Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 May 2009
Issue No. 946
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Streets lined with imported goods; a bicycle joyride in a city with barely any traffic; an opportunity to have a stroll alongside the Corniche and enjoy a fresh sea breeze. These are all recollections of Port Said, but are they still possible? Mohamed El-Hebeishy finds out

Among its peers of Egyptian cities, Port Said would probably rank the youngest. Before 1859, it was nothing but a barren sandy strip separating the Mediterranean Sea from Lake Manzala. The site was chosen by Khedive Said, who later gave the city its name, as a labour camp to house the thousands working on the Suez Canal project. As the camp grew into a town, more space was needed and an entire section of the adjacent lake was reclaimed by a landfill. Port Said, is in fact, partially built on water.

Perhaps traffic has shifted from the market area to the streets and buyers of imported goods have been replaced with noisy polluting cars. Nonetheless, Port Said still makes for a fabulous weekend break, away from truly chaotic Cairo.

The city doesn't fall short on culture, with two museums on the must-do sightseeing list. The National Museum of Port Said is a replica of Cairo's on a much smaller scale, and also houses artefacts from the Islamic and Coptic eras.

The Military Museum, on the other hand, is the commonsensical outcome of the city's turbulent history -- almost levelled to the ground three times during armed conflicts with Israel. Inaugurated in 1964, the Military Museum showcases artefacts from recent wars, as well as others dating back to Pharaonic and Islamic times.

A little known fact about this coastal city is that it could have been home to an earlier version of New York's Statue of Liberty. In the 1860s, Egypt's ruler Khedive Ismail went on a spending spree and commissioned a huge statue of a woman bearing a torch to adorn the Suez Canal. Because of cost, however, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's idea of the "Light of Asia Statute" was scrapped. It was later remodelled into what we know today as the Statue of Liberty, standing on Liberty Island in New York Harbour.

photo: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

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