A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Khedive throws a Party: As Egypt Prepares for Grand Opening of Enlarged Suez Canal, Let's Remember 1869

As I've noted in a couple of recent posts this is the week Egypt is celebrating the dedication of the "New Suez Canal,"consisting of a newly dredged channel and a widening and deepening of the existing Canal, to permit increased traffic and two-way traffic in sections. It looks to be a much-hyped celebration, but it will be hard pressed to match the extravagant party staged by Khedive Isma‘il on the opening of the original Canal in 1869.

Cairo Opera in 1869
In the 1860s, Isma‘il had embarked on a spending spree, partly funded by European loans. As the French were working (with local laborers of course) to build the Canal, Isma‘il embarked on an ambitious plan to rebuild Cairo, or more precisely to build a European-style city in the reclaimed floodplains to the West of the traditional city. He also was granted the right by the Ottoman Sultan to use the title of Khedive rather than Wali. The new Isma‘iliyya quarter, what we think of today as downtown Cairo, consisted of grand, Parisian-style avenues and boulevards scattered with parks and squares, European hotels, an Opera House, several palaces, and more. The architecture was mostly French or Italianate. The Opera House was opened on November 1, 1869, just before the Canal dedication. (Most people think the first performance was the debut of Verdi's Aida, which was indeed commissioned for the occasion, but was not yet ready, so Rigoletto was performed instead. Aida had its debut in 1871.) This original Cairo Opera on what was called Opera Square next to the Ezbekiyya Gardens burned in 1971, The present Opera House on Gezira was built in 1988.

In addition to a European city and a European Opera, Isma‘il invited the Crowned heads of Europe. The French under De Lesseps were building the Canal, so France had pride of place. Napoleon III was busy (the Franco-Prussian War would break out the following year), so he sent his Empress, Eugénie, to preside. These distinguished guests would need places to stay. (The Khedive did not invite Muslim sovereigns such as the Shah of Persia or the Sultan of Morocco, however.) Other guests included painters, scholars, musician, and novelists.

Gezireh Palace after becoming a Hotel
The New Hotel (later the Continental Savoy) opposite Ezbekiyya was taken over for many of the guests, but it would not do for Royalty, so the Khedive had built a palace especially for them, just across the Nile in the Zamalek area of Gezira. This, the Gezira Palace, was where Eugénie and others were quartered. It later became a grand hotel, first called the Gezira Palace and Later the Omar Khayyam. Today the original palace forms the central core of the much-expanded Cairo Marriott Hotel and Omar Khayyam Casino. The video shows the interior in its later incarnation as a grand hotel.

Pavilion at Ismailia (Illustrated London News)
But the celebrations would not be confined to Cairo. The guests of honor were given a boat tour up the Nile and then transported to the city of Ismailia for the Canal opening. On November 17,  after a Muslim cleric and a French priest blessed the Canal at Port Said, a parade of ships sailed and steamed through the Canal to formally open it. The Empress declared it open and the guests banqueted in the desert.

The Empress on Camelback
The ceremonies brought Egypt much world attention, but there was a downside. The Khedive had borrowed heavily from Europe, and the debts were to accumulate. Ironically, though the French built the Canal, the first toll-paying ship through it was British, and the Canal would become a lifeline to British India. By 1875, with Egypt indebted and France weakened in the Franco-Prussian War, Britain acquired the shares of the Suez Canal Company. In 1879 Isma‘il was deposed in favor of his son, and in 1882 the British occupied Egypt. Isma‘il's big party was over.

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