From sailing ships to toy boats

Nashwa Farouk, Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

Nashwa Farouk describes the demise of the Alexandria tradition of shipbuilding, once an important profession in the city’s Anfoushi district




Summer is upon us, and many people may now be craving a boat trip in the Mediterranean off the historic city of Alexandria. Many of these boats were once built in the Alexandria district of Anfoushi, though this has been less and less the case in recent years.

Anfoushi is in the Bahari area of Alexandria, once a hub for the manufacture of ships and yachts and a long-time haven for skilled shipbuilders. However, the industry has received successive blows that have almost put an end to the profession. Recession now has the upper hand, and many shipbuilders are looking for an alternative way of making a living. Some now make miniature models of ships that are sold as decorations or children’s toys.

This major shift in the shipbuilding industry has cast its shadow on an historic area that once buzzed with the manufacture of sailing and recreational boats. Entering Anfoushi today, visitors may notice the shabby facades of workshops that have suffered from such economic changes and where only toy ships are on display. Some workshops are closed until further notice, and on the beach in front of them there are the skeletons of half-constructed ships and sailboats, perhaps awaiting funds to be finished or perhaps simply abandoned.

Even so, nearby some workers are busy repairing and renovating old fishing boats. The smell of fresh paint wafts through the air as they give them a much-needed facelift.

The workshops sprawl over an area of 35,000 square metres, starting from the Anfoushi Cultural Palace and leading to the Sea Scouts Club. Many people working in the shipbuilding industry have done so as a result of family connections, as this is an industry that has passed from one generation to the next. Many local residents inherited the profession from their parents since it was once a profitable business.

Today, however, most are suffering and find it had to make a living.

The history of the shipbuilding workshops of Anfoushi dates back to the early 19th century, when Egypt’s ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha decided to establish the first workshop complex for the manufacture of naval ships in the Bahari area, the oldest neighbourhood in the Alexandria Governorate.

He commissioned French naval engineers to build a fleet, and by 1831 the country had a naval fleet of 15 ships ready to meet various maritime challenges. In 1825, he established the first naval school in Egypt, with many of its first students being selected from the royal family and retainers. The system adopted also looked to France for inspiration.  

After the death of Mohamed Ali, Egypt continued to invest in a naval fleet for defensive purposes. Ibrahim Youssef, a former head of the Port of Alexandria and former adviser to the Ministry of Transport, said in previous statements to Al-Ahram Weekly that the Egyptian fleet continued to develop under the rule of Mohamed Ali and his successors, who had also realised the importance of building a commercial fleet.

The merchant marine had some 165 ships until the late 1970s, he said, then shrinking to about 50 ships by 2022. Today, there is optimism that the country will be able to rebuild a national merchant fleet of the size it was until the 1970s.

The Egyptian Navy and the Ministry of Maritime Transport are responsible for commissioning or manufacturing a fleet that includes warships, large cruise ships, and container ships. The workshops in the Anfoushi area, by contrast, have always been more concerned with ships used for leisure activities or fishing. Though initially developed under the auspices of Mohamed Ali, they were always private businesses, though like any other they worked under licence and paid taxes to the state.

The leisure ship industry returned to life in 1956 when former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser reinvested in the maritime industry. Meanwhile, the former Soviet Union was helping to build a new Egyptian Navy in association with the military branches of the state. With the outbreak of the 1967 War, that industry largely stopped.

Later presidents tried to revive the leisure ship industry. When former president Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981, for instance, he reinstated the boat workshops in the Anfoushi neighbourhood and allowed them to obtain licences to operate.


SUCCESSIVE CRISES: The industry received a blow during the Mubarak period in 2004, when the licences of 64 shipbuilding workshops in Bahari were suspended, putting a halt to their work.

Another crisis hitting the ship industry occurred in the aftermath of the January 2011 Revolution, which brought their work to a halt, and the workshops remained closed until the country regained its stability.

In 2015, a fire broke out in the area, levelling many facilities to the ground. The resultant losses amounted to about LE2 million, and this caused investors to buy yachts and boats from countries such as China and Turkey, leaving Egyptian workshop owners empty-handed.

A fourth crisis came in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and a major drop in tourism. Local shipbuilders were hit by the recession in the tourist sector, once again bringing their businesses to a halt.

The country was still reeling from the coronavirus when inflation began to hit hard a couple of years later. The prices of raw materials and machinery soared, causing stagnation in more than 70 per cent of the industry. Many shipbuilders abandoned their profession, looking for an alternative way to make ends meet.

Mohamed Khamis, a member of the Shipbuilders Association and the owner of a workshop in Alexandria, told the Weekly about the successive crises the industry has suffered.

“We had been through crises before, but nothing has compared to the coronavirus and the inflation that came on its heels,” Khamis said. “Past crises would cause a slowdown in the business, but this time business came to a halt. The recession meant it was impossible to pay our workers, and we had to close workshops and lay off those working in them until further notice.”

“We still do not know why our licences were suspended in 2004 and why no one has responded to the complaint letters we have been sending ever since. Another second crisis began in 2008 when the Red Sea Governorate issued a decree preventing the manufacture of leisure ships there without a licence and prior approval. We were unable to work in Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, and this also affected our business badly,” Khamis said.

A man in his sixties stands in a large workshop in the Bahari area of Alexandria holding a saw in his hand and bent on manufacturing small sailboats. Mohamed Mahmoud Qassem, nickname Hadharni, is the owner of the oldest workshop for manufacturing ships and fishing boats in Bahari. Recently, however, he has taken to making model boats and toys.

“I have been working in this profession for 46 years since I was only 14 years old,” Qassem said. “I was always particularly inspired by the story of Prophet Noah, who was entrusted by God to build a ship in the desert. This was what sparked my passion for the job. My parents always told me that story to show that shipbuilding was one of the greatest professions in the world.”

“When I was a boy, my father would tell me that I could make a ship that could cross the globe even though it was only made out of wood,” he continued. “That was a source of inspiration for me, and I have had a passion for the profession ever since. Fortunately, I also had the talent to develop my skills at early age and I started cutting wood and preparing it for shipbuilding.”

“I received my apprenticeship at the hands of my uncle and parents, and I would love to spend the rest of life in the same profession.”

However, the market slowdown has forced Qassem to think outside the box. “We used to make two to three ships a year in times of recession, but now business has come to a complete halt,” he said.

Instead of staying jobless, Qassem decided to continue his passion, but this time by making models for home and restaurant decoration and as toys for children. “Toy boats will at least teach children important information about ships and help them with their education,” he said.

“The idea soon gained popularity, and I found there was a good market among tourists, expatriates, and Egyptians,” Qassem said. “The wooden miniatures give homes a taste of Alexandria. The models are priced according to size and range from LE40 to LE1,000. Sometimes, we do pieces tailored to a customer’s request. This new business has compensated our workshops for their losses and almost all ship’s carpenters are now making models in order to earn a living.”

Hajj Ibrahim Al-Captain, a veteran shipbuilder in Bahari and a member of the Board of the Bahari Shipbuilders Association, nodded his approval.

“All those working in the shipbuilding industry have a passion for their work, which is mainly rooted in the tales of our ancestors,” he said. “This profession will never die out. So long as there is sea, there will be ships.”

In the meantime, as the recession bites Al-Captain and his fellow carpenters have created a niche for themselves. “We make models for students at the Naval Academy, the Faculty of Engineering, and the Faculty of Fine Arts,” he said. “Sometimes, they ask for a model of a large cargo ship, an oil tanker, or a cruise ship. They just give us a picture of the boat they want a model of, and we make it for them.”

Al-Captain sometimes goes further by providing classes in his workshop for students at the Naval Academy and students of marine engineering. “We teach them how to design and manufacture ships as well as do their own drawings,” he explained. “We also show them the types of wood used in each boat so that they can complete their projects. We pass on our experience of shipbuilding.”

“We also manufacture decorative models, as do all ship’s carpenters today who find it to be a way to make a living.”

Mohamed Khalil, a ship’s carpenter, agreed. “We stopped making boats due to the high prices of raw materials, and now we tend to renovate fishermen’s boats for a living,” he said.

PRICES OF MATERIALS: Most of the wood used in building boats in Egypt is imported from abroad. This makes it expensive, especially after the recent devaluation of the Egyptian pound.

“There are several types of wood that are used in shipbuilding, including varieties from France, Sweden, and North Africa,” Khalil explained. “We also use mulberry wood, pine, oak and eucalyptus, all of which have become very expensive, up to LE30,000 per square metre.”

“Our wealthy customers who used to come to our workshops in Bahari to have their yachts made have now turned to China instead where they get them made at cheaper prices. They can also benefit from the more advanced technology used there in boat manufacturing.”

Hussein Abu Shanab, head of the Bahari Shipbuilding Association, said the association had been doing its bit to try to save the profession.

“We have sent hundreds of letters to officials, but to no avail so far,” he said. “Things are going from bad to worse, and Egypt is losing a historic profession that was once important for foreign investors seeking to have boats made. Today, the workshops are empty.”

All the shipbuilders who talked to the Weekly said that the government should do more to help save the profession.

“We call upon the president to re-grant the shipbuilding licences that have been suspended since 2004,” they said.

“Then the workshops could resume their work making leisure boats and yachts, pass the profession down to the new generations, or even see the industry placed under the auspices of the state to allow the country as a whole to benefit from the expertise of its shipbuilders.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: