By Valeska Huber, German Historical Institute London
Research on the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean has stressed the importance of the opening of the Suez Canal as a transformative factor that had extensive reverberations throughout the region. In the decades after 1869, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea developed into the lifeline not only of the British, but also of the French and Dutch Empires; the harbor town of Port Said at the Mediterranean entrance of the canal became a quasi-obligatory stopover during the journey between the colonies and Europe. However, while Egyptian or more generally Middle Eastern cities form a thriving field of research, Port Said has so far largely escaped the attention of urban historians of the Middle East. There are reasons for this neglect: Port Said never developed into a flourishing city comparable to its rival Alexandria and, despite expectations to the contrary, remained a rather small town of passage. Nonetheless, there are things to learn from this city as a case study of a harbor town with a particularly transient population. Here, the term “cosmopolitanism”, frequently used by travelers passing through the city to describe it, can provide us with one lens through which to revisit Port Said in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Port Said was built from scratch during the construction of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869, the heyday of infrastructure building connected with the “transport revolution” of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the canal’s construction, Port Said consisted only of some wooden barracks to house the workers. Gradually, these barracks were replaced by more permanent structures. As maps of the city show, with its regular pattern and straight streets it stood in explicit contrast to the “oriental city” which European town planners associated with winding streets and maze-like bazaar quarters.
The construction of the city posed problems due to its specifically difficult terrain: Port Said was built not on firm soil but stood on a bed of earth excavated from the Isthmus of Suez—it was thus in every sense directly linked to the digging of the canal. During the building process, the Suez Canal became for many a powerful symbol of the “shrinking of the globe” and of man’s victory over nature. However, the development of the city of Port Said never quite took off; it never turned into a “second Alexandria” as many had expected around 1869. In 1882, the number of inhabitants stagnated around 15,000. The internationality of the population was particularly noteworthy: in 1886, the town contained around 2,000 Habsburg subjects, 2,000 French, 2,500 to 3,000 Italians, 1,800 to 2,000 British subjects, and about 3,000 Greeks.
While Port Said has been of limited interest in terms of its urban development, its transient population of travelers, migrant workers, and passers-through made the city noteworthy. Port Said around 1900 was an urban space marked by mobility. It formed a transit zone between different continents and became an “imperial relay station”, with the primary function to cater for steamers on their way between Europe and Asia, Australia, or East Africa. The city held a strategic position in the traffic connecting European powers and their faraway possessions and was an important nodal point in imperial networks, where it was crucial for steamers in order to stock coal and provisions. Those who stayed in Port Said were usually directly connected to the business of mobility—as suppliers, service personnel, seamen waiting for the next hire, consuls, merchants, prostitutes, bar or brothel keepers, and so forth. Many regarded the town as a temporary dwelling place, such as the seasonal coal heavers. This already quite mobile population was complemented by those who spent a night or only some hours in Port Said, such as troops on their way to their colonial stations or to other overseas operations, shipping crews, colonial officers, and tourists coming off board for some shopping and entertainment.
Despite its limited size, in the decades after the opening of the Suez Canal, Port Said gained an important position in the imaginations of those traveling east- or westwards. Port Said was a city without heritage, newly built on artificial ground claimed from the sea. Not only was it the first port of call after leaving Europe, the city also came to be perceived as the boundary or hinge between Europe and Asia, a view most famously coined by Rudyard Kipling who called the Canal Company’s garden in Port Said the “exact division between east and west”. Literary texts such as Kipling’s, but also travel guides, postcards, and photographs repeated analogous formulations and images, to the point that many of those who mentioned Port Said in letters for example made use of strikingly similar expressions.
In these descriptions, “cosmopolitanism” became a recurrent term. Yet only a few used it as an outright positive description meaning the more or less harmonious living together of different religions and ethnicities. Many employed the term to denote Port Said’s “non-oriental” appearance and to point out its artificial nature, which did not quite fit the expectations of many travelers—cosmopolitanism thus came as a disappointment and was soon connected with Port Said’s reputation for crime and prostitution. Most frequently, it came up to illustrate the city’s character as global meeting place with a particularly fleeting and mobile population.
This last version of cosmopolitanism also found reflection in the visual renderings of the city. To use one example: the French photographer Hippolyte Arnoux set up shop in the Canal zone and documented not only the building works but also Port Said multifarious “cosmopolitan” population in numerous street scenes. If observed closely, pictures like the ones taken by Arnoux showed striking tableaus of different ethnic groups coming together for a short while before being dispersed again. Whether they were actually randomly composed or carefully planned has to remain unanswered. These street scenes featuring people from different areas of the world became commonly associated with Port Said, taken up for instance in Hergé’s 1932 Cigars of the Pharaoh.
Port Said is well-represented in literary works ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Jules Verne. Yet it also shares many elements with other less well-known “pop-up” cities linked to new railway lines or to new steamship connections, such as those connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Panama Canal or more established port cities such as Cape Town and Port Louis in Mauritius. The historicization of the term cosmopolitanism following the use of contemporaries allows for a less nostalgic or romanticized image of turn-of-the-century cosmopolitanism in port cities. For sure it was no cosmopolitan dream. Its “cosmopolitanism on the move” often simply meant the short encounter of very different mobile people, which could of course lead to conflict and differential treatment in terms of passport or visa regulations. In many senses, Port Said was therefore an in-between-space or a non-space in Marc Augé’s sense, reminding us of present-day airports and the associated control practices that they embody.
Valeska Huber’s research is centered on the social and cultural history of mobility and migration with a focus on the Middle East, as well as on communication and development. Her book Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond 1869-1914 was published with Cambridge University Press in 2013 (paperback 2015). From October 2017 she will head a research group based at Free University Berlin entitled “Reaching the People”: Communication and Global Order in the Age of Decolonisation.