It is unthinkable that the Cairo Opera House would not have the lead in the events that celebrate the opening of the new Suez Canal on Thursday 9 August 2015. After all, the first Opera House in Egypt was built by Khedive Ismail to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Khedive had commissioned the renowned Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi to compose Aida, written by Egyptologist and founder of the Egyptian Museum Auguste Marriette, for the grand opening. Verdi, however, could not make it on time owing to the Franco Prussian war, and the Opera House opened with Rigoletto instead; Aida made its first performance in 1871 at the Cairo Opera House. The Khedival Opera House, fashioned along Milano’s LaScala, continued a beacon on Cairo’s music horizon till 1971 when it was burned down, and it took till 1988 for Cairo to get a new opera house built by the Japanese on the Nile island of Gezira.
This time round, and to celebrate the new Suez Canal opening, the Cairo Opera House will be hosting a performance of the 30-minute victory celebration scene in Aida. Some 1000 musicians and performers will take part in the show which will be preceded by a concert by the renowned Egyptian musician Omar Khairat. Ines Abdel-Dayem, director of the Cairo Opera House, has proudly said it was a “great honour” to be assigned to take part in the celebration of the historic event.
The Coptic Church is not to be left out of the historic event. Pope Tawadros II will be among the guests present in the opening ceremony but, on the grassroots level, Copts will do their bit by presenting the musical The New Canal: A Life Artery on the theatre of the cultural palace in the town of Ismailiya midway along the Canal. The musical includes a collection of songs that extoll the feat of building the Canal, past and present. Among them are Egypt for all Egyptians, Your flag flies high, and Egypt, the life artery. The theatrical work is the joint effort of Hany Ishaq and Emile Girgis, directed by Diaa’ Shafiq.
Other musical events will be held in various places in Egypt, in many cases sponsored by the Culture Ministry’s Cultural Palaces Authority. Especially in the Suez Canal towns of Ismailiya, Port Said on the North, and Suez on the south of the canal, shows will be numerous and include many for children. The musicals, folkloric dance, and puppet shows run all through the month of August.
Egyptian TV and radio are running programmes and shows to mark the Suez Canal opening; among them are talk shows and documentaries.
Cairo will be hosting a panoramic art exhibition from 23 August to 22 September that displays the works of Egyptian artists, past and present, who have been inspired by the Suez Canal. Several of the exhibits are on loan from the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art. The exhibition runs under the title “The Suez Canal: Past, Present, and Future”.
Suez Canal Documents: limited edition
The Egyptian General Book Organisation is holding book fairs and issuing several publications on the topic of the Suez Canal. But by far the most prominent is a tome issued jointly with the Egyptian National Archives under the title The Suez Canal: Documents of an Egyptian Dream. The volume includes copies of rare documents in the Arabic, Turkish, French, and German languages all of which pertain to the Suez Canal. They are being published for the first time, and include competitive offers by international firms to build the canal; privileges granted to Ferdinand De Lesseps, the French diplomat who spearheaded the building of the Suez Canal; lists of the number of workers from a Menoufiya village dispatched to dig the canal; the costs of the opening ceremony in 1869; and the 29 October 1888 treaty which stipulates freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal and recognises Egypt’s sovereignty over it. More documents pertain to laws and regulations that govern the Canal operation, the Suez crisis, the Canal reopening after the October 1973 war with Israel, and works of upgrading and widening the waterway. The book comes in a limited edition of 200 copies to be given as gifts to the prominent guests at the opening.
East of the Canal
Not to be outdone, the ministries of tourism and antiquities are doing their bit in the splendid celebrations. The Oyoun Moussa site southeast the Suez Canal has been upgraded and will open to tourists next Thursday, the same day the new Canal opens. Oyoun Moussa, literally Springs of Moses, is believed to be the spring where Moses, after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, turned a bitter spring into sweet drinking water by casting a sprig into it as instructed by God. Today, there remains twelve springs as in the Old Testament, but all but one turned brackish after 1860.
The Antiquities Ministry has upgraded the archaeological sites and museums in he vicinity of the Suez Canal. East of the Canal is the famous Horus Military Road which acted as Egypt’s eastern gateway and is dotted with several castles and military strongholds that date as far back as Pharaonic times. The ministry has published a book on the archaeological finds east of the Canal, a portion of which were found during the digging of the Canal in the 19th century, and many elements among which have been placed in the Ismailiya provincial museum which now includes 3800 pieces of antiquity.
Other than that, there are sites such as the Tharu castle, Pelusium Fort, and Tell-Huba Fortress which the ministry is hoping would open the way to a new type of tourism in Egypt: castle tourism.
4 August 2015