Suez: A tale of an ancient Red Sea city

Amira Noshokaty , Saturday 19 Dec 2020

On the 65th anniversary of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Ahram Online republishes a review of a case study on the history of the 'brave city'

The source of these pictures is the book of Claudine Piaton, Suez: Histoire et Architecture.

Based on the latest published PhD titled Monitoring Heritage and Urban Change along the Red Sea, Suez, and Quseir, a case study by Manar El-Gamal, Ahram Online sails into the tangible and intangible heritage of Quseir and Suez, respectively.

Suez, one of Egypt’s ancient port cities by the Red Sea, is known to be the closest point between the Red and Mediterranean seas. This portal city was first noticed by the ancient Egyptians as far as the fifth century B.C when they dug the Canal of Osiris. 

“It was considered as one of the most ancient water canals and was dug by King Sonosert the Third. The canal was used to transport goods, commodities, and merchants. If trading was local during the ancient Egyptian era, it was international during the Platonic era. During and after Alexander the Great’s era, Egypt played an important role, especially through the Red Sea ports, in trading with India, China, and the Far East. The Platonic leaders in Egypt carried out land reclamation, canal creation, and established cities. Their trading activities included the Mediterranean basin and the Red Sea, and they therefore established desert routes between the Nile and the Red Sea,” explained El-Gamal, an architect awarded a PhD from Politecnico Di Milano Architecture and Urban Design University.

During the Greek era — 246 BC, the Greeks established a city north of present-day Suez under the name of Qulzum. The city structure was based on a grid model, with the streets oriented from north to south and from east to west.

Afterwards, the city became a strategic location for wheat storage for the Roman Empire and they established a Castel, or “upper city” — whose location and remains were later known as Qulzum hill.

Throughout the ages, the canal was backfilled until it was re-used once again by Amr Ibn Al-Aass, during the caliphate of Omar Ibn Al-Khattab. However, during the Abbasid caliphate, they closed it once again, fearing the easy access to Fustat — the capital at the time —by the revolutionaries.  The closing of the canal and the lack of a freshwater source led to people abandoning the city.

It wasn’t until the reign of Mohamed Ali that Suez was back in the limelight. After his fights against the Wahabis on the western side of Arabia, Ali shifted the trade route from Quseir to Suez.

The source of these pictures is the book of Claudine Piaton, Suez: Histoire et Architecture.

“The change in the overland route happened due to two reasons. Firstly, the decision by the Ottomans in Egypt to consider Suez as the capital of the Red Sea region, representing the eastern front of Egypt. They turned Suez into a military base with a defensive navy combating piracy and foreign invasions coming through the sea. Secondly, the opening of the Suez Canal, which is the main reason behind the major change in the overland route and the drastic changes that occurred in the southern cities of the Red Sea region. The route shifted from the south to the northeast and then to the capital. This caused the development of southern cities like Quseir, Ayydhab, etc.,” read the PhD.

As for Suez, the city was also a traditional Arab or Muslim city. The character of Suez’ architecture is known by “Baghdadli”. The model construction is based on sandwich panel walls, which have upright wooden veins. Stones called hagar al-mankabi are bought from the seashore and used for the construction of houses, which are usually four storeys high.

A point of transformation for Suez was when the Arab quarter was demolished in favour of digging the Suez Canal.

“Khedive Ismail was influenced by Haussmann’s planning in Paris and he wanted to imitate the same experience in Suez and Cairo. As a result, the grid structure started to become dominant from this transformation point, and the design of buildings, quarters, and streets was inspired by Haussmann’s Paris. Then came the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and along with it the war in 1956, then the subsequent wars of 1967 and 1973, where most of Suez’s urban structure was destroyed. The residents of Suez started the reconstruction process after 1973 with their own hands,” explained El-Gamal.

The source of these pictures is the book of Claudine Piaton, Suez: Histoire et Architecture.

During the war of 1967 with Israel and until the sixth of October war in 1973, people of Suez were mainly displaced. Those who stayed, joined the popular resistance and defended the city with all their might.  Suez was struck with missiles, the houses that were built with reinforced concrete were destroyed.

After the 1973 war, wood merchants from Cairo came to Suez and offered the owners of the ruined houses huge sums of money, as they were considered a treasure. The type of wood used for the houses was pitch pine, which is not affected by marine environments to the extent that boats were made out of it, explained the PhD.

The commercial significance of this city came even before the opening of the canal, as it was one of the ports responsible for transferring Muslim pilgrims to the holy land. It had seasonal religious activities in its city centre, and some of the pilgrims who used to pass by the city were buried there after their death, becoming Sufi saints. One of them is the famous saint Sidi El-Gharib

Today, Suez is a far cry of what it used to be. After most of the city was destroyed during the wars with Israel, the city went through a period of vast urbanisation after the mid 1970s, with residents building their houses themselves given how the government neglected its role in reconstructing the city after the wars.

Although this urbanisation process was carried out randomly until the 1990s, there are still traces of Suez’s old heritage, port-scape, and buildings, such as the Suez Canal company building.

It is also still known as the city of Sidi Al-Gharib. Al-Gharib was a Sufi sheikh who lived and died in Suez. During the war, people used to talk about him as the holy figure who was protecting the city, read the PhD.

The source of these pictures is the book of Claudine Piaton, Suez: Histoire et Architecture.

Among the most interesting architectural gems of Suez are the Palace of Mohamed Ali — which is currently the premises of the government — and the 300-year-old house of Al-Masgaria.

“This is the place where the French expedition stayed while writing their famous book description of Egypt. This house is older than the Suez Canal,” concluded El-Gamal.


“Our loyal port,

flags and decoration,

Abu Zeid El-Helali, lord of the city,

Playing on the semsemiya and a tug of war,

100 percent brave men,

In resistance, perseverance, and resilience

Oh, brave Suez, our striving icon,

You showed the way, you set the example,

And you were mightier than mountains

Poet Fouad Haddad

* This article was first published on 19 December, 2020

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