EGYPT October 2010
The tour took place, and this report was written, before the
dramatic changes of early 2011 ]
The visit was made possible by David Wardrop who is Chairman of the International Friends of the Alexandria Library and had the experience and contacts needed to find our way through the Egyptian bureaucracy.
The party flew into Cairo and travelled to our first planned visit in Alexandria by train or coach. The train journey was quicker and went directly across the agricultural land of the Nile delta. The coach journey, after leaving the shabby outskirts of Cairo, went by the new Desert Highway, which ran on the western edge of the desert over looking the delta. It showed us the large extent of unplanned, speculative development between the two cites and included a quite familiar rest stop and service station. Our Alexandria hotel was on the Corniche overlooking the sea. All the buildings were very shabby, needing at least a coat of paint. The traffic on the Corniche was horrendous with pedestrian crossings far apart and the locals risking their lives to cross. The centuries-old class and style of Alexandria seemed to be absent.
|Dr Mohsen Zahran and David Wardrop||Our first visit was to the Biblioteca Alexandrina. It was introduced to us by Dr Mohsen Zahran who had been the first Director. It was founded for two purposes. One was to be the library for the University of Alexandria, which had been founded by King Farouk in August 1942. The other was to be a focus for the reestablishment of Alexandria as a centre of culture with degrees of openness and scholarship as it had in ancient times. The remarkable building houses millions of books and manuscripts, an internet archive, 2000 desktop access points, specialist research centres, permanent exhibitions and more. It is open to all and via the web. The design of the building was selected by an open international competition. The winners were a group of four young Norwegian architects who had never before worked on a project of this size.|
|This placed extra demands on the contractors but all worked out well. The construction was done in two stages and it was before the second that it was realised that digital technology would be the way for libraries of the future. The necessary building design changes were incorporated then. The building is circular in plan. The roof slopes to the northwest with windows that provide good daylight in the Reading Room but no direct sunlight. There are four basement floors, an entrance floor and five floors above. Because of the inclined roof all floors do not cover the entire circular plan. The overall effect is visually very striking from both outside and inside. It is a truly great modern building.||The Biblioteca Alexandrina|
|Getting up close and personal with the undersides of a tram||Following lunch in the surrounding patio we reverted to true AI type with a visit to the Alexandria tram services repair workshops for their older trams which were German and came second-hand from Copenhagen in the 1960s. The seats and bodywork showed their age but their mechanical parts were still giving good service. They had a total of 90 trams of which 70-80 were kept in service, a creditable performance. We had a short ride on a privately owned 1920s vintage tram. It was during this tram ride that we first became aware of our Tourist Police escort. We were always escorted by a police car and accompanied in the coach by an armed plainclothes man! Tourism is Egypt’s second largest foreign currency earner and is well looked after.|
|In the evening we went to Montazah Palace for dinner. An amazing 1890s building, reputed to have been built for a mistress of the Khedive of the time, with an ‘over the top’ interior in a mixture of styles. It was in keeping with the old Alexandria and a great place for dinner. Nearby we looked at one of Alexandria’s windmills; wind had been the only source of power until steam arrived. After dinner there was a concert for the opening AlexFest 2010 held in the Great Hall of the Library Conference Centre. It had been a full day! The following morning we intended to visit sites in the Western Harbour of the Alexandria Port Authority. It turned out that some of these were ‘off limits’ for us as they were on land owned by the Egyptian military who would allow no visitors. However we were able to visit commercial parts of the Port Authority’s harbour, largely by viewing from the coach.||Inside the Port Authority building at Alexandria|
|Fort Qaitbey Alexandria||It has the main Egyptian cruise ship terminal which could handle five ships at a time and has a new retail/hospitality building which was still seeking a tenant. In 2009 it handled 171 cruise ships and 250 000 people. The various types of cargo have separate ‘ports’. In 2009 nearly 6000 ships, 45.5M tonnes of cargo and 1.25M containers were handled. We also visited the Port Authority’s museum; it was rather outdated in its presentation. There were some warehouses of the 1800s. Following this we visited the Qaitbey Fort which is over the site of the ancient Pharos. Lunch was taken at the nearby Fish Market. In the afternoon we visited the Roman amphitheatre. Alexandria had certainly provided us with plenty of variety.|
|The following morning we set off by coach for Ismailia. The road took us east across the Nile delta crossing the Rosetta and the Damieta branches, which did not look very large. We were able to see the heavily cultivated land of the delta and as we got further east the dunes on the coast near Port Said. We turned south some distance from the canal and it stayed out of sight for the rest of the drive. Ismailia was developed by the French during the construction of the canal in the 1860s. It lies on the freshwater Lake Timsah and is a pleasantly green city with many spacious houses. After a visit to the Ismailia museum with its remarkable Roman floor mosaic we went to the house where De Lesseps, the French diplomat who managed to bring the Egyptian and French parties to the project together, lived during the construction of the canal; a nice house with a pleasant garden. The original bed hangings looked distinctly sad.||Ferdinand de Lesseps bed|
|Container ship going north on the Suez Canal seen from Lake Timsah||The following visit to the Suez Canal Authority was a high point of our trip. We had had, the evening before, a comprehensive lecture by Dr Mamdouh Hamza, on the history of canals in Egypt, which included the challenges faced by those who built the Suez Canal. We took a brief cruise on Lake Timsah going close to where the Lake and the canal join. We saw huge bulk carrier vessels progressing slowly North, separated by about 10 minutes - their stopping distance. It was a most impressive sight. Some of us had seen the navigation lights of such ships from the hotel the night before.|
|We returned to the Authority’s office and saw a presentation on the canal. The original canal had taken 10 years to dig, cost FF369M, employed 1.2M Egyptian workers of whom 120 000 died. Since the reopening of the canal in 1975, after the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, it has been deepened and widened in four stages to its current 22.5m depth and 5200m² cross section which can take 240 000t vessels. This which includes all container ships, 97% of bulk carriers and 62% of tankers. Canal tolls are based on the savings the vessel can make by choosing the Canal rather than the Cape route. The Authority makes its calculation and negotiates the toll for passage with the owner/operator. The Canal revenues are $1M a day, making it by the far the largest foreign currency earner for Egypt. It is no wonder that security is so tight.||The party entering the 210 degree simulator|
|A simulated container vessel crashes into a simulated dredger!||We learnt that the canal’s width limits it to one way traffic. The Authority operates to maximise revenue. Northbound, generally the more valuable cargoes, has precedence. One continuous convoy starts from Suez at 00:00 hrs. Southbound there are two convoys a day, one at 0700hrs, which stopover in passing places to allow the northbound to pass. All vessels are piloted with different pilots for each of three sections. Simulation training is vital and we had the good fortune to see the 210° simulator used for the training of pilots. Training is also given to ship’s captains so they can work better with the pilots. We saw the new 360° simulator under installation. It can simulate two tugs simultaneously working on a ship together with the pilot. We were the first visitors to see it.|
|The following morning we were to visit the Egyptian National Railways engineering base and workshops. We had a good visit to the passenger rolling stock and diesel engine workshops. guided by the Chief Engineer. The engines were by GE of the USA and GM of Canada. We then went to Cairo main station to look at the Railway Museum. It is a museum of the 1930s and was closed to the public with most exhibits were covered. There was a spectacular 1852 engine, very finely painted for use by the Khedive, built by Robert Stephenson of Newcastle on Tyne. The photographs of 1930s signals and auxiliary items were pleasant reminders of things of our youth in Britain. I saw those same signals in use on Egyptian lines later.||Egyptian National Railways diesel engine workshop|
|Arsenal building with 'windcatcher'||The afternoon brought a complete change of scene, guide and period. We went to the Cairo Citadel, an old fortress above the city which was occupied by Mahomet Ali in the early 1800s and where he converted some buildings to be an arsenal and gun foundry in which there was a chimney lined with bricks from J Ball of Alloa, who were well known for refractory bricks. Unfortunately the ‘man with the key’ had gone home early so we could not go in. We could see the top of the chimney and the roofs of several other buildings with their large ‘windcatchers’.|
Our guide, Prof Ralph Bodenstein was very knowledgeable and helpful.
The citadel is a confusing complex of buildings and we ended with a visit to the mosque built (1830-48) by Mahomet Ali to glorify his position as ruler of Egypt – strictly still within the Ottoman Empire.
|The Citadel Cairo|
|The castellated entrance to the ginning mill||The following day (our last) Prof Bodenstein took us to two sites north of Cairo in the delta. The first was the remains of a large cotton ginning mill built in the 1890s and operated until the 1990s. At first this was a very successful period for the Egyptian cotton business. We first looked at the very impressive castellated main entrance and administration buildings on the river frontage. They reminded me of, probably less impressive, buildings of the Lancashire cotton industry I’d seen in my youth.|
|We then went to look at the remaining mill buildings. Two long bays stripped of all machinery but with the main rope-drive pulley still in place. Subsequently the ‘man with the key’ was found and we passed through the boiler room, with two Babcock boilers of 1950, and into the engine room . . .||Just the main rope drive pulley remaining|
|Triple expansion cross compound Sulzer||. . . where there was an extraordinary engine. It was a triple expansion cross compound by Sulzer which drove the rope pulley which also housed the rotor of an AC generator, the stator was of smaller diameter than the rotor. The generator was made by Oerlikon. It was a totally Swiss conception. None of us had seen its like before, a great IA coup for the trip. We then went downstream to see two early barrages built to control the flooding by and irrigation from the Nile in the delta. They were built just downstream of the division of the river into the Rosetta and Damietta branches.|
|The first was built by Mahomet Ali in about 1840 and knowing that a large quantity of stone would be needed he proposed it could most easily be obtained for those ready cut piles the Pyramids! Fortunately someone suggested a cost comparison be made and it showed that quarrying would be cheaper. These barrages suffered from seepage of water under them and later in the 1800s the British engineered a more successful second barrage just upstream. The Aswan high dam, completed 1971, rendered them unnecessary and they are no longer used.||Machinery at the barrages|
Our trip ended with the Son et Lumiere show at the Pyramids that evening.
Words: Copyright (c) 2010 Richard Hartree
Pictures: Copyright (c) 2010 Bill Barksfield