, Egypt to sign on to the ship that will take me east to Asia. I’d spent the past few months in Istanbul searching for a ride with no luck. Turns out there aren’t so many eastbound ships that stop in Istanbul. Most traffic heads from Europe straight through the Mediterranean to Asia via the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is a crucial point in the maritime trade route between Europe and Asia. It’s a major shortcut for ships that would otherwise have to pass all the way around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Ships pay dues to the canal administration for each passage but they save big on time and fuel. Passing from Bombay to Rotterdam via the canal, for example, ship companies save 66%.

Port Said lies at the most northeast corner of Africa, where the north entrance to the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean. This is actually the spot where the Statue of Liberty was designed to stand. She was originally sketched as an Egyptian woman, wearing traditional dress of flowing robes. Her torch was to represent Egypt “carrying the light of Asia.” It was 1869 and the Suez Canal had just opened as a passage for ships trading between East and West. But the Egyptian king decided the statue was too expensive, as so many resources had just been spent to construct the canal. Instead, Port Said ended up with a much smaller statue of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the French engineer who laid plans to dig the canal.

Port Said
From the top of the apartment where I’m staying, I can see the canal and the old lighthouse that used to guide ships coming from the north.

Port Said began as a work camp in the 1860s when the canal was under construction. Egyptian laborers were brought from the countryside and put to work to dig the canal under supervision of the French-owned Suez Canal company. It was grueling physical work in extreme conditions of sun and heat, and thousands of Egyptians died. When the canal opened, many Europeans moved here to operate the canal, working as ship pilots, traffic controllers, and administrators. Port Said grew into a cosmopolitan city of Egyptians living with French, British, Greek, and Italian workers who held top positions in the canal administration. It must have been in this era that Rudyard Kipling wrote about Port Said:

“If you truly wish to find someone who you know and who travels, there are but two places where you but need to sit and wait, and sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Said.”

Soon after the canal opened, external debt forced the Egyptian king to sell Egypt’s share in the canal to Britain. Though the canal passed through Egyptian soil, the revenue generated from ships passing through went into the pockets of Europeans instead of benefiting the Egyptian population. So in 1956, Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the canal, overriding the 99-year contract with the European-owned Suez Canal company. France, Britain, and Israel responded by sending troops to Port Said to fight to regain control of the waterway. After several months of fighting, Egyptians came out on top and foreign troops left Port Said. This is when the statue of De Lesseps was destroyed, broken in three pieces. Hundreds gathered at the statue for the occasion. They climbed up on ladders, lit dynamite, and yanked it down with ropes to rid the town of what many saw as a symbol of the colonizer.

The De Lesseps statue
This is what remains of the De Lesseps statue.

The statue was taken into the custody of the Suez Canal administration. Now only the base of the De Lesseps statue remains in public view. It stands here at the Northern entrance to the canal, where the beachfront avenue meets the canal walkway. It’s a popular local hangout on evenings and weekends. Families, couples, and groups of teenage boys gather here to stroll, sit, talk, eat ice cream. An Egyptian flag flies at the top, placed here in the last year following the revolution. Some folks in town want to put De Lesseps back in his place here. Others refuse, insisting the statue symbolizes European occupation. I ask some young folks in Port Said what they think about the statue. My friend Doaa says, “I like what we have now. I’m used to it.”

If you stand at the statue at night and look out into the bay, you can see the lights from ships at anchor waiting to pass the canal. Soon I will board one of these ships–French-owned container ship M/V CMA CGM Maupassant. We’ll transit the Suez Canal, cross the Red Sea, and pass the high-risk pirate zone at the Gulf of Aden. After a week in the Indian Ocean, I’ll arrive in Singapore.

I’ll keep a ship’s log here on Transom. No internet on board so I can’t send sound or photos, but I’ll send text updates via satellite. Tune in this week for real-time updates from the trade routes.

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