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Notes on the Geography of Egypt: Skirting the Delta

We're going to trace the outline of the delta by beginning at Cairo and heading northeast past Tenth of Ramadan City to Ismailia and the road along the Suez Canal to Port Suez. Then we'll head west parallel to the sea and past Damietta and Rosetta to Alexandria. Finally we'll turn back southeasterly to Cairo via the Desert Road and Sadat City. Each side of the triangle measures well over a hundred miles.

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Egypt: Skirting the Delta picture 1

Morning on the Cairo to Ismailia highway.

Egypt: Skirting the Delta picture 2

Tenth of Ramadan City is one of several satellites established to decompress Cairo. In brief, they didn't.

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Go figure.

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Shall we turn in to see the residential area?

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Impressive.

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There's a range of housing here, with villas at the high end.

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De gustibus non est disputandum.

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Across the Middle East, architectural ornamentation is a kind of esthetic plague.

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Apartment blocks.

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Commercial zone.

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Restaurant.

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Pedestrian alley.

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Apartment blocks with deferred maintenance.

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Back to the clean desert.

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Remind you of Herodotus and Egypt as the gift of the Nile?

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Entering Ismailia, with a monument to the men with hoes.

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Colonial-era housing.

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Commercial district of the same vintage.

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Ubiquitous verandas and, here, sunscreens.

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Old buildings of the canal authority. Ismailia was the center of operations when the canal was being dug.

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The house of Ferdinand de Lesseps is now an office, but his room is kept as a museum.

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Inside the gate.

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The great man's bed and bath.

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His desk, with mementos.

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An old thermometer, gauged for the worst.

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Modern commercial center.

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Modern apartment blocks.

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The road north.

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The Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge across the Suez Canal at Al Qantara al-Gharbiya.

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Yes, the Suez Canal, at a quiet moment.

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Just fishin'?

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The Mediterranean at Port Said--and the intended location for what became the Statue of Liberty.

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From about the same spot looking south into the canal.

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Ferries cross to Port Fu'ad, a settlement begun in 1925.

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A tanker enters the canal.

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A container ship heads the other way.

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It passes quickly.

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Canal-side docks, with Port Fuad.

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Palatial offices of the Suez Canal Authority.

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From another angle. This is as far as you're going, buddy.

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Until 1956, a statue of de Lesseps stood here.

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The waterfront is lined with colonial-era buildings in an advanced state of decay. Once there were German, British, French, Austrian, Italian, Russian, and American consulates here. Back then, say in 1911, the city had 55,000 residents, including 11,000 foreigners.

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Maritime services, delivered grimly.

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The view inside, much brightened by a flash.

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An old hotel that faces the Canal Authority building.

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A colonial-era shop that now sells souvenirs.

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An echo of Paris.

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A well-built office building. You guess it's a bank or shipping agency? Wrong.

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This was an undertaking of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which owned the building at least until 1960. The building takes its name from Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh earl of Shaftesbury and a leading philanthropist of Victorian England. The BFBS was one of his many interests.

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Port Said continued to grow throughout the British period, as these moderne blocks suggest.

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Doorway.

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Like Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, the Eastern Exchange, the grand hotel of Port Said, was burned by rioters in the 1950s. It stood about here.

Egypt: Skirting the Delta picture 53

Modern housing in a city that has grown to 500,000.

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More typical apartments.

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A residential street with that rarity, a park.

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One more glimpse.

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And a reminder that the Suez Canal is still big business.

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We've jumped west about 30 miles to the mouth of the Damietta Nile at Ra's al-Barr, north of the town of Damietta.

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The site has recently been developed as a resort.

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Looking across the river.

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Seasonal residences under construction on the left bank.

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A finished neighborhood, but very quiet in winter.

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Beach houses, most without a glimpse of the water.

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We're looking south from a spot perhaps 40 miles farther west. We're on the shores of Lake Burullus, The lake is shrinking as its southern shore, in the far distance here, is reclaimed for agriculture. The existence of a new road across the north shore of the lake has made access to this once remote area much easier.

Egypt: Skirting the Delta picture 65

Another 10 or 15 miles brings us to the Rosetta Nile.

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The town of Rosetta, which is now called Rashid, is crowded but with streets that are largely unpaved and periodically muddy.

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A drier street.

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Mosque-side market.

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Fast food.

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Taxi.

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The town's appeal to tourists is its collection of old homes.

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Here's one, with adaptive reuse of ancient materials.

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Another example.

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A spare column lies waiting for an Arthur strong enough to pick it up.

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Why such big houses? Answer: founded in the 9th century, Rashid or Rosetta was Egypt's main port after Alexandria's decline, and it only fell into decline itself when Alexandria was revitalized in the 19th century.

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A couple of dozen of these old houses survive and are protected monuments.

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Ceiling.

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An interior with another ancient column and a wood screen or mashrabiyya.

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Stairway.

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Screened-off area for women.

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Streetside mashrabiyya.

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Olive press.

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Closer view.

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A bathhouse or hammam.

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Detail.

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We've jumped again, this time 35 miles to Alexandria or Al-Iskanderiyyah. The city was founded by you-know-who back in the 4th century B.C. as a replacement for the ancient and silt-prone harbors 100 miles to the east, near Damietta. Alexander's harbor was right here, in what is now open sea but which was then protected by dikes. The city's population grew to half a million in the first century B.C. but declined to 5,000 in 1800, when Mohamad Ali revived it. The population has risen to four million, and modern harbors lie to both the west and east, leaving the ancient harbor as a more or less scenic promenade.

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One of the famous hotels of the colonial era. The statue is of Saad Zaghoul, a nationalist hero, leader of the Waft Party, and briefly (in 1924) prime minister of Egypt.

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Triumphant.

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Another of the hotels of that day, the Cecil, now reflagged.

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Back a block from the water. In 1907 the population was 330,000. That included 60,000 Europeans, of whom 24,000 were Greeks and 16,000 Italians who would have felt right at home in the massive older blocks here.

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Yet another office building.

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Detail.

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Signs in abundance.

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Elevator.

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The French legacy.

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A nominally Swiss pharmacy.

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Cinema from the 1930s.

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From 2002: the waterside Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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A plainclothes security guard, with a none-too-subtle gun under his jacket.

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One of the few bits of antiquity to survive in Alexandria: Pompey's Pillar was erected not for Pompey but centuries later to support a statue of Diocletian. Don't feel too sorry for him; he doesn't mind.

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It's made of red granite from Aswan that was presumably first cut for use in a temple.

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And now for something completely different: a shopping center just outside Alexandria and on the desert road to Cairo.

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Dates.

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Rice.

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Check-outs in abundance; customers scarce.

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Down the mall.

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Rolling back to Cairo.

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Subdivision ahead.

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Lonely pioneers in Madinat as-Sadat, or Sadat City, a good 30 or 40 miles from the metropolis. Ugly commute, but clean air.

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A brave developer closer to Giza.


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