Meet Ismailia, Egypt's first company town

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 5 Feb 2023

In our third article on documenting the social history of historic districts of Egypt, Ahram Online walks with Mohamed Yehia, founder of Semsemia tours, and explores the stories behind the construction of the country's first company town during the digging of the Suez Canal in the mid-19th Century.

photo by Amira noshokaty

We are the city. We are the hustle and bustle and those endless walks amidst ancient buildings leaning on trees that watched our grandparents grow. We are the streets that twist and turn, widen and narrow down to small allies that bare the treasures of time. We are those old songs that get remixed and never fall out of fashion. We are the city that owns the truth and all our versions of it.

Own the City is a series documenting the social history of historic districts of Egypt.

After earning his Masters degree in Middle East history from the university of London, Mohamed Yehia decided to organise educational tours outside of Cairo. Yehia believes that culture and education go hand in hand. To realise his vision, he launched Semsemia Tours in 2022 to acquaint those interested with Egypt’s rich intangible heritage located outside of Cairo. He started off with Ismailia, his hometown, which is one of so many districts in Egypt that is rich in heritage though barely in the limelight.   


"Breaking away from the centralisation of Cairo and the stereotyping of people living outside it was the main idea behind Semsemia tours," Mohamed Yehia told Ahram Online. "We aim to share different narratives of Egyptian History with a small audience that would gather up in a small circle we call Al-Damma (bringing together), just as the audience tends to do while listening to the songs of the semsemia, a traditional musical instrument . Like the Semsemia songs, our tours aim to tell the stories of people living on the margins, of the workers and fishermen of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal Towns , and of Nubians," he added.


House Number 1 in Ismailia

The idea of connecting the Red and Mediterranean seas had haunted Egyptians for centuries. Remnants of an ancient west-east canal through the ancient cities of Bubastis, (Tel Basta), Pi Ramsis (Tel Al-Dabaa) and Pithom (Per Atum) were discovered during the French expedition of 1799. However, according to an article published in Al-Ahram in 1894 celebrating the 25-year jubilee of the inauguration of Suez Canal, the story of the Suez Canal starts in 1830 when Ferdinand De Lesseps was assigned French deputy council in Egypt. He was 26. But it wasn’t until he was 64, 38 years later, that he led the inauguration of the Suez Canal.

Our first stop was a vibrant yellow house in European style that restorers had just added the final touches to. This was the first house to be built in Ismailia. It was the residence of French diplomat Ferdinand De Lesseps, the man behind the idea of digging the Suez Canal and establishing Ismailia, Egypt's first company town and home to the employees of the Suez Canal Company.

"In 1862, De Lesseps decided to establish Ismailia in an area that had multiple water wells. They also called it the city of the crocodile as it overlooked Al-Temsah (crocodile) lake," explained Yehia, adding that Ismailia was the first ever town where the Suez Canal company catered for all the town’s municipalities.

The town was divided into three districts. We first visited the European section where the high-ranking French officers of the Suez Canal Company lived along with the European elite. It is very easy to picture those Christmas parties and movie nights within this neighborhood. The lavish villas are surrounded by greenery. The town also had a horseback riding club, a social club, a golf club and even a local newspaper.


Viewed as a posh French compound, Ismailia was the destination of many French citizens. Some of those who were born and raised there even developed a French dialect peculiar to Ismailia. Among the iconic figures of music who lived in Ismailia is the famous French pop singer/composer  Claude François, also known as  Cloclo (1939-1978) , whose father was an employee in the Suez Canal Company. "Cloclo loved his life in Ismailia, and in 1956 when foreigners were forced to leave Egypt, he felt as if he had ' fallen from Grace'," explained Yehia.

Claude François, also known as  Cloclo​


A cosmopolitan strike!

Across the street lies the downtown area, which housed the residences of Greek workers, technicians, and Italian architects. The residences there share the same wooden European style, but rather than being houses or villas these are four story buildings. This district saw the staging of the first international strike by Egyptian and foreign workers – some of whom belonged to the communist party – against the Suez Canal Company on 13 May 1919.


Those little brick walls

Across the downtown area, a brick wall blocked the entrance of one of the old buildings. " Red Brick walls were built in-front of building entrances to protect against the bombing during the Estinzaf War (War of attrition) that lasted for 3 years between Egypt and Israel after 1967. This wall is one of the very few left," noted Yehia.


The Arab District

The Arab district starts off with Al-Abbassi mosque which was built in 1898 , during the reign of Abbas Helmy the second, in the neo-Islamic style. The architectural design of this district is quite similar to the downtown area, except that the wooden European style buildings are crowned with mashrabyas (wooden see through shutters that allow the sun but provide more privacy to the balconies). The district was quite underprivileged in contrast to other Ismailia neighbourhoods.


The January 25th Ismailia battle

"The Ismailia battle occurred on 25th January 1952. The circumstances that led to it started in October 1951 after Egypt withdrew from the 1936 treaty. The Egyptian workers who used to work at the British Camps went on strike, and the fidaaien (Commando) began to raid the British camps in the Suez Canal area. During that time, the Egyptian Police backed up the fidaaien and protected them from the British troops, so the English troops asked the Egyptian Police to leave their quarters in Ismailia. The Egyptian Police refused and insisted on confronting the British troops in what became the battle of Ismailia on 25 January 1952," noted Yehia. Among the brave members of the Egyptian Police who participated in the battle was Egyptian movie Star Salah Zulfikkar who was a police officer back then. Egypt commemorates this day annually which had become its National Police Day.


Tahia Karioka (1915-1999)

Among the famous figures that were born in Ismailia and lived in the Arab District is Egypt's iconic performer Tahia Karioka  (1915-1999) . Despite her miserable childhood, Karioka is known for her graceful dancing and for her acting talent. The Egyptian diva was a real icon of the golden age of Egyptian Cinema.


Hassan El-Banna (1906-1949)

Hassan El-Banna, the Arabic professor who came to Ismailia and established the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, also lived in the Arab district where he founded the first Muslim brotherhood mosque in Ismailia in 1928.

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