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  • Karen Frost

Chapter 5, Part 2: Port Said

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

The end of chapter 5 is set in Port Said. Although in the 1800s most passenger steamers stopped at Alexandria, by the 1920s it seems that more were passing through Port Said, since it was the start of the route through the Suez Canal (which the steamers would have passed through on the way to eastern destinations such as India, China, and Australia). Per its Wikipedia page, by the 1930s, Port Said was

"a thriving, bustling international port with a multi-national population: Jewish merchants, Egyptian shopkeepers, Greek photographers, Italian architects, Swiss hoteliers, Maltese administrators, Scottish engineers, French bankers and diplomats from all around the world...Intermarriage between French, Italian and Maltese was particularly common, resulting in a local Latin and Catholic community like those of Alexandria and Cairo. French was the common language of the European and non-Arab population, and often the first language of children born to parents from different communities. Italian was also widely spoken and was the mother tongue of part of the Maltese community, since the ancestors of the latter had come to Egypt before the Anglicization of Malta in the 1920s."

In the 1920s, Port Said had a population of 100,000, but when you look at photos from the time, it still looks like a relatively sleepy place, particularly compared to big port cities like New York and Southampton. At this site are some photos of Port Said from the early 1900s. One thing I note is that all the old photos of the port show steamers anchored in the canal with some sort of either a floating dock pulled up to them or dinghies sent out to transfer passengers and cargo to/from the ship. I found a single website that mentioned a wharf where the ships moored, however, which seems to make sense given at least some ships would have to moor to take on huge quantities of coal and cotton. Given this, I used a wharf in the book, recognizing that it's possible that even in the 1920s passengers were still being ferried in the below dinghies.

A postcard showing the arrival of a steamer, Port Said, Egypt can be found here. The ship in the postcard is probably the Le Porthos, a liner of the Compaigne des Messageries Maritimes, which served on the Marseille-Saigon-Haiphong route from its launch in 1914 to 1939.

According to a 1910 advertisement I found in German, the train travel time from Port Said to Cairo would have been 4.5 hours (which is basically what it is today, too). A travelogue also from 1910 confirmed that travel time. Interestingly, the same ad claimed the time from Alexandria to Cairo was only three hours, when according to Carter's diary it took closer to six. Unclear why the Alexandria leg was so slow.

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