Port Said 1957: Egyptian Modernism Unfurled
The Suez Crisis led to terrific destruction in the city of Port Said, whose subsequent reconstruction by the Nasser regime would set in place a relationship between the state and modern urban planning.
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The October 28, 1964, cover of the popular Egyptian magazine Akher Saa (Last Hour) shows an optimistic image of four smiling girls riding bicycles on a smooth, safe tarmac road (Fig. 2). In the background are one-story beach cabins. A smaller picture inserted at the bottom of the cover shows a girl holding a child in front of a vast field of collapsed buildings and rubble. The text reads, “Port Said 1956 and today 1964.” The magazine cover marked the anniversary of the Suez Crisis, which was as important for the city of Port Said as it was for Egyptian politics and its relationship to urban planning.1 Military attacks by British and French forces had left entire districts of the city destroyed, with hundreds dead and thousands homeless. The subsequent reconstruction of Port Said from 1957 to 1958 was the new Egyptian military regime’s first attempt at large-scale urban planning and a critical test to prove its ability to rebuild, modernize, and develop Egyptian cities. The fast and successful reconstruction of Port Said in 1957 also marked a shift in the scale of government-commissioned building projects, with the state becoming Egypt’s primary patron of architecture and planning.

Port Said was founded in 1859 on the northern mouth of the 160-kilometer Suez Canal, then under construction.2 The new city was named after Muhammad Said Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, who had granted Ferdinand de Lesseps the concession to supervise the digging of the canal.3 With French planners at the helm of the design process, the city’s plan reflected contemporary French models for new towns. A grid was laid on the triangular tract of land between the canal to the east, the Mediterranean to the north, and Lake Manzala to the south.4 The planned development was conceived as a port town for administrators and merchants who were mostly French, British, and Swiss. In typical fashion of a colonial development, a separate district of higher density blocks was planned to the west to house the large labor population of mostly Greeks and Egyptians, designated by the Europeans as the “Arab district.”5

When it opened in 1869, the Suez Canal created a connection between the Red and Mediterranean Seas, shortening the travel time from Europe to India from six months to six weeks. As a result, Port Said developed as a center of global transport, trade, and military movement.6 Its status as the headquarters for the Suez Canal Company also contributed to its significance. From the perspective of the rest of Egypt, however, Port Said was built in a remote, peripheral location. Its placement was not based on traditional reasons for founding a city: there was no access to fresh water, building materials, or even food. Everything had to be imported from afar to build and sustain Port Said. Until the sweet water canal was dug to bring Nile water to the area, water had to be stored in large tanks. Eventually, in 1904, the city gained a railway connection to Cairo.

Sovereignty over the canal has been a contentious matter since the canal’s inception, complicating Port Said’s existence further.7 While the canal was built with Egyptian money, by Egyptian labor, and through Egyptian land, its impact on the French and British economies made control of the canal a desirable goal for both countries. Concerned by the 1881 Egyptian uprisings against the ruling government, the British government took advantage of the opportunity and sent troops to intervene and take control of the Suez Canal in 1882, a position it would maintain until Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power.

From Divided City to Bombed City

During the interwar period, the city became increasingly divided as the foreign residents associated with the Suez Canal Company grew richer and land prices rose. At the same time, the poorer, predominantly Egyptian labor population grew significantly in number after World War I as the city attracted rural migrants and became a safe haven for survivors of the Armenian genocide.8 The city did not cope well with population growth, as state funds were limited and the canal company only invested in its own properties and facilities, leaving the majority of the population on its own to build with limited resources. One result was a shanty-town known as Manakhein, west of the “Arab district.”

In a scathing 1941 article for the architectural journal Al Imara, the architect Foad Faraj voiced con-cerns about Port Said’s development.9 Eighty-two years after the city’s founding, this article was among the first to consider Port Said’s urban conditions in the national press. Faraj blamed the Suez Canal Company’s management for the poor and unjust conditions of the city’s Egyptian districts in contrast to their European counterparts.10 In addition, he criticized the fact that the Port Said municipality had little power in the city and the private canal company only took care of its own districts. Faraj observed: “Port Said remains with-out a municipality building [dar al madina] despite the fact that the Suez Canal Company has erected a beautiful edifice for its headquarters. Perhaps the company should gift the building to the city as its municipality.” His argument for a municipal building comes as a nationalist call that “the city retains its Egyptian appearance,” to balance the presence of the foreign-controlled canal headquarters (Fig. 3). Faraj proposed a municipal building with the following functions: a theater, an events space, meeting rooms, a reception hall, a library, a museum, offices, a ceremonial entrance, a clock tower, and a statue of King Farouk in front of the building. According to Faraj’s proposal, the Suez Canal Company would fund the construction of the building, centrally located on Abbas Square.

Faraj then shifted to the urban scale and focused on the shantytown of Manakhein. According to Faraj, for twenty years, living conditions for the Egyptians residing there had been substandard, and the municipality had not taken concrete steps toward improving the situation. He referred to when the case was discussed, almost a decade earlier on November 2, 1932, by the national government in Cairo (majlis al wuzara), resulting in the commission of a comprehensive plan to rezone the entire city. New residential areas were then proposed for Manakhein’s residents.11 The municipality was to have razed old Manakhein and re-plan the district with a buildable area covering only 40 percent of the land. The plan, however, garnered no significant financial backing. Cairo offered Port Said only 5,000 Egyptian pounds toward the project, and the plan was never implemented.12 It would be another fifteen years before Port Said’s urban condition received national attention again.

Gaining Port Said as Egyptian Ground

While Egyptians had tried consistently in vain to rid their country of British occupation, that struggle intensified in the interwar period. The anti-colonial struggle took place in Egypt’s established urban centers such as Alexandria, Tanta, Mansoura, and Cairo. After Egypt’s 1952 military coup, British forces finally retreated from Cairo and other major Egyptian cities. However, British military forces remained alongside the British and French canal administrators, who continued to oversee the Canal Zone. For Egyptians, Port Said was on the national periphery, and little news about life in the city made it to Egypt’s major cities. It was not until 1956 that Port Said became the center of Egypt’s struggle for independence. On July 26, 1956, the fourth anniversary of the military coup, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company and replaced its foreign administrators with Egyptians.

The August 3, 1956, issue of the popular Cairo-based magazine Al Musawwar led with a story praising the Suez Canal’s nationalization (Fig. 4). Numerous pages presented the history of the canal and the events that led to its nationalization, as well as the peaceful transition of the Canal Company’s management to Egyptian hands. Interspersed throughout the issue were advertisements for various companies, from restaurants to hair products, congratulating Gamal Abdel Nasser for his heroic act. Through coverage of the Suez Canal’s return to Egyptian control, Al Musawwar introduced Port Said to a broader Egyptian public, which may have known very little about the city prior to 1956.

Having lost control of the canal, British and French forces were keen to regain it. Encouraged by Great Britain, Israeli forces invaded Egyptian territory, leading the way for French and British forces to re-enter on the grounds of maintaining a cease-fire. From the end of October and into November 1956, Port Said became the focal point of military aggression by British and French forces. Without any Egyptian military presence in the area, Port Saidians had to fend for themselves, taking up arms to defend their city against bombardment, ground attacks, and arson (Fig. 5). By the end of 1956, entire districts of the city had been bombed; the shantytown of Manakhein was burned to the ground.13 While president Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged from the Suez crisis as a hero, Port Said emerged a damaged city with an acute housing crisis.

A Transitional Moment for Egyptian Modernism

Ideas about collective housing and urban planning in Egypt had existed on paper since the 1940s and had been publicized in Egyptian magazines such as Al Musawwar and professional journals such as Al Imara. Though there had been private, smaller projects which had implemented modernist proposals, such ideas had not yet been tested on a large, urban scale. Ideas published in architectural journals and executed at smaller scales became the bases for pursuing Port Said’s reconstruction.

During the 1940s Sayed Karim, an architect and graduate of Cairo’s Foad University, published several visions of future Egyptian cities, though they remained in text form and lacked practical detail. In 1945 he published an article in Al Ithneyn wa Al Dunya, one of Egypt’s most popular magazines, titled “If Cairo Were Destroyed” (Fig. 6). In the article, he suggested eight changes he would pursue if the opportunity to rebuild Cairo from the ground up presented itself. Karim laments Cairo’s survival of the Second World War: “Alas, Cairo was not damaged by war.” According to him, large-scale destruction would have offered the opportunity to rebuild the city based on the latest planning schemes. “World architects are busy designing the reconstruction of cities destroyed in the war. If we had the opportunity to destroy Cairo and rebuild it, where would we begin and what would we do?”14 Karim presents a few broad ideas for what he would have done: redesign the riverfronts, implement a forestation program in Cairo’s hills, “cleanse” unhealthy districts, replace tram systems with underground trains, remove military barracks and other state buildings from urban areas, and implement a program of tajmeel al madina, or urban beautification.

Karim was neither the most celebrated nor most accomplished architect in Egypt during his early career. His better-known contemporaries, Antoine Selim Nahas and Ali Labib Gabr, practiced a form of modernism that combined elements from classical training with features of modernist design. Karim’s ambitions, however, lay in urban planning, but there had been little opportunity for his large-scale visions to be realized.

Karim’s work as an urban planner materialized first outside Egypt. In 1947 he was appointed by the United Nations as a consultant for urban planning in the Middle East. His work included a plan for New Baghdad in 1947 and later work for Jeddah and the Al Zahra suburb of Damascus (Fig. 7). During this time his projects in Egypt were limited to apartment buildings, where he experimented with the notion of the urban villa: buildings as collections of stacked villas rather than flats. Since he was unable to practice his modernist vision of urban planning in Cairo, namely his proposal to clear entire districts to be replaced by modernist blocks in gardens, Karim published those ideas in a variety of popular media outlets.

By the time of the Port Said crisis, Karim had made a name for himself as a competent urban planner in the Middle East, which likely helped him to gain an appointment as a consultant for what became the Port Said reconstruction plan. The rebuilding of Port Said allowed Karim and his team to implement his planning model of urban zones and his ideas of modern collective housing. However, the plan’s design is not attributed to Karim or any single planner; it is attributed to “the state,” a marked departure from the past when the names of architects and planners were prominent in the promotion of projects they designed.

Communicating Port Said’s Reconstruction

The 1952 coup resulted in the state becoming the country’s main architectural patron, one that could order and commission the building of entire cities. Port Said’s destruction presented a testing ground for the transformation of Egyptian architectural modern-ism from a practice reserved for private enterprise to a state-commissioned practice concentrating on housing workers and war survivors. Although Port Said had been suffering from slow decay during peacetime, the bombing exacerbated existing problems to the point that they could no longer be ignored. The Nasser regime took the opportunity to rebuild an entire city as a means to reinforce its nationalist rhetoric and provide concrete evidence of its developmental, progressive, and modernization capabilities. Port Said, which once had been on the periphery of national consciousness, was re-imagined as a model city for the new regime.

Images of Port Said’s bombardment by enemy forces introduced many Egyptians to the city. Out of the carefully crafted packaging of an urban trauma, the Nasser regime presented itself to Egyptians as builder and savior, as competent modernizer. The destruction and reconstruction of Port Said were well publicized in Egyptian media. In 1957, for example, one of Egypt’s popular presses, Dar Al Hilal, published a 120-page book titled Ten Glorious Days. Through text and images, the accessible book extensively documented the damage and urgency the city endured from the Suez Crisis (Fig. 8).15 The first published image of the plan for “The New Port Said” was published in Al Musawwar magazine with the caption: “The government and people of Egypt acknowledge the key role Port Said has played in the struggle against the Tripartite Aggression. The city’s destruction by the enemy is a blessing, as we now join hands to rebuild it” (Fig. 9).16 The magazine article outlined the extensive plan for Port Said, including: a public park, a low-cost housing district, a new residential district called Horeyya (freedom), workers’ housing, service areas, an industrial zone, a civic center, a casino, beach developments, a commercial zone, and a cemetery for those killed during the war.

Port Said and Egyptian Central Planning

Abdellatif Baghdady, Minister of Municipal Affairs since April 1954, was named the “Minister of Port Said” at the end of 1956 in the effort to foster the city’s speedy recovery. He was responsible for adopting the reconstruction plan and overseeing reconstruction.17 Since taking office in 1954, Baghdady’s ministry had been preparing master plans for Egyptian cities in anticipation of the country’s projected growth up to the year 2000.18 After 1956, Port Said took priority. Port Said’s redevelopment was neither envisioned nor implemented by the local municipality; rather, it was orchestrated from the capital, Cairo.19 The rebuilding expanded on a pre-1956 housing ministry study that targeted the district of Manakhein. Referring to 1937 and 1947 census data, government officials calculated Port Said’s population to be 175,000 in 1956 and projected an increase to 325,000 by the year 2000. To begin to meet these projections, the rebuilding plan increased the district’s proposed density to 200 persons per acre and increased the built area from 650 to 875 acres.20

The housing plan called for 3,200 units to be built in two phases; the first was already completed by the fall of 1957; six months later, another 1,220 units were ready for occupation. The government’s accelerated rebuilding campaign was made all the more impressive by the shortage of building equipment and machinery. Laborers had to compensate for the lacking modern equipment with their own strength, hauling materials on their backs to create Egypt’s largest scale of modernist design to date (Fig. 10).

Four-story apartment buildings were designed simply, with accentuated horizontal lines demarcating each of the four levels (Fig. 11). The practical designs also included staple architectural features of modern Egyptian dwellings, such as window shutters and bal-conies. All apartments uniformly consisted of four rooms and were spacious with high ceilings (in contrast to standard post-World War II emergency housing in Europe). Rent for the apartments was kept affordable, with initial rates at 3.50 Egyptian pounds per month.21 The four-story blocks were arranged diagonally to the street and were set parallel to each other with the occasional space for a community square.

“The line between architect and military general was increasingly blurred as army generals in uniform led presentations to workers’ unions about the Nasser regime’s new housing policies.”

Other notable components of Port Said’s urban renewal project were a stadium, courts, and government buildings. Revealing that the ministry’s project was more than an emergency plan, a hotel and casino were also planned next to a shopping center, which showcased local products and, in a separate showroom, international products. Additionally, movable cabins were constructed along the beach, preparing Port Said to become a Mediterranean holiday destination (Fig. 12). A new museum displayed the damaged statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps and narrated the history of the city and its anti-colonial struggle. The museum also included ancient artifacts in addition to industrial and agricultural products of modern Egypt. Finally, a new port and free trade zone were constructed south of the city. A modern road network was planned to connect old and new areas and to provide links to regional roads. “This will make Port Said the second port in Egypt and the country’s most modern city.”22 The reconstruction and development of Port Said in 1957 surpassed what Foad Faraj envisioned for the city in his 1941 article; Port Said was to be transformed into a fully fledged city for its Egyptian inhabitants.

As a consultant for Port Said’s reconstruction, Sayed Karim was also instrumental in publicizing the project’s progress in the Egyptian press by writing for various magazines and presenting public talks, in addition to pursuing his planning practice in the region. In 1957, with Port Said’s construction already underway, Karim met with a high-ranking officer in the Nasser regime, Anwar Sadat. After inspecting one of Karim’s models for a new city, Sadat arranged for a meeting with the new president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was impressed with Karim’s presentation. Having already emerged from the Suez Crisis as an international hero who had defied imperialism, President Gamal Abdel Nasser found his image further boosted by the swift and successful rebuilding of Port Said. The city’s reconstruction allowed for a confident regime and architect to shift scales radically in urban housing developments. In addition, the regime’s policies regarding education, culture, and entertainment would also be manifested architecturally.

In 1958, building on this newfound confidence, Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a presidential decree ordering the construction of Nasr City in Cairo. Planned by Sayed Karim, Nasr City, “the city of revolution,” was to be a new expansion of the capital. Karim found himself to be considered the architect of Egypt’s future, the architect of the revolution, as the Nasser regime began to formulate its vision for the future of Egyptian cities. Karim’s work on the plan for Nasr City, then on the outskirts of Cairo, expanded on the main features implemented in Port Said, only this time at an even larger scale: significantly more housing, an Olympic athletic complex, a university campus, and new headquarters for various national government offices and ministries.

The line between architect and military general was increasingly blurred as army generals in uniform led presentations to workers’ unions about the Nasser regime’s new housing policies. Architectural drawings and models were used to demonstrate the success of the state’s bureaucratic urbanism. As early as 1959, other Egyptian cities had their own plans for new housing blocks and communities. The urban trauma experienced in Port Said was a critical catalyst for this process to take shape. The regime used the Port Said story for a decade after 1956 to remind Egyptians of the potential threat of foreign plots and to support its own image as protector and builder (Fig. 13). In 1966, the Ministry of National Guidance (media and information) published a book titled Port Said, Symbol of Victory, which celebrated the reclamation of Port Said from British and French control, narrated the military aggression against the city, and presented the new and reconstructed Port Said as a testament to Egyptian perseverance, modernity, and self-determination. Egypt’s once colonial periphery had provided the foundational roots for Nasser’s national urban and architectural legacy.

Starting with the 1967 Six-Day War, Port Said became a renewed target of foreign threat. The city would eventually be bombarded, this time by Israeli air and ground forces. Port Said was once again devastated, much of the still-new reconstruction made into ruins. This time, however, the Nasser regime found itself in a weaker position and was unable to respond quickly. Subsequent efforts under the Sadat and Mubarak regimes to rebuild Port Said took more than two decades to complete. Economically difficult to sustain, the moment of euphoria and technocratic utopianism of Nasser’s development policies was short-lived. Egypt’s return to war ultimately ended the modernist dream before it could be fully realized.

1 The Suez Crisis is known to Egyptians as the Tripartite Aggression.

2 With the digging of the Suez Canal, two new cities were founded: Port Said at the northern end of the canal and Ismailia at the midpoint. The historic Red Sea port city Suez was already positioned at the southern end of the Suez Canal.

3 Fred H. Lawson, “Foreign Exploitation and Domestic Conflict in Mid-Nineteenth Century Egypt: A Reevaluation of the Suez Canal Concessions of 1854 and 1856,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 24 (1987): pp. 61-70.

4 Marie-Laure Crosnier Leconte, Raymond Collet, and Amany Fouad, Port Said: Architectures XIXe-XXe siècles (Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2006), 3-5.

5 The separation of the merchant and administrative classes, mostly European, from the labor class, mostly Egyptian, as reflected in the urban plan resembles colonial planning in other French colonial contexts.

6 It is said that New York’s Statue of Liberty was initially envisioned as an Egyptian woman holding “the light of Egypt” and was to stand at the entrance of the Suez Canal to welcome European ships as they made their journey to Asia. Due to lack of funds, and as the British undercut French control of the canal, the planned statue was refashioned into its present state and gifted to the United States.

7 Ownership and control of the canal have continued to be a contentious matter. In the midst of current ongoing unrest in Port Said, the Egyptian military has occupied the canal headquarters and the surrounding part of the city. Information about port revenues, and to what ends they are used, continues to remain beyond public access. There is a popular suspicion in regard to the canal that the Egyptian military has favored protecting the interests of global actors over those of Egyptians.

8 Grace H. Knapp, Grisell M. McLaren, and Myrtle O. Shane, The Tragedy of Bitlis (1919; repr., London: Sterndale Classics, 2002), 102-108.

9 Foad Faraj, “Suez Canal Zone,” Al Imara Architectural Journal, Vol. 7-8 (1941): 263-273. For more on Al Imara Architectural Journal see, Mercedes Volait, L’architecture moderne en Egypte et la revue Al-Imara (1939-1959), (Cairo: CEDEJ, 1988); Mercedes Volait, Architectes et architectures de l’Egypte moderne (1830-1950): Genese et essor d’une expertise locale (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2005).

10 According to Faraj, Port Said’s population had grown from twenty thousand at the time of World War I to nearly one-hundred-thousand by 1941. Foad Faraj, “Suez Canal Zone,” Al Imara Journal (1941): 263-273.

11 Ibid., 265.

12 The Port Said municipality lacked proper privileges to collect taxes and assume the typical role of a municipality due to the special status of the Suez Canal Company. Sufficient funds to carry out urban projects were therefore not available, forcing the municipality to rely on aid from the national government. The 5,000 Egyptian pounds gifted by the government represented only a fraction of the needed funds to implement the approved plan.

13 Baron Edwin Savory Herbert Tangley, Damage and Casualties in Port Said (London: National Government Publication, 1957).

14 Sayed Karim, “If Cairo Were Destroyed,” Al Ithneyn wa Al Dunya, no. 586 (1945): 12-13.

15 Dar Al Hilal was Egypt’s largest publisher and produced many popular periodicals from the 1910s onwards. See Naseem Ammar, Ten Glorious Days (Cairo: Dar Al Hilal, 1957).

16 Al Musawwar, (July 1957), 27.

17 Abdellatif Baghdady was one of the “Free Officers” who led the coup. He held various positions in the 1950s including governor of Cairo.

18 Al Musawwar (October 1957), 27.

19 The regime had concentrated authority into the hands of military generals based in Cairo. Municipal reforms in 1947 guaranteed the authority of municipalities with their own architects and planners. Those reforms were rolled back in 1954 under the new regime. Port Said’s reconstruction was planned, implemented, and managed from another city: Cairo. Abdellatif Baghdady, “Urban Planning in the Age of Revolution,” Al Musawwar July 1957, p. 53-56.

20 Presumably this is a drop in density per acre when compared to the infamous “Arab district” and Manakhein.

21 The rent was roughly one-fifth to one-sixth of the average income of one adult in 1960. Emaddin Rushdy, “Port Said on the revolution’s high road,” Al Musawwar November 1963, 55-57.

22 Ibid., 102.

motilium motilium et grossesse motilium eureka
Mohamed Elshahed is a New York University doctoral candidate in Middle East Studies writing his dissertation on mid-twentieth-century urban and architectural development in Egypt, and he blogs at
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Fig. 1. Woman standing before the administrative building of the Suez Canal Company, Port Said, published in Al Musawwar, 1957. All images courtesy of the author.
Fig. 2. The October 28, 1964, cover of the popular Egyptian magazine Akher Saa (Last Hour).
Fig. 3. Elevation of proposed Port Said Municipality by Foad Faraj, Al Imara, November 1941.
Fig. 4. Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Suez Canal on the cover of Al Musawwar, August 1956.
Fig. 5. Damaged building from the November 1956 British and French bombing of Port Said.
Fig. 6. “If Cairo Were Destroyed” by Sayed Karim in Al Ithneyn wa Al Dunya, 1945.
Fig. 7. Plan for Al Zahra, a suburb of Damascus by Sayed Karim, 1948.
Fig. 8. Ten Glorious Days published by Dar Al Hilal, 1957.
Fig. 9. “The New Port Said” plan published in Al Musawwar, 1957.
Fig. 10. “Man replaces machine,” AP Wire photo, part of a series of photographs documenting the rebuilding of Port Said in 1957.
Fig. 11. Apartment building prototype.
Fig. 12. Apartments, casino, and beach cabins in the reconstructed Port Said, repackaged as a holiday destination for Egyptians.
Fig. 13. Advertisement for the “Port Said Cooperative Development Society” on the occasion of “our victory in the battle of Port Said,” published in Al Musawwar, December 1966.
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