Huddled on the northern gateway of the vital Suez Canal, the twin cities of Port Said and Port Fouad stand as sentinels to one of the world’s most strategic waterways. Port Said, with its historical roots deeply entwined with the canal, emerges from the Mediterranean’s azure waters as a bustling hub of commerce and culture. Across the shimmering canal lies Port Fouad, a quieter counterpart yet equally steeped in the narrative of Egypt’s modern development.
These cities are more than just waypoints for ships transiting between seas; they are lively, vibrant communities with a rich cultural tapestry woven from the threads of countless nationalities that have come to work, trade, and take part in the life of the canal. As they face outwards to the Mediterranean, they also look inward to Egypt, serving as critical economic engines through trade, tourism, and transportation.
In this article, we are taking you on a journey through the bustling streets and tranquil shores of these sibling cities, uncovering their shared history and individual identities. From the cosmopolitan flair of Port Said, echoed in its elegant buildings and vibrant markets, to the serene residential calm of Port Fouad, we will explore how these cities mirror the duality of Egypt itself—ever balancing the rush of progress with the poise of tradition.
Suez Canal, Where It All Started
The Suez Canal, a man-made waterway completed in 1869, is one of Egypt’s geographic marvels and a cornerstone of global trade.
This artificial passage cuts through the Isthmus of Suez and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, allowing for a direct shipping route between Europe and Asia without the need to go around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. This dramatically shortens the distance for sea travel between the two continents, saving time and reducing shipping costs.
As a critical chokepoint, the Suez Canal holds immense strategic and economic significance. It enables the flow of a significant percentage of the world’s maritime trade, including oil, and is a substantial source of revenue for Egypt through tolls levied on passing ships.
The canal’s importance is also underscored by historical conflicts and political tensions, highlighting its role as a powerful asset in international trade and geopolitics. The cities of Port Said, at the canal’s Mediterranean entrance, and Port Fouad, on the canal’s eastern bank, serve as guardians of this maritime gateway and are integral to its operations and success.
Port Said and Port Fouad stand face to face across the lifeblood artery of the Suez Canal, serving as twin sentinels to one of the globe’s most strategic maritime passages.
Port Said, the elder of the two, was born out of necessity in 1859, the year construction began on the canal and has since flourished into a vibrant, bustling port city. Its streets are steeped in history, lined with architectural testaments to its international past and a melting pot culture that has evolved from its role as a global shipping nexus.
Directly across the canal lies Port Fouad, established in the early 20th century. This city presents a quieter demeanour, a stark contrast to its counterpart’s energetic pulse. Port Fouad shares its sibling’s lifeblood through the canal but has carved out its own identity as a more residential and leisurely-paced community, with lush green spaces and beaches that offer a peaceful retreat from the commercial vigour of its twin sister.
Together, these twin cities form a unique metropolitan area, and the ferry that shuttles between them serves as a tangible link, knitting together the social and cultural fabric of the two sides.
The genesis of Port Said is intimately tied to the ambitious engineering feat of the Suez Canal. Before the canal’s construction, the area where the city now stands was a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast. Its transformation began when Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, gained the concession to build the canal from the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, in 1854.
The city was founded in 1859, named in honour of Said Pasha, at the northern entrance of the canal. It served as the headquarters for the Suez Canal Company during the construction phase.
As the canal was being dug, Port Said grew from a desolate sandy strip into a bustling port town, acting as a logistical base for materials and a residential area for the thousands of labourers and international engineers who flocked to participate in this monumental project.
The completion of the canal in 1869 cemented the city’s role as a critical maritime and trade junction. It became the gateway to the East, where goods, cultures, and people from around the globe converged. The lighthouse of Port Said, one of the first buildings constructed, stood as a beacon guiding ships into the canal’s entrance and symbolising the city’s newfound global significance.
In the following years, Port Said’s economy thrived on the activities related to the canal, such as shipping services, maintenance, and logistics. Its location at the crossroads of two continents also made it a cultural melting pot, with a diverse population drawn from Europe, Africa, and Asia. The city’s cosmopolitan nature was reflected in its architecture, language, and customs, making it a vibrant urban centre on the edge of the Mediterranean.
Port Fouad’s story begins much later than Port Said’s, developing as a byproduct of the latter’s success and the Suez Canal’s increasing importance.
Conceived as a complementary city, Port Fouad was established on the eastern banks of the canal, directly opposite Port Said, in the 1920s during the British protectorate over Egypt. It was named after King Fouad I of Egypt and served a strategic purpose, both in terms of national security and as an expansion of the canal’s operations.
While Port Said was rapidly industrialising and becoming congested due to its commercial activities, Port Fouad was planned with a different vision in mind. It was designed to accommodate the overflow of population and to provide living quarters for the Suez Canal Authority employees and their families. The city was laid out with spacious streets and residential areas, offering a much quieter lifestyle.
Over time, the relationship between Port Said and Port Fouad evolved into a functional symbiosis. Port Fouad developed its own infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and recreational facilities, which served not just its residents but also those from Port Said. The two cities, although administratively separate, became socially and economically intertwined.
The connection between Port Said and Port Fouad was, and still is, symbolised by the free ferry that shuttles citizens, workers, and visitors across the canal. This ferry service not only links the two cities’ economies and communities but also physically embodies their interdependence.
One thing that further intertwined the twin cities is their shared history during the times of war in the mid-20th century. In fact, Port Said and Port Fouad have been significantly shaped by a number of historical events, all of which they were able to survive and recover from.
Besides their shared construction history that was initiated by the building of the Suez Canal, one event that affected Port Said and Port Fouad was the 1956 Nationalisation of the Suez Canal. As the canal had been controlled by French and British interests ever since it was established, the Egyptian President at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided to nationalise the Suez Canal Company, and he did. However, this led to the Suez Crisis.
The 1956 Suez Crisis, the Tripartite Aggression or the Suez War, involved an invasion by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France, with the aim of regaining Western control of the canal and removing Nasser from power. Port Said endured significant hardships during this time, including bombings and invasions, demonstrating the resilience of its citizens.
A decade later, in 1967, the Suez Canal was subjected to another deadly aggression by Israel, commonly known as the Six-Day War, which led to the closure of the canal altogether for eight years. This had a profound impact on the economies of Port Said and Port Fouad. The twin cities suffered due to the reduced commercial activity and the presence of the frontline along the canal.
The 6 October War of 1973 was another war that led to another closure of the Suez Canal and further military action in the regions around Port Said and Port Fouad. The cities again found themselves in the midst of conflict.
Things kept going from bad to worse for the twin cities until 1975. After being cleared of the remnants of war and extensive repairs, the canal was reopened, which allowed for the revival of the local economies and the return of Port Said and Port Fouad to their strategic commercial roles.
The Suez Canal is the linchpin of the economies of Port Said and Port Fouad, with its influence permeating various sectors:
- Maritime and Shipping Services: As gateways to the Suez Canal, both cities are central to the global shipping industry. Port Said, in particular, has developed extensive facilities for shipping logistics, repairs, and maintenance, benefitting from the traffic of ships waiting to transit the canal.
- Trade and Free Zone: Port Said has a significant Free Zone area, which has attracted international investment and business due to tax exemptions and trade incentives. This zone hosts a variety of industries, from electronics to textiles, and is a critical source of employment and economic activity.
- Fishing Industry: The proximity to the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal has fostered a thriving fishing industry for both cities, contributing to their local economies and providing a source of livelihood for many residents.
- Tourism: The historical significance and unique location of the cities, especially Port Said, with its colonial architecture and museums, draw tourists interested in their history and the canal. While not the largest sector, tourism contributes to the local economy through heritage sites and related services.
- Employment: The canal authority is one of the primary employers in both cities, offering a range of jobs from administrative to engineering positions. The presence of the canal also stimulates job creation in ancillary industries, including logistics, commerce, and hospitality.
- Real Estate and Development: Economic activities related to the canal have spurred real estate development, with Port Fouad, in particular, seeing growth in residential projects to accommodate the workforce associated with the canal and its related services.
- Industrial Activities: The economic ecosystem surrounding the canal has encouraged the development of various industrial activities. This includes the petrochemical industry, which benefits from the transport of natural gas and oil through the canal.
Port Said, as one of Egypt’s most important port cities, offers visitors a variety of attractions that highlight its unique history, culture, and maritime importance. Here are some of the most famous must-visits in the city:
- The Suez Canal Authority Building: An architectural marvel, this historic building offers an impressive view of the entrance to the Suez Canal and stands as a symbol of the city’s long-standing relationship with the canal.
- Port Said Lighthouse: This iconic building, constructed in the 19th century, is one of the first buildings made of reinforced concrete. While not open to the public, it remains a historic symbol of the city and offers excellent photographic opportunities from the outside.
- Port Said National Museum: This museum hosts a wide array of artefacts that chronicle the history of Port Said and Egypt, ranging from Pharaonic to modern times, including items salvaged from the waters of the canal.
- Military Museum: The museum offers insights into Egypt’s military history, with a particular focus on the Suez Crisis of 1956, providing visitors with a deeper understanding of the region’s strategic importance.
- Al-Ferdan Bridge: The longest swing bridge in the world, which spans the Suez Canal and connects the African part of Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula, is an engineering feat to behold.
- Port Said’s Beaches: The city’s beaches along the Mediterranean coast are pleasant for leisurely walks, swimming, and enjoying the sea breeze.
- Fishermen’s Wharf: A lively area where visitors can observe local fishermen at work and maybe catch a glimpse of the day’s fresh catch coming in.
- The House of Ferdinand de Lesseps: Although not open to the public as it functions as a consular office, the house is historically significant as it was the residence of the French diplomat who was instrumental in the construction of the Suez Canal.
Port Fouad, on the other hand, offers a variety of activities for visitors. One can start by visiting the Al Salam Mosque, a prominent welcome point for visitors arriving by ferry. Other things visitors can do include:
- Beaches and Leisure: Port Fouad is renowned for its serene and beautiful beaches, making it an ideal spot for relaxation and leisure activities like swimming, sunbathing, and beach sports.
- Recreational Areas: The city has several public gardens and promenades, which are well-maintained and provide spaces for family outings, picnics, and leisurely strolls.
- Shopping and Dining: Port Fouad offers a more relaxed shopping experience. Visitors can find local markets with crafts, textiles, and souvenirs that reflect the local culture. Dining options are plentiful, with restaurants and cafes serving both traditional Egyptian fare and international cuisine, often with a view of the Suez Canal or the Mediterranean.
Transportation is an integral aspect of life in Port Said and Port Fouad. Both cities benefit from the proximity to the Suez Canal, which ensures that they are well-connected in terms of transportation infrastructure.
The ferry service, the most iconic mode of transport between them, is a particularly crucial link, not just for the movement of people but also for maintaining the close economic and social ties that bind the twin cities together.
Here is an overview of the transportation facilities and services available in both cities:
- Maritime Transport: Both cities have a substantial naval infrastructure, including terminals for cargo and passenger ships. It serves as a starting point for ships entering the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea.
- Road Transport: Port Said and Port Fouad have a wide network of roads and highways that connect them with other Egyptian cities. Taxis, buses, and microbuses are the main modes of road transport within the cities. Port Fouad is also connected to the Sinai Peninsula via the Al Ferdan Railway Bridge when it is in the closed position for railway and vehicular crossing.
- Rail Transport: There is a railway station in Port Said, but not in Port Fouad, with lines that connect to Cairo and other cities in the Nile Delta, providing an essential link for both passengers and freight.
- Local Transport: Within the twin cities, people commonly use taxis and buses. There are also tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) for shorter trips in certain areas.
- Pedestrian-Friendly Zones: Due to its smaller size and less congested nature, Port Fouad is more pedestrian-friendly, with people often walking or cycling to their destinations.
In the dance of progress and tradition, Port Said and Port Fouad stand as enduring partners, their destinies entwined by the rhythmic flows of the Suez Canal. Port Said, with its rich history, functions as the vibrant commercial heart, while Port Fouad serves as a tranquil suburban retreat, together forming a harmonious metropolitan area that is as complex as it is complementary.
Their development narratives, though distinct, are interdependent, echoing the broader themes of Egypt’s own journey through the ages. From the bustling markets and historic museums of Port Said to the serene beaches and quiet streets of Port Fouad, these cities offer a microcosm of Egyptian resilience, hospitality, and adaptability.