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Reclaiming history
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 03 - 2002

Alexandria is a beehive of activity, as it eagerly awaits the official inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina next month. Fatemah Farag looks on as copies of invaluable documents, photos, lithographs and paintings related to the Suez Canal under French administration arrive in the city; and follows the choppy course of a reed boat designed to unravel the mysteries of prehistoric navigation (Magical mystery tour)
Reclaiming history
Egypt and France find in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina a site in which to preserve their common heritage
"It is the Library's mission to seek out and acquire the records of history," explained Jean-Marie Compte, special counsellor to Ismail Serageddin, the director of the Alexandria Library, as we chatted during the coffee-break of the conference "Egypt: from the inauguration of the Suez Canal to the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina" organised by the nascent Library this week.
The three-day event was held under the auspices of the French ambassador to Egypt, François Dopffer, and the Egyptian ambassador to France, Ali Maher. The conference covered everything from the Ottoman Empire's position regarding the project to its future in the 21st century. The guest list was just as varied: not only top dignitaries such as the current head of the Suez Canal Authority Ahmed Fadel, but also specialists in the fields of history, engineering and technology.
What ultimately brought everyone together was the presentation to the Library of copies of documents, lithographs, photos and paintings, made by the Friends of Ferdinand De Lesseps Association. The association had previously held all the documents in their archives in Paris.
Walking through the exhibition hall, one could not but be impressed. Hand- written lists of invitees and menus from the Suez inauguration, together with photos of the Canal's construction and the inauguration ceremony, were displayed side by side with images of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signing the order that would reopen the Canal after its closure between 1967 and 1975. To add to the mix, there were paintings of Khedive Ismail and all sorts of old books behind glass.
(Clockwise from top) the inauguration of the Suez Canal; royalty look on as the festivities of the opening take place; the covers of rare books now available at the Alexandria Library on microfilm; the front page of the index that compiles the Alexandria Library's collection; the cover of the Arabic version of the index depicts both Khedive Ismail and Ferdinand De Lesseps; original blue-prints
(photos courtesy of the Manuscripts Department at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina)
But what exactly were these things? In most cases, the invitees were at a loss to pinpoint exactly what the exhibits were. There were often no explanations at all next to the displays. When explanations had been provided, they would be either only in Arabic, or in just Arabic and English, or more often than not in just French and Arabic.
I asked the attendant about the inconsistency. "These things came from France that way. There is no more information," he said.
The tone at the press office was not much better. "Where are the background papers?" I asked them. The answer was: "They are being copied." After having asked again five times throughout the day, I was finally given an unsatisfactory "they were copied and we ran out."
And so it was Jean-Paul Calon, president of the Friends of Ferdinand De Lesseps Association, who finally gave me the definitive grand tour.
"The lithographs are copies of those that were part of the book presented by the Khedive to his distinguished guests," he explained. "The book [which was on exhibition] will return to France but the copies are of the highest quality. The documents, around 100 of them, have been put onto microfilm, and this is part of an ongoing process. Our archives are huge, I cannot tell you how big, but these are some of the most important items."
The Library's Compte explained to Al- Ahram Weekly that this project began in 1998 and is part and parcel of the promotion of French-Egyptian relations. "The history of the Suez Canal and its relation to the ties between Egypt and France have been difficult at times, but more often they have been friendly. This event stresses the latter," he explained.
The three-year long French occupation of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte began in 1798. Ferdinand De Lesseps arrived to Cairo in 1854 and soon convinced Khedive Saeed of the importance of digging the Canal. On 25 April 1859, the digging began "with oppressed Egyptian hands, an exhilarated France and a pang in British hearts," as described by Yusuf Ziedan, head of the Manuscripts Department at the Library.
"The Canal was inaugurated in November 1869 and since then it has forged a history of its own," he added.
So the Canal's history is an inextricable part of both countries' modern heritage. And, as was highlighted at the conference by the Suez Canal Authority's Fadel, it has been one of Egypt's top hard currency earners in recent decades; last year alone it contributed $2 billion to Egypt's national income.
The contemporary history of the documents we had come to Alexandria to celebrate, however, really began with the establishment of the Friends of Ferdinand De Lesseps Association and a young lawyer employed by the Suez Canal Company.
"After the Canal was nationalised by the Egyptian government the Company asked me to become a member of the team that arbitrated a final deal with the Egyptian government in July 1958. And so my connection to these papers and this history goes a long way back," recounted the association's Calon. In 1978, it was decided that it was not the company's business to keep the documentary archives about the Canal, and so the association was set up.
"We took on an enormous archive," continued Calon. "But over the years I began to think that this history belonged to Egypt too."
Contact between the association and the relevant authorities in Egypt began 15 years ago. They discussed how to share the heritage in modern times. "The welcome with which our ideas were received was extraordinary, and we decided that the best place to keep such a wealth would be the Library. And here we are," said Calon.
The current exhibition is not the association's entire collection, of course. Neither is it a comprehensive collection of all archives that currently exist. Important sections of the Suez Canal archives still reside with the Canal Authority, the Council of Ministers, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dar Al-Kutub (the national archives) and the United Nations.
In fact, one of the guests at the conference -- Mohamed Borg, a professor of history at the University of Menufiya -- requested that an appeal be made to bring together the collection, both to preserve it and to facilitate research on it. Borg pointed out that "for a long time, we have called for the consolidation of the Suez Canal papers. This is a very positive step in that direction. The documents we have received today offer us the opportunity to explain and even correct much of modern Egyptian history."
Ziedan told the Weekly that the Library began to compile a microfilm version of the documents held by the Suez Canal Authority some years ago. To date, they have several thousand images on 55 rolls of film. The Library has also prepared a unified index of both collections it now holds.
It is a wealth of information and Calon pointed out to the Weekly that two years ago the association's archives, as well as all those in Egypt, were registered by UNESCO.
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