Semsemya songs, traditional dances and numerous elements of intangible heritage from the three Suez Canal cities were celebrated at the Fifth Scientific Conference of Atlas for Egyptian Heritage and Traditions in Port Said.
The conference was inaugurated by Port Said Deputy Governor Amr Othman, who said that Port Said is ready to support any efforts to commemorate and safeguard the governorate’s heritage.
“I would like to start off by commemorating the great icons of Egyptian heritage who we recently lost, professors Ahmed Morsy, Samih Shaalan, and Abdel-Rahman Al-Shafai. We dedicate this round to them," said Nahla Imam, head of the customs and traditions department at the High Folklore Institute and head of the conference.
The Canal Trio
The idea of digging a canal that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean is not novel to Egyptians. The idea dates back to ancient Egypt. Many references to the Sesostris Canal were made in the journals of travellers and historians such as Herodotus.
However, digging started on the modern Suez Canal during the reign of Khedive Said after French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps convinced him to undertake the endeavour. The Suez Canal opened during the reign of Khedive Ismail, the canal cities of Port Said and Ismailia were founded, and the old city of Suez was revived.
Semsemya: Songs of the country’s diggers and defenders
The three canal cities have a very unique heritage, with the Semsemya musical instrument being a common factor. Semsemya songs were the refuge, source of joy, and the musical sound of resistance and folk memory of the Egyptian hands that dug the canal. These songs carry the memory of the 1 million lives lost as they dug the canal under the worst possible conditions, as well as the memories of the people who faced three of the world’s strongest armies at once.
Among the research papers discussed during the conference was one titled ‘Suez, a Multi-Vocal Heritage of Songs’ by researcher, writer and renowned artist Mohamed El-Baghdady.
“The people of Suez are in a constant state of singing, creating their own source of joy. They sing while making the fishing nets and boats, during wedding celebrations, and even when Egypt was defeated in 1967. Their song was the beginning of the road to resistance,” explained professor El-Baghdady, noting that Suez has always been a crossroad to pilgrimage and trade routes, which created a rich cultural mix and is the reason behind its local name, “City of the Stranger.”
"This name is derived from the name of a Sufi Walli who was called Al-Gharib, meaning the stranger, and also because it means that this city welcomes all strangers, and they eventually belong to it," he explained.
Suez henna ritual
The songs of Suez have many themes, such as the Suez henna ritual song that documents several key elements of the area’s intangible heritage.
“The ritual starts the day before a wedding, and becomes a public announcement of the wedding. It usually starts in front of the house of the bride or groom and the songs are sung by the most famous Semsemya musicians like Ibrahim El-Batty and Said Caboria,” the research paper said.
“It starts with group clapping songs followed by famous Semsemya songs, accompanied by the El-Bamboteya folk dance, along with tunes from the Semsemya, tabla and metal spoons. This is followed by the henna tray with lit candles on it, and the friends of the groom or bride gather around it and move around the town of Suez, stopping only under the balconies of the relatives of the bride or groom to call out the relatives’ names. In return, the relatives throw candy or coins as an act of sharing in the celebration,” continued the paper.
Al-Damma in Port Said
“One of the most distinguished forms of traditional singing is El-Damma, which means ‘gathering’ in Arabic. This form of singing and dancing flourished in the three canal cities, but was quite popular in Port Said. The Semsemya players are called El-Sohbagia, and evidence of their performances traces back to the early 20th century,” professor Mohamed Shabana, head of the folk music section at the High Folklore Institute, told Ahram Online.
Captain Ghazali is one of the icons of Semsemya performances, and his patriotic songs played a great role in the Egyptian resistance in Port Said, especially during the tripartite war on Egypt, when Port Said was under siege. "Oh Port Said’s young and old men, you should be proud throughout the ages, you fought the occupation army, seven nights and a day," goes the popular song.
‘We the Bamboteya’
“We the Bamboteya, no one is like us, merchant boatmen in the canal,” Sheiam El-Gaby, folk costume designer and researcher, recited the famous folk songs of the Bamboteya at the beginning of her presentation.
“The Bamboteya (boat man) were the merchants living on their row boats and selling and exchanging goods with the large boats that passed through the Suez Canal. Since they lived off their boats, their outfits, especially their pants, had many pockets that served as their own portable closet,” she added, highlighting how this costume is now very fashionable, and how it has been a trendy unisex outfit ever since.
Among the interesting sessions of the conference was one on traditional remedies in Ismailia, where professor Sameh Shawky shared some of the practices. People in Ismailia specifically use olive oil or salt and water to soothe gum irritation. Using cloves is also an excellent remedy for tooth pain.
The conference, which ended with nine recommendations for safeguarding, listing, and reviving elements of intangible heritage of the three canal cities, marks a big step in reconnecting the people of the canal with their own human treasures and heritage.