Egypt's Golden Age of Transport: Maria Golia Reports from Cairo

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THE ABILITY TO move goods and people efficiently from place to place is a well-acknowledged feature of solid economies. From the dawn of the Industrial Age, steam-powered engines were put to work in locomotives, providing the transport and facilitating the communication linkages that would transform the West. While the pioneering era of railways is associated with Britain and America's 19th century growth as world powers, Egypt was the first country in the region to build a feasible railroad network, as part of an ambitious early bid to become an international transport hub.

The history of the Egyptian railroads began in 1833, when Mehmed Ali Pasha met with Thomas Galloway, a Scottish railway engineer. Galloway's proposal for an Alexandria--Suez line was in keeping with Mehmed Ali's intention to connect Egypt's cities. It also reflected British plans to use the country as a transit point for passengers headed to India and the eastern colonies. The railroad would considerably shorten the existing overland route from Alexandria to Suez, an expensive and arduous three-day journey that nonetheless made travel through Egypt faster than sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.

Mehmed Ali was enthusiastic about Galloway's plans, but Galloway died in 1836, and in 1840, Mehmed Ali's attempts to modernise Egypt and free it from Ottoman control were halted by the British supporters of the Sublime Porte. With Britain's French rivals lobbying to replace the railroad priority with plans for a Suez Canal, the project was temporarily stalled.

In 1851, the 'Great Exhibition' opened in London, showcasing Britain's industrial, military and economic achievements. The catalogue entry for the Egyptian exhibit read: "It is agriculture and commerce, not manufactures that nature has assigned to Egypt in the territorial division of labour." But Egypt had in fact entered a phase of intensive 'modern' development. That same year, construction began on a Cairo-Alexandria railway. It was completed in 1856, reducing the nearly two-day trip to seven hours, and the following year the line was extended from Cairo to Suez. Mehmed Ali's successors understood the importance of transport to the national economy. His nephew, Abbas Pasha, sold the first railroad concession to famed British railwayman Robert Stephenson, stipulating that the Egyptian government would engineer the necessary bridges and levees. More milestones came in 1861, when Egypt was connected to Europe via telegraph, and in 1867, when the grand railway station of Bab El Hadid (Iron Gate) was inaugurated in Cairo, bathed in the light provided by the city's new gas-distribution lines.

The Suez Canal, opened in 1869, was the crowning achievement in Egypt's efforts to secure its role in world transport and trade. The canal project had meanwhile inspired the building of two new and booming towns, Port Said, established in 1859 at the canal's mouth, and Ismailia, founded in 1862 as operational headquarters for the canal builders.

Two years later, The London Illustrated Press listed Ismailia's attractions as follows: The new town has now more than 6,000 inhabitants, of whom more than a third are European. Two hotels, four or five cafes, a theatre where vaudevilles are performed with spirit, a pretty Roman Catholic chapel, a mosque for Arab workmen, a hospital and a telegraph office, a long and well built street with well-stocked shops, a large square, and a public garden ... [and a] fountain supplied with Nile water ..."

The Suez Canal also influenced the growth of Alexandria, which in 1870 was the fourth largest Mediterranean port, in terms of shipping tonnage, after Constantinople, Marseilles and Genoa. The driving force behind the canal's completion and surrounding projects was the Khedive Ismail, Mehmed Ali's grandson. He had also managed to refurbish his capital in preparation for the canal opening ceremonies, an extravaganza attended by many foreign heads of state. …