The highlight of the spectacular opening of the new Suez Canal on Thursday 6 August 2015 is the sailing of the 150-year-old Mahroussa along the waterway. On board the graceful, lavish vessel will be President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, representatives of the Egyptian people, and prominent international guests.
This is the third time the Egyptian royal vessel sails the canal to mark its opening. The first time was in 1869 when the Suez Canal was first opened to navigation, and the second was when it reopened on 5 June 1975 after eight years of closure following the 1967 Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel. Yet another historic sailing of the Mahroussa on the Suez Canal was with President Gamal Abdel-Nasser on deck to mark the nationalisation of the Canal in 1956.
Building of the Mahroussa began in 1863 by order of the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail Pasha. The yacht was designed by Oliver Lang along the same lines as the British Royal Yacht HMY Victoria and Albert and was built by Samuda Brothers on the River Thames. The 125 metre-long and 13 metre-wide ship fitted with paddle wheel propulsion was completed in two years. She could sail at 16 knots and was armed with eight Armstrong canons.
In August 1865, the ship left the British shores to Alexandria where she docked in front of Ras al-Tin Palace, serving as the Egyptian Royal Yacht until 1952. She was baptised Mahroussa, literally ‘Guarded [by God’s blessings]’, and carried the name until 1952 when a revolution in Egypt forced the country’s last ruling monarch, King Farouk, to abdicate the throne to his infant son Ahmed Fuad and leave the country. Mahroussa carried Farouk, his wife Nariman, the infant king, and the three royal princesses to Europe where they settled down in Italy, their home in exile. Farouk sent the yacht back to Egypt where the new rulers changed the name from Mahroussa to Hurriya, literally Liberty. In 2000, Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak changed the name of the vessel back to the original Mahroussa.
Built to be the biggest yacht of her time, Mahroussa witnessed not a few historical high points.
In 1868, Mahroussa carried Khedive Ismail to attend the Paris Exposition Universelle, and in 1869 she sailed him to Marseilles to invite Europe’s heads of State to the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal, the waterway Egypt had dug to join the Mediterranean and Red Sea thus sparing ships the arduous journey round the Cape of Good Hope.
In November that year, Mahroussa sailed through the Canal to mark its opening. On deck were Khedive Ismail and his luminary guests, among them kings, queens, princes and princesses. The French Empress Eugénie Bonaparte was there, and she gave Khedive Ismail a fine gift: a piano built specially for her in Stuttgart in 1867. The piano, which the Empress played while on Mahroussa, is still on the yacht and in excellent condition. Mahroussa also carried on board the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and Friedrich Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Germany.
Mahroussa was always kept in top-notch form, fitted with state-of-the-art period technology. In 1872 she was sent to London for a 12-metre length extension. Her boilers were replaced in Alexandria in 1894, and in 1905 the ship was refitted in Italy to become one of the earliest ships of any size fitted with steam turbines. Telegraph service was installed on Mahroussa in 1912.
In 1919 the royal yacht was sent back to Portsmouth, England for her engines to be altered to run on diesel instead of coal. And once again her length was extended by a further nine metres, for her to measure an overall of 145 metres in length.
The yacht went through a complete overhaul and facelift between the years 1949 and 1952 in Genoa, Italy, emerging among the world’s top modern yachts.
Even though Khedive Ismail, also known as Ismail the Magnificent, executed in Egypt great projects that achieved a quantum leap towards the country’s modernisation, he was notoriously extravagant. His extravagance landed the country in the huge debt of a staggering 100 million Pounds Sterling. This led to intervention by Egypt’s European creditors, mainly Britain and France; Egypt had to sell her shares in the Suez Canal to Britain, and Ismail was deposed at the behest of the British in 1879. His son Tawfiq succeeded him as Khedive. Mahroussa carried the deposed Ismail to Italy where he did not stay long; he settled down later in Istanbul where he died in 1895.
In 1899, Mahroussa headed to Port Said carrying Egypt’s monarch Abbas Helmy II to unveil of a bronze statue of De Lesseps, the French diplomat and engineer who had spearheaded the project of the Suez Canal and persuaded Khedive Said, Ismail’s father and predecessor, to build it. The statue was sculpted by Emmanuel Frémiet.
The following year, Mahroussa was employed to transport Turkish emigrants to Alexandria and, in 1914, the royal yacht carried the last of Egypt’s viceroys, Khedive Abbas Helmy to exile in Istanbul where he was confined and banned to ever set foot on Egyptian soil. The Khedive had been deposed by the British who then occupied Egypt.
In 1930 she transported King Fuad I of Egypt to Port Tawfiq to inaugurate the new oil port there. It was also on board Mahroussa that Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made his journey to Egypt to marry Princess Fawziya, King Farouk’s sister in 1939.
Apart from the opening of the Suez Canal, perhaps the incident most associated in Egyptian memory with Mahroussa is the final departure of King Farouk from Egypt in 1952. Mahroussa gracefully waited in front of Ras al-Tin palace on 26 July 1952 for King Abdicate Farouk and his family to set sail to Europe. Farouk boarded Mahroussa in full military regalia, to a 21 canon shot salute by the Egyptian Navy in honour of his son, the infant King Ahmed Fuad. Muhammad Naguib who later became the first President of the Republic of Egypt, and members of the Free Officers Movement which had led the Revolution three days earlier and demanded that Farouk should abdicate were at hand to bid him farewell. When one of the Free Officers, Gamal Salem, insolently jested and held his staff under his arm, Farouk firmly but courteously drew his attention that such behaviour was improper in the presence of a king, pointing to his son King Ahmed Fuad. According to Farouk’s request, Admiral Galal Eddin Allouba steered Mahroussa out to sea.
Mahroussa returned to Alexandria to be used as a presidential yacht, under the new name Hurriya. She took President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Bandung in Indonesia in 1955 where the Non-Aligned movement was launched.
On 4 September 1979, Mahroussa carried President Anwar Sadat on a visit to Israel to mark the peace treaty signed by Egypt and Israel after more than 30 years of war. This was his second visit to Israel; the first was in 1977 when he went to Tel Aviv and made his historic speech before the Israeli Knesset, spearheading thus the peace process.
In 1980, President Sadat sailed aboard Mahroussa to the United States to participate in the bicentennial of Independence Day.
The grand day
Between 1955 and 1973 Mahroussa was used as a training vessel for Egyptian Navy students. She would occasionally sail to European ports where tourists would pay to tour the opulent vessel. The funds generated were pumped into the State budget.
Mahroussa is still in perfect condition. The huge yacht is among the largest in the world; the largest is the 160 metre-long yacht owned by Sheikh Muhammad Ben Rashed Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler. Mahroussa is equipped with four elevators and a parking space for one car. There are five floors; the lowest houses the machinery, fuel tanks and boilers. The main floor hosts the sitting rooms, kitchen, storerooms, winter wing, the Pharaonic Hall and the Princes’ Hall. The floor above contains the anchor, cranes and smoking and dining lounges. The fourth floor carries the cannons, the winter and summer gardens, the summer wing and the Blue Hall. The walkway and floating facilities are on the top floor of the vessel.
The floating palace houses hundreds of precious artefacts and oil paintings by world renowned painters, to say nothing of the beautiful inscriptions and decorations of the vessel itself. The silver, crystal, ceramic artefacts, as well as the China and opulent carpets are among the finest originals in the world.
Throughout her 150 years in service, Mahroussa has sailed some 900,000 kilometres across seas and oceans. Some 40 naval commanders steered the yacht, the first was Admiral Frederick Beck, and the most recent is Captain Ashraf Sorour.
Fitted and tested by the Egyptian navy a week before the grand opening of the new Suez Canal, Mahroussa left her dock at Ras al-Tin. Vested in her most lavish silk upholstery and carpets, the royal portraits hung on her walls, and her splendid artefacts all in place, she will be proudly sailing the new Suez Canal on Thursday 6 August 2015.
4 August 2015