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The Once World-Famous Port Said Lighthouse

Walking along the boardwalk in Port Said, it's hard to miss the checkerboard-painted lighthouse. Standing at a total height at 194 feet, the lighthouse sticks out as an antiquated relic that has remained while the city around it has changed beyond recognition. The lighthouse was completed in 1869, a mere week before the opening of the Suez Canal. It's one of the oldest buildings still standing in Port Said; however, for many decades it was world-famous for being one of the world's great feats of modern engineering and design.

Port Said in the 1930s - unknown photographer - scanned, cleaned and optimized by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) - Wikimedia Commons

Isma'il Pasha, the then ruler of Egypt, requested a French architect and engineer, by the name of Francois Coignet, to design and build the lighthouse. However, Coignet immediately ran into difficulty due to the lack of suitable nearby quarries. Looking for alternatives, Coignet thought about the use of concrete, which had up to that point not been thought of as strong enough to make such buildings. Coignet cleverly combined the use of iron bars and tiles with concrete, and thus, reinforced concrete was born. While reinforced concrete certainly isn't the most exciting of things, the lighthouse of Port Said being built with the technique for the first time revolutionized the world.

Port Said, Lighthouse and Breakwater at the Entrance of the Suez Canal - The Illustrated London News [Public domain]

In addition to its feat of engineering, it was also praised for its (at the time) unique style. Many saw it, much in part due to its use of concrete, to be a great example of modernism pointing to a future yet to come. Sitting at the entrance to Egypt, you can imagine how in the 1800s it would declare in no uncertain terms that Egypt is a modernizing nation with a bright future, in stark contrast to oriental portrayals of the nation popular at the time.

Postcard of Port Said during the 1960s. Cairo Postcard Trust - Travelers in the Middle East (TIMEA) - Wikimedia Commons

Much like the lighthouse, which was known around the world and admired for ingenuity, forward-thinking, and modern aspirations, Port Said too, at its peak, was considered one of the great modern cities of the world. It was very much a Dubai of its time, celebrated for its originality, futuristic aspirations, and spoken about in glowing terms throughout the world.

Unfortunately, you can't currently enter the lighthouse or its grounds, but it's still worth walking around the perimeter wall or taking a break to admire it from the boardwalk. However, there has been much talk from academics, civil society figures, and the local governor about turning it into a museum to tell the history of the Suez Canal and commemorate the sacrifices of Port Saidians in the face of Israeli, but also French and British aggression, in the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973.

The lighthouse is worth a stop on any visit to Port Said and the prospect of a future museum in the building is something to be excited about.

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