This article has first been published in Ahram Online on 3/9/2014
In the last installment of our series on Egypt's golden beaches, Ahram Online reviews the three cities of the Suez Canal.
Known as cities of resistance, the three cities of the canal, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, also had an entertainment aspect although they were never a real summer destination for beach vacationers. However, some vintage postcards reveal that their coasts served as beaches for the entertainment of their own residents, primarily the expat community composed essentially of Greeks, French who ran the administration of the Suez Canal, English and other Europeans involved in commercial activities along the canal. The one distinctive feature that differentiates the beaches of the canal towns from all other Egyptian beaches is their wooden cabins recalling those of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Europe, although Egyptian ones seem larger and more spaced out, allowing privacy for their occupants. Another characteristic of theses cabins is the little terrace at the front allowing vacationers to get a fresh sea breeze without putting their feet on the sand.
In the case of Port Said, photos of its beaches are very scarce even when browsing through its various studios, namely those of Hyppolite Arnoux’s, Antipa’s, Zangaki brothers. Understandably, the theme of beaches wasn’t appealing as it sold little to the mass tourism that crossed its harbour entering the Suez Canal. However, among the many views of the quays, the pharos, and the headquarters of the Suez Canal building were some of its other beach entertainment highlight, the Casino Palace de Port Said
Port Said Palace Casino
Port Said Casino Palace with its almost private beach
Built, owned and run by the Simonini family, the Casino enjoyed a longer and more stable fate than the cabins but it too was pulled down in 1974. Fortunately, its prime location was replaced by a public park, known as the history garden, rather than the common ugly distasteful constructions that often surfaced in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As for its cabins, they seem to be left year round as implied by the gentleman in full costume and the emptiness of the neighbouring cabins and the beach proper.
Port Said beach cabins
Interestingly, in modern times, all the Arabic movies filmed in Port Said, such as Isha3it hob (Love Rumour) starring Soad Hosny, Omar El-Sharif and Youssef Wahby, or Port Said Al-Madina Al-Bassila (Port Said the resilient city) starring Farid Shawki, Shukry Sarhan and Huda Sultan among other movies, completely ignored its beaches.
Inexplicably, the wooden beach cabins most photographed and featured on postcards d’epoque were those of Ismailia spread along Timsah Lake (Crocodile Lake).
Ismailia's cabins on Lake Timsah,
Ismailia cabins on the canal's shore,
Ismailia's cabines de bains
Their exact location today is not clearly known, however it is strongly assumed that they might have been on the Forsan Island (Knights Island) where many modern five star hotels are in proximity to the presidency’s rest house which was built by president Anwar Sadat in the late seventies to host his exclusive guests while at the same time supervise works related to the development of the canal after its re-inauguration in 1975. Due to the steepness of the Timsah Lake that lacks a beach, Ismailia’s wooden cabins were either overlooking the lake or on long jetties deep into it rather than on a sand beach as is the case of Port Said’s cabins. The closest reminder of the fun those cabins may have meant to the exclusive expat community of Ismailia remains today only in the “plage des enfants” beach originally conceived for the children of the Suez Canal's French officers and captains. While it is not clear whether those cabins were exclusive or public and at what date they were removed, it appears that Ismailia had reasonable touristic traffic as evidenced by the number of small and medium-sized hotels and its elaborate railway station
Victoria hotel on the lakes of Ismailia
Apart from an article that architect Naguib Amin wrote for SUEZ: Histoire et Architecture, published by the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Oriental du Caire about the cabins of Suez, those cabins would have fallen in the deep well of oblivion. Naguib confirms that although his father often compared Suez’s cabins to those of Deauville’s and that Suez was not regarded as the choicest summer resort for Egyptian middle class families who preferred either Alexandria or Rass Al-Barr. Given the topography and the general layout of Suez those cabins were likely to be in the Port Fouad district
Photos courtesy of Ola. R. Seif