From the course of Sesostris III to today, this umbilical cord between the West and South Seas has always attracted many greed.
At the time of scheduled re-election of President al-Sisi, the Arab World Institute reviews one of the main projects in Egypt. This is not to say too much that the breakthrough of the Suez Canal was a pharaonic feat, since its first route dates from Sesostris III (it then debouched on the Nile). And it is not too much to say that it is the expression of two conjugated geniuses, the French and the Egyptian. Last effort, the main tranche of a doubling supposed to carry the daily passages of ships from 49 to 97 in 2023, inaugurated on August 6, 2015, was carried out in only one year. That day, Jack Lang was alongside François Hollande and al-Sissi. Discovering the site, he launched the idea of an exhibition.
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A red curtain opens today on the first floor of the institution that the former Minister of Culture directs. Second Empire atmosphere. At the sound of trumpetsAida (opera commissioned to Verdi on the basis of an idea of Mariette, the founder of Egyptology with Champollion), the voice of Frederic Mitterrand tells grandiose festivities. They were given to the international elite for the completion of the work designed by Lorient engineer Louis Linant de Bellefonds, led by the brave entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps. Beautiful models of steams and harbors occupy this first room lined with plans, panoramas, oils and watercolors of Edouard Riou, future collaborator of Jules Verne. The highlight of this chapter is the washar-waisted dress and the portrait of Eugenie by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The empress moved without her husband restrained by the illness.
The Khedive Ismail welcomed him as well as the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Prince Royal of Prussia, the Prince and Princess of the Netherlands, the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the Crown Prince of Hanover, the Duke of Aosta, the grand vizier of Morocco and Emir Abdel Kader. Scholars, artists, writers and journalists are also partying. Their articles in newspaper reproductions are arranged on stands. Only Victoria and Abdel Aziz are not represented. The English Empire and the Ottoman Sultanate have their supremacy contested by this new corridor connecting the West and the East. They do not communicate during the religious ceremony, Christian and Muslim, which celebrates the junction of the waters.
At the second level, we go back to the nineteenth century before our era. In the windows, steles and bas-reliefs evoke the first precedents. Ancient ones of Sesostris III which already allowed for the transport of 30 tons of goods on boats of fifteen meters. Those of Persia Darius then of Ptolemy II and Emir Amr Ibn al-As who, each one in their time, managed to clear the original work of the sands which encumber it constantly.
After another sleep - at least seven centuries - the idea of a canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea resurfaced. First among the Venetians who would like to maintain commercial control after the discoveries of Columbus and Vasco de Gama. But the necessary technology is not up to date. During his campaign, Bonaparte pushes the studies but his engineers are mistaken in the calculation of the level of the seas. Led by Prosper Enfantin, the Saint-Simonians, fervent defenders of progress and whose beautiful oriental costumes are admired in engravings and drawings, correct the error. The dream is possible, they say.
Under the aegis of their younger Lesseps, authorized by Saïd Ali in 1859 to launch the works, the capitalistic, technical and human adventure begins. It will last ten years. A bird's-eye view drawn by Albert Rieger, as well as a ten-meter-long relief map restored for the occasion and not shown since 1878, gives a quick view of the result. Nearby, models of the first dredgers in the world, modern buildings although oriental style and posters very colorful. They testify to a propaganda optimism that sepia photos correct. We see the fellahs subjected to the chore. Between 20,000 and 30,000 souls dig at the same time. First of all, shovel. The construction site and the epidemics would have cost 100,000 lives. But this figure varies from source, from ten times to four times more ...
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Before its realization and well after its nationalization in 1956 by Nasser, the site will be coveted. Different conflicts punctuate consequently the last part of the course. Maps, agreements sometimes so secret that they had never been shown, extracts of films (of news or fiction) and photos abound to explain the different movements of troops on the two banks between 1882, date of the English landing, and the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Video testimonies - including that of the philosopher Michel Serres who, as a young sailor, had been commissioned to reopen the canal by the south in 1957 - revive this recent history.
The future is finally sketched. With the release of land, 80 km from the canal, an administrative capital supposed to unclog Cairo and better moor the Sinai to the rest of the country. By fifteen years, this still unnamed city should accommodate 6.5 million inhabitants on 57,000 hectares. This is the next Pharaonic challenge.
"The Epic of the Suez Canal, pharaohs in the 21st century", at the Institute of the Arab World (Paris V), until 5 August. Then at the MuCEM Marseille and Cairo, Museum of Civilization. Audiovisual material will be donated to the Ismailia Museum. Gallimard catalog, 160 p. 22 €. Phone: +33 (0) 1 40 51 38 38. www.imarabe.org
Source: © The Suez Canal, a modern saga
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