As work begins on the new, modern, state-of-the-art project envisioned to transform the Suez Canal from a mere waterway built in 1869 into a 21st century international hub for shipping and trade, the need has arisen as never before to chronicle and document the history of the Canal. And what can better do that job than a special museum? In fact, the Egyptian Culture Ministry has announced not one but two museums that would serve that purpose.
The first is the provincial Suez Museum since the history of Suez is intricately linked with that of the Canal; in fact, the city has lent its name to the waterway which the whole world knows as the Suez Canal. The second, to be named the Suez Canal Museum, will be the house of Ferdinand de Lesseps in Ismailiya, the town on the western Canal bank midway between Suez on the Red Sea in the south and Port Said on the Mediterranean in the north. De Lesseps (1805 – 1894) was the French diplomat who designed, engineered and supervised the Suez Canal project.
The Suez Museum is not a project that will start from scratch; work on it has been ongoing since 2007 and it was scheduled for opening in 2010. Delays, however, and the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 with all the attending turmoil that was especially severe in Suez effectively worked to halt the museum project. Now that its strong connection to the history of the Suez Canal is particularly relevant, and since a substantial volume of work on it has already been done, the museum looks on its way to a grand opening in the near future.
The museum, set up at the cost of EGP48 million by the joint effort of the ministries of culture, tourism and antiquities, uses state-of-the-art museology to display the ancient and modern history of the Suez region. It will showcase some 2,500 objects that date back to Pharaonic, Coptic, Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and modern times. It will also chronicle the coastal townspeople’s resistance during the Suez War in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, and the October War in 1973.
In ancient times
In ancient times Suez, then called Seecot, was capital of the eighth nome of Lower Egypt. The Greeks named the town Heroopolis (City of Heroes), and later Cleopatris after Queen Cleopatra VII. In the seventh century the Arabs called it Qalzam.
A presentation screened in the museum tells the story of the legendary canal built by King Senusert III—also known as Sesostris, who reigned from 1878 to 1840 BC in the Twelfth Dynasty—to join the Red Sea and the Nile, thus linking it with the Mediterranean. Back then Egypt had a thriving trade with the East African States overlooking what is today the Indian Ocean. The Sesostris Canal allowed goods to be shipped through the waterway directly to and from Memphis instead of travelling part of the way by caravan. Temple wall paintings from the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (c.1473 – 1458BC) of the Eighteenth Dynasty show that a naval fleet travelled to the Land of Punt (present-day Somalia) via the Nile and the Red Sea to import ebony, spices, and exotic plants and animals.
This canal eventually silted up and fell into disuse, but subsequent rulers re-dug it at several points in Egypt’s history. In 767, it was finally closed by the Abassid Caliph al-Mansour to prevent supplies from reaching rebels in Mecca and Medina.
The Suez Museum will contain statues and paintings of all the Egyptian rulers who constructed and maintained the canal. It will also give historical information on Egypt’s commercial ventures; pilgrimages to Mecca, which had to pass through Suez; and the digging of the modern Suez Canal in the 19th century.
On the road to Mecca
The museum is located in Port Tawfiq near the southern entrance of the Suez Canal. It consists of two floors: the ground floor houses the VIP hall, lecture hall, cafeteria, administration area, control room, store, restoration and photographing departments and security rooms, while on the first floor are six main galleries with an open gallery between the two floors. The first gallery, ‘Sesostris’, displays a statue of Senusert III, a bust of Queen Hatshepsut and various paintings, sculptures, and vessels. The second gallery houses a number of wooden boats with models of sailors, a statue of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III and rock inscriptions representing ships.
In the third gallery visitors can see statues of deities and models of weapons from different ages, as well as bronze vessels and a detailed history of mining in the area close to Suez.
The gallery dedicated to the Suez Canal displays, among other items, a royal carriage and medals dating from the days of the opening of the Canal.
Other galleries display some priceless Islamic books, as well as the Mahmal, literally load of goods. The Mahmal was a caravan that moved from Cairo to Mecca every year as far back as the 12th century, in time with the hajj (pilgrimage) season; it only stopped in 1926 in the wake of political conflict in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The caravan carried generous supplies of wheat and basic goods for the holy town’s residents and visitors. More important, it carried a new covering kiswa for the Kaaba, made of fine cloth decorated with a belt of magnificent inscriptions of Qur’anic verses intricately embroidered in gold and silver thread. Several specimens of old kiswa are on display in the new museum.
The first floor galleries are named respectively the Greek Hall, the Islamic Hall and the Qalzam Hall.
The open gallery between the two floors occupies some 2200 square metres and contains Greek and Roman antiquities together with other objects discovered in the area.
All the necessary preparations are now complete, including the air-conditioning, lifts, fire extinguishers, fire prevention and an ant-theft security system, as well as vocal and visual networks showing the major contents of the museum.
According to Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty, the museum’s restoration laboratories are fully equipped for the restoration of items in various materials such as stone, wood and metal and will have a resident restoration team. There will be 221 electronic guides in Arabic, English and French, and CCTV cameras inside and outside the museum.
The Egyptian peasant
Last year saw the laying of the foundation stone for the Suez Canal Museum at the house of Ferdinand de Lesseps in Ismailiya. On hand for the event were the then Culture Minister Muhammad Saber Arab, then Antiquities Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, and the President of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Mamish.
“The de Lesseps Museum represents a historical and cultural project which focuses on the French role and the thousands of Egyptian peasants who died while digging the canal,” Dr Arab said. He called for a statue of an Egyptian peasant to be erected on the Canal bank as a reminder of the thousands of Egyptians whose lives were sacrificed, and he also suggested that a list be compiled of the names of those who died. Dr Arab said the museum would stand in a vacant area adjacent to the house and would include a wealth of archival material that concerned the Suez Canal. Among them will be a collection of documents from Turkish, British and French sources, some of them digitised, to show the international conditions at the time. He said that, today, these documents reveal the Canal as a symbol of peace and communication with the world. “The museum is the fruit of two centuries of Egyptian-French relations which were unstable at times and smooth at others,” Dr Arab said.
Ferdinand de Lesseps’s house
“The Suez Canal was dug by the hands, effort and blood of our great grandfathers,” Mr Mamish said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, French minds and Egyptian efforts joined in challenging difficult conditions to complete a complicated, multifaceted project that finally gave Egypt and the whole world a vital waterway.”
Arnaud Ramière de Fortanier, Chairman of the Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez, mentioned during the foundation ceremony that although the Canal was an international waterway, it was part of Egyptian flesh and blood and was closely related to Egyptian patriotism. There are many public figures connected to it, from Ahmed Orabi to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, he said. Mr de Fortanier stressed that Egypt’s ingeniousness was revealed in the manner in which her people reconciled their national character with their role and dedication to the international community. “It is our duty,” he said, “to tell the world what the Suez Canal really means.”
The new museum will house de Lesseps’s plans, maps, tools and personal belongings, and an original invitation sent to the heads of State and other dignitaries who would be attending the opening. Visitors can walk through his living room covered by the first wallpaper used in Egypt and brought in especially for that purpose from France at the time, and can see the original carriage he used to make his rounds of the construction sites.
Reporting from Culture ministry by Ekhlas Atallah; Museum coverage by Mervat Ayad and Sanaa’ Farouk
31 August 2014