|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
10 - 16 May 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (389)
Port Fouad -- across the Suez Canal from Port Said -- was the last Egyptian city to be named after a king. Port Said, one of the original canal cities, had become overcrowded, while on the other side of the canal there was sufficient space for housing and industry. Thus Port Fouad was born but not before a tense period of suspicion and doubt between the government and the Suez Canal Company. An eventual agreement reached in 1925 covered who would administer the city, the sale of land and the responsibility of purchasers. There was nothing left but for the king to bestow his name on the city at a lavish cornerstone ceremony in December 1926. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at the last city in the country to be royally conferred
Last of the royal cities
Naming cities and urban features after their rulers is an ancient practice in Egypt. In modern Egyptian history, many public institutions as well as streets and squares of Cairo and Alexandria bore the names of the members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty -- Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim, Ismail, Tawfiq, Abbas and Fouad. By the end of the monarchy in 1953, all Egyptian universities had royal pedigrees. Cairo University was King Fouad I University, Alexandria's was King Farouq I, Ain Shams was originally Ibrahim Pasha and Assiut University was called Mohamed Ali.
But most of our streets, squares and buildings have been given new names and, in some cases, the old names are written in small print underneath, preceded by the word "formerly." This applies not only to urban features in Cairo and Alexandria but to administrative districts. For example, throughout the 1940s, the northern portion of Al-Gharbiya province was known as the King Fouad Directorate but is now known simply as Kafr Al-Sheikh after the largest city in that administrative area.
The Suez Canal has provided a dynastic tree of the kings of Egypt since its construction began in 1859. The starting point for the ambitious navigational project became Port Said, after the Egyptian ruler at the time. The second city to come into being when digging reached Timsah Lake was to have been called after the lake but when Ismail assumed the throne, De Lesseps quickly changed the name of the city, laying the cornerstone for Ismailia on 27 April 1863.
Initially, people thought that the three cities -- Port Said, Ismailia and Suez -- would be sufficient for the 163-kilometre-long canal. But more royal names were yet to come as strategic considerations required some urban expansion.
All of the three major cities were located on the African side of the canal and Port Said, in particular, was locked between the canal to the east and Al-Manzala Lake to the west. As traffic through the canal increased over the years, expansion became inevitable and planners began to set their sights towards the "Asian shore," as journalists of the time put it, for possible projects. Conceivably, the cities could have simply expanded across the banks so as to create a Suez east and a Suez west or a Port Said east and a Port Said west. But ultimately royal wills would prevail, giving rise to Port Tawfiq, founded by the Khedive Tawfiq (1879-1892) opposite Suez and Port Fouad on the Asian bank facing Port Said. Construction of Port Fouad, named after the occupant of the Egyptian throne from 1917-1936, began in 1926, and Al-Ahram, through its coverage of this process, provides rare insight into the development of the last of the Egyptian royal cities.
Announcing King Fouad's intention to embark on a Red Sea excursion beginning on Tuesday, 21 December 1926, from Port Fouad where he would lay the cornerstone of the new municipal building, Al-Ahram took the occasion to publish a number of studies on the city. The first, a concise summary of the origins of the new city and related affairs, was provided by Achille Sayqali Bek, chief of the European Department in the Council of Ministers.
In 1926, King Fouad (top) sailed into the Suez Canal aboard the royal yacht Al-Mahrousa (down) to bestow his name on Port Fouad
Sayqali writes that the origins of Port Fouad date back to 1907 when the Suez Canal Company decided to construct several buildings on the eastern bank of the canal because Port Said could no longer accommodate more warehouses and workshops. Work came to a halt during World War I, when Turkish forces reached the east side of the canal, but soon resumed. At this point, plans began to include the construction of a workers' city on the opposite bank although it would require the approval of the Egyptian government. When the Suez Canal Company approached the government, its arguments were ready: Port Said had become overcrowded; the other side of the canal had sufficient space for housing that would meet the highest standards of hygiene and design which modern science could provide.
The plan would bring to the fore the old agreement that the Suez Canal Company had signed with the Egyptian government over the company's land entitlements. Digging was then still in progress and the company requested additional land for parks and gardens for Suez Canal employees to be used for agricultural cultivation and to protect the canal from sand accumulation. Khedive Ismail readily agreed but with an important proviso. The fourth article of the 1866 agreement explicitly banned the company from engaging in land speculation or the sale of land given to it. The agreement was appended with detailed maps of the areas to which the company had received title along the canal.
But as had occurred on numerous occasions, Suez Canal Company officials, backed by Paris, succeeded in amending the agreement in April 1869, only months before the canal was to be officially opened on 16 November. According to Mohamed Irfan, director of local municipalities and councils in the Science Academy, the first article of the agreement now stated, "The company may sell land allocated to it along the canal for the construction of cities, stations and private buildings." Although the government should have been the only party to benefit from such property sales, the second article stipulated that the revenues from the sale of land which the company no longer needed was to be considered "joint assets, the net profit of which would be divided equally between the government and the company."
A special system was put in place for sales. Should the Suez Canal Company decide to take advantage of rising property prices it would concede an area of land to the Joint Property Holdings Authority in accordance with a separate agreement for each plot of land. This could then be parcelled up and sold to private individuals. This did not apply to workers and staff housing areas, for in 1920, the company succeeded in persuading the Egyptian government to officially recognise that the Suez Canal Company would continue to hold private title to these properties until 1968, the termination date of its concession on the canal. At this point it would have the right to demolish these facilities. Of course, since the canal was nationalised 12 years earlier, the company was never able to exercise this right.
Also in 1920, the company submitted to the government a proposal to the effect that 1,200,000 square metres on the canal bank opposite Port Said be allocated to the Joint Property Holdings Authority. Of this, 750,000 square metres would be devoted to the construction of government buildings, roads and parks, while the remaining 450,000 square metres would be made available for private sale at reasonable prices. "The money accrued from this sale will be allocated for the construction of government buildings and other public structures," the proposal said. It added that the company would also forward, interest free, the initial sums necessary to commence construction and would then be reimbursed by the property sales, after which the income from the sales would be divided equally between the government and the company.
Justifiably suspicious of the company's intentions in view of past experience, the government did not respond to the proposal. As a result, the company resubmitted its request in 1922 and again the following year. Finally, the government formed a committee to study the proposal, a process that lasted an entire year. But when, at the end of 1924, the committee did submit its report, its conclusions were favourable. The report praised the construction work the company had already completed in the desert facing Port Said. The residential centre, it said, "was a model of construction. With some 800 housing units for company employees and workers, the area was laid out with considerable care, taking into account sanitation and hygiene. The streets are wide, providing for fresh air and the houses are well designed and constructed. There is also an abundant number of trees that have already been planted."
The report's assessment was corroborated by Al-Ahram's correspondent in Port Said who wrote that the three main streets in the new city were 50 metres wide and that other roads were no less than 20 metres wide. He also commented on the many public squares and gardens, which together made up 38 per cent of the city's land area. "This ratio far exceeds that of any other city in the country, even the most modern, such as Ismailia and Heliopolis," he said.
The committee report also suggested that it was in the public interest to take advantage of the facilities the company had constructed for its staff. In addition, it recommended taking immediate steps to reach an agreement with the company on the basis of its proposal so as to be able to put the land designated for public sale on the market.
The report also sought to allay fears that the new city would be detrimental to Port Said. "It will always be easy for most inhabitants to reside on the African bank, for Port Said will remain the centre for commercial activity and government authorities in the area, as well as the location of the railway terminal. There is no comparison between the old and new cities, for the new one can only progress slowly. And even if competition was to arise between them over the prices of the land available for construction, it will be to the benefit of all." The report contended that the rate of Port Said's population increase -- approximately 3,000 per year -- plus the sale of land on the Asian shore will keep land prices and rents down on the African shore, thus saving clients and tenants from greedy landlords "who exploit people without mercy or compassion, as is the case in some other cities."
The report broached the idea of making the new city the starting point for the Sinai railroad to Palestine instead of Al-Qantara, north of Ismailia. Such a project would guarantee "a great future for Port Fouad, particularly in view of its unlimited scope for expansion in the vast empty lands. On the other hand, Port Said is surrounded by Al-Manzala Lake, the Mediterranean and the Canal. Encompassed by water on almost all sides, it has no hope for expansion."
The government and the Suez Canal Company signed an agreement on 11 October 1925. The full 12-article text, appearing in Al-Ahram on 21 December of the following year on the occasion of the inauguration of the new canal city, covered a range of issues, foremost among them the administration of the city. This was to be placed under the authority of a municipal board whose tasks would include "land reclamation, sewer construction, city lighting, road construction, planting trees and fire prevention."
The agreement provided that the company would pay the costs of laying the foundations for the new city, which were estimated at LE125,000. It is an interesting footnote here that this figure was cited as equalling 3,333,000 French francs, which means that the Egyptian pound at the time was worth more than 125 francs.
Not surprisingly, five articles of the agreement pertained to the sale of land and the responsibilities of purchasers. Another article obligated the company to "provide potable water to the inhabitants of the new city on the same conditions that apply in Port Said," while in yet another article the company pledged to "facilitate the adoption of the necessary measures to guarantee passage from one bank to the other in Port Said and the new city."
Still, we observe that the "new city," cited so frequently in this agreement, had not yet acquired its royal title. That would occur with the inaugural ceremonies.
These Al-Ahram covered down to the last detail, sending to Port Said for the occasion one of its senior staff writers, Mahmoud Abul-Fath, who worked for Al-Ahram from 1921 to 1928 and who would later found the well-known newspaper Al-Masri.
The day before the inauguration, Abul-Fath observed the preparations that were under way. The Suez Canal Company had spent lavishly on the occasion. "It was clear in every place I passed through that the company spared no effort or expense to hold a celebration that would overwhelm spectators and be absolutely unprecedented in this era for its pomp and splendour." Organisers had arranged for two trains to convey guests to Port Said although it transpired that the first of the trains, which arrived at 9.00am did not have sufficient carriages, causing considerable chaos as passengers scrambled to find seats. In Port Said, private homes and businesses, "as well as mosques, churches, schools, government buildings and banks, were decked out with light bulbs, enveloping the city in a glimmering gown of glorious ornamentation."
At 3.00pm, the royal yacht, Al-Mahrousa -- the same yacht in which the king's father, Khedive Ismail, rode when he inaugurated the Suez Canal 57 years earlier -- sailed into the canal with stately elegance, escorted by two Coastguard barges, and dropped anchor in front of the Suez Canal Company palace. The arrival of His Majesty was greeted with a flotilla carrying bands from Port Said, which struck up the national anthem and a variety of popular tunes "as the city teemed with thousands of spectators who had arrived from all over the country."
According to Al-Ahram's reporter, a large group of guests from Port Said had danced the night away in a casino and reassembled in the morning to board two steam-powered craft that took them across to Port Fouad. Apparently, Abul-Fath was among the revellers and he describes the sense of wonder that overcame him during the few minutes it took to pass from "darkest Africa", as it was called, to "the continent that produced philosophies, ideologies and religions." He goes on to relate that when their boats pulled up to a small wharf on the sandy Asiatic shore, a delegation of Suez Canal Company representatives were there to greet them and escorted them to the festival site, guiding them along a colourfully decorated path, through "a splendid victory arch topped by the Egyptian national flag."
As guests arrived, an amusing incident occurred. When the British high commissioner, who had arrived on the British warship Concord and anchored next to Al-Mahrousa, reached the pavilion he was cheered by a number of Port Said expatriates. The band's conductor thought that the cheers signified the arrival of the king and struck up the royal anthem, to which the entire audience was obliged to rise. "When they saw that Lord Lloyd had arrived, and not the king, they were shocked!"
The pavilion was set up on the site designated for the construction of the Port Fouad municipality building. Inside, a stage had been constructed to seat the king -- "a gold-leafed chair upholstered in red velvet and surrounded by a red velvet awning topped by the royal crown." Three high, grandly upholstered chairs were placed on either side of the throne "for the princes who have been invited." Nor did Al-Ahram's correspondent omit mention of the fact that formal attire was required.
The king proceeded to the Port Said dock in his car where he boarded the ferry which docked on the Asian shore to the booming of a 21-gun salute. "He then toured the new city to inspect the work under construction, the layout of the city and the parks. When he arrived at the pavilion, all present rose, applauded and cheered the long life of the king, first in French, then Arabic."
The ceremonies opened with two speeches, the first by the deputy chairman of the board of directors of the Suez Canal Company and the second by Prime Minister Adli Yakan. Speaking first in Arabic, Yakan reminded the audience of the debt of gratitude due to the royal family for the progress made along the entire length of the canal, and to the current occupant of the throne for bestowing his name on the new city. He then completed his speech in French out of deference to the fact that most of those present were from the Suez Canal Company.
Abul-Fath goes on to relate that in front of the royal podium the cornerstone for the municipality building had been placed upon two other stones. A rectangular recess had been carved into one side of the cornerstone in which the king would place a commemorative parchment in Arabic. Next to the cornerstone was a silk box containing four gold coins of LE5, LE1, half a pound and 20 piastre denominations, as well as two brass pipes into one of which a special corked glass tube had been inserted. The commemorative parchment read:
"His Majesty Fouad has graciously laid this cornerstone of the Municipal Council Building in Port Fouad on 26 Jamad Al-Akhar 1345 AH (21 December 1926 AD), in the 10th year of his reign, at which time His Excellency Adli Yakan Pasha was Egyptian prime minister and the Honourable Monsieur Gonard was president of the Suez Canal Maritime Company."
A table had been set upon which had been placed a bit of cement. On top of this were a trowel and mallet, both made of silver, with ebony handles on which the Egyptian crown had been inlaid in gold. On these implements was inscribed, "This trowel and mallet were used by King Fouad I to set the first stone of the Municipal Council Building in Port Fouad."
King Fouad duly inserted the commemorative parchment into the cornerstone, which was then laid into the ground alongside the gold coins. In this final scene of ceremonies inaugurating the last of the royal cities Abul-Fath observed wryly, "These objects will remain buried in the bowels of the earth until God ordains that another Carter or Lord Caernarvon discovers them in the 60th or 70th century when they excavate for antiquities in Port Fouad."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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