Having accounted for Oceania in my out-of-town feature, I now turn to Africa and its equivalent of New York: a large and diverse city. The ancient seaport city of Alexandria, Egypt. While many of the cities that I’ve documented were built alongside rivers, Alexandria never had its own river, its location chosen by its famous namesake for its deep harbor that served as a port to Africa.
The city and its harbor were connected to the Nile River and the rest of Egypt by the Mahmoudeya Canal, constructed in the 1840s on the order of the powerful Turkish viceroy Muhammad Ali. Above is a scene on the canal captured in an 1890s French postcard.
Where it Flows
A 1905 German map of the city shows the canal nearly encircling the city, meeting its inner harbor at the Minet El Bassal district, a crowded warren of shops and stalls. The canal we see today was constructed on the route of an earlier canal dating to the Ptolemaic period. From the time of the pharaohs, the fan-shaped delta of the Nile River was crossed by canals serving at the country’s internal transportation network.
The last of the Ptolemies was the famed Cleopatra VII, whose kingdom fell to the Romans. A 2011 National Geographic rendering of her city shows a grid plan inspired by Miletus and Piraeus laid out on the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the Mareotis lagoon. The Canal of Alexandria provided water and transportation to the city. In the centuries since Cleopatra, the harbors have shrunken as a result of land reclamation. Being on the edge of the Libyan Desert, the canal underwent periods of sandstroms and revivals for the following 18 centuries.
Following the Arab Muslim conquest in 641, the city began its long decline with nearby Rosetta becoming the country’s favored seaport. By the time that Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Alexandria in 1798, it was a remnant of a city, populated by some 8,000 residents living amid ancient ruins. Although Napoleon failed to hold onto Egypt, the subsequent Turkish viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha had grand visions for the city. He retained French architect Pascal Coste to revive the ancient canal.
Using corvee labor (citizens drafted for unpaid infrastructure work), in 1807 he commissioned the revival of the canal connecting Alexandria to the Nile. upon its completion in 1821, it was named in honor of the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, whose name is a variant of Muhammad. (convenient that the monarch and the ambitious viceroy shared the same name).
As the undated French postcard above shows, the warehouses along the canal had a European appearance as did the bridges crossing this waterway. The scene above is the Minet El Bassal district where the canal meets the city’s Inner Harbor. The success of this canal led to growth in the city’s population and it quickly became as cosmopolitan as it was in ancient times. Truly the New York of Egypt, Alexandria had a sizable population of Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Turks, native Copts, and Jews. Although the city is not as diverse these days, its eclectic architecture testifies to the presence of various cultures that built its neighborhoods.
Muhammad Ali’s successors did not have the funds to maintain the canal and as was the case with Suez Canal, the government gave concessions to foreign investors to operate and make money from the country’ canals. The Steam Tug-boat Company comprised of French investors kept the canal in shape but with the introduction of railroads in 1856, the canal’s fate was the same as that of the Erie Canal in New York, an obsolete ditch from an earlier period of transportation.
Along its 77-kilometer length, the canal has many appearances ranging from the industrial banks in Alexandria to the cotton and wheat fields outside of the city. At its gate with the Nile River, the city of Mahmoudeya shares the canal’s name. Midstream the industrial city of Kafr El Dawwar also draws its water supply from this canal. The above 1880 postcard shows the canal along its countryside stretch.
A 1947 survey of the Minet el Bassal neighborhood at the canal’s mouth still showed it flowing freely to the harbor but the railyards on the map show the main route of transportation linking the country to the sea.
In 1952, the country’s last monarch was deposed and the military government that took power ignored the canal entirely, allowing nature and pollution to render it unusable. At Minat el Bassal, the canal’s mouth was covered and warehouses were built atop the former stream bed.
The Canal Today
Being a dead-end canal, it does not see any boat traffic these days and as its water is heavily polluted, no one would try to swim in it or drink its waters. As the canal approaches Minat el Bassal, it narrows and the trash is more visible. In places where the isn’t as much trash there are invasive plants clogging up the waterway. There is space along its banks for a linear park but it would take a long time for this to become reality.
Can this canal become a route for boat tours, canoes and paddleboats? Can it compete for tourists with the waterfront stretches of the city? As a New Yorker, I believe that it is possible. We’ve seen it done with Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and that waterway was notorious as an open sewer only a generation ago.
Architecture Students’ Visions
The cost of restoring Mahmoudeyah Canal runs in the billions, involving dredging, trash removal, rerouting of sewage entering the stream, constructing parks along the banks, educating the public not to dump, and enforcing the law against dumping. Egypt can do it. It has 5,000 years of ambitious projects in its national portfolio. Recent examples include a proposed new capital city, the new Alexandria library, New Valley Project at Toshka Lakes, and a proposed bridge to Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea. But when it comes to a project that the Alexandrian city dweller could support and benefit from, the restoration of Mahmoudeyah Canal should be given national priority.
In 2009, a five-student team submitted a proposal for an attractive intervention in the Minat El Bassal section of the canal, presented to the Architecture Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Alexandria University. The promising design could easily make this waterway the African answer to Cheonggyecheon, an urban waterway that beckons visitors and is an international tourist attraction.
In the Region
Egypt is an African country and at the same time part of the Middle East region. In its neighboring state of Israel I documented a similar urban stream, the Ayalon River of Tel Aviv. Further east, I’ve written about Basra, the Venice of Iraq. Also, last November the online journal The Nature of Cities had a detailed profile of dry riverbeds in the region transformed into urban parks. The article mentioned Wadi Hanifa in Riyadh, Zayandeh Roud in Isfahan, and Wadi Azeiba in Muscat.