topics: balille (food), Egyptian police, Suez Canal, HISTORY, Ismailia; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 3–4, 1997

Breakfast: While the rest of the BikeAbout team slept off their heady trip to Cairo, Anthony and Padraic set out in search of fame and fortune with a bag of pastries in hand (in case they ran across any hungry crocodiles on their wanderings, they selected from a recommended bakery a plethora of different treats). click to view a photograph These pastries were pretty typical of the pastries we have been seeing in Egypt. Most were a variation on a theme of small biscuit-like pastries filled with a fig paste. Some were topped with sesame seeds. And yet others had chocolate mixed into the paste. click to view a photograph Our favorites are round flat rolls covered with sesame seeds and filled with a thin layer of honey. click to view a photograph

Lunch: We grabbed a quick lunch of the Egyptian version of fast food. This time we really hit the jackpot. Normally we have found that the fuul and ta'amiyya sandwiches we often eat all taste about the same (which happens to be very good). But occasionally we find a place that excels in one or the other. This time, in a small shop around the corner from the hotel, we found some of the best fuul we have yet eaten. Fuul is made with fava beans and is basically what we would call "refried beans." Anthony and Padraic were so impressed that they headed back up to the counter for another round. (A group vote quickly determined that Ethan should be limited to one sandwich, past experience having shown us that too many refried bean sandwiches in Ethan's diet have a detrimental effect on our group dynamic, especially if anyone has to share a room with Stinky, er, we mean, Ethan.)

Dinner: For dinner we ordered a wide range of dishes. We ate in a restaurant connected to the hotel and we were amazed that the cook was able to make so many different things, especially since he was working on only one gas burner and a small separate stove in which only the oven worked! We started with a spicy tomato and jalapeño pepper salad. Next we had pan-fried chicken. This was followed by a pea-and-tomato soup. Undaunted, we pressed on; after all, we were planning on biking 165 km (102 mi) the next day and our bodies screamed out for MORE CALORIES!! Seeking carbohydrates, we waded into something very similar to potato salad. STILL yearning for more, we spied some sliced, baked potatoes in the oven and soon had a full platter making its rounds. Then we were off for more protein with a delicious sausage-(merguez)-and-tomato-like stew. Somewhere in the middle was a feta-like cheese salad. Finally sated (although only temporarily), our eyes turned elsewhere for dessert (see the Food of the Day).

Food of the Day: Balille

Balille was our dessert. Anthony and Padraic were the first to "discover" this delicacy on their scouting trip to Qantara. They were quick to turn the rest of the group on to it. Balille is basically a hot milk soup. You start by placing a handful of dry, baked angel hair pastry dough in the bottom of an empty bowl. Several scoops of sugar (this is North Africa after all) are added and then hot milk is ladled over the top. Crushed peanuts can be sprinkled on for more effect. When balille is served, you stir it until well mixed. Then finally it is time to dig in.

Person of the Day: Eastern Egypt Police

Throughout our time in Egypt, the Egyptian police have been extremely helpful. However, during the last few days they have gone out of their way to see to our safety (or, maybe also to protect Egyptians from us!). In Ismailia, the lieutenant-colonel of the Tourist Police, Al Sharif (or, as he preferred, the Sheriff — he even had a little sheriff's badge on his lapel) came to the hotel with several of his officers to introduce himself. After we told him of our plans, he promised us a two-car escort for our ride out of town toward Qantara.

In Qantara, the police also helped us to check into our hotel. When we prepared to leave at 5:30 a.m. the following morning, we discovered that two officers had actually slept outside our rooms the entire night! While we are not entirely sure why we needed such protection, we would like to take this opportunity to thank the Egyptian Police. We could not help but think that this special treatment was in response to the recent terrorist attack at Luxor.

One of the reasons why we find the degree of protection we are receiving a little peculiar is that we never once felt that we were in any danger during our entire visit to Egypt. On the contrary, often it was the Egyptians that we felt were in danger from either andrEa falling on them while she biked, or Corinne knocking them on the head with her video camera, or Padraic and Anthony mistakenly eating one of them in a hunger-inspired feeding frenzy, or even of the shock of seeing Ethan's hair after a night of little sleep. Regardless, our thanks go out to all the Egyptian police with whom we have come into contact and who have always been kind, understanding, and very helpful.

Place of the Day: Suez Canal

In a sense, the Suez Canal has been our first intermediate goal for the last two and a half months, since it defines the end of our first continent (only two more to go!). The Suez Canal is 163 kilometers (101 miles) long (twice the length of the Panama Canal!) and 19 meters (62 feet) deep. Each day, approximately 50 ships make the voyage through the canal, with 75 ships being the canal's maximum capacity. In several places the canal has been widened, allowing for traffic to flow in both directions, but it still is not large enough to allow continuous bi-directional traffic. It is also not large enough for the largest ships that sail the oceans. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why large supertankers were built. They make it more economically feasible to sail around Africa.

The construction of the Suez Canal, which was initially strongly opposed by the British, immediately provided a quick and economical route from the Mediterranean to India and the rest of Asia and revitalized the "Inland Sea" (Mediterranean) and Egypt, the latter having stagnated for too long under Mamluk and then Ottoman rule (1517-1882). Thus begins another history lesson . . . short, but sweet. We promise. (In a lot of ways, this history and the one about the Sinai tie in with our previous Egypt dispatches's recountings of history (from the Old Kingdom to the Hellenic period under Alexander the Great and the Ptolemic Dynasty to the Mamluks and Ottomans) and brings our encounter with Egyptian history into the modern world. If it helps, the history of the Suez Canal is full of information about recent Egyptian history (well, recent compared to the Pharaonic times).

At the end of the 18th century, the French (under Napoleon) were eager to strike at British trade in the Indian Ocean by establishing control over the land and sea routes to India. This necessarily meant controlling Egypt, and, more precisely, the Sinai Isthmus. But Napoleon envisioned something revolutionary for Egypt, which, throughout the centuries, had often been thought of in a strategic sense (as the gateway between Africa and Asia). Napoleon wanted to build a canal. However, most people don't know that he was not the first to have this idea. Egypt's past is full of canals. Still, the one he had planned was special because it would link two seas and almost halve the length and duration of a voyage from Europe to India, thereby providing a new, strategically important means of access to both Asia and to the Mediterranean Sea. This type of strategic thinking — presaging British influence in Egypt — was to set the tone for the Suez region for the next 200 years.

Although Napoleon initially considered the relatively narrow Isthmus of Suez click to view a map as an ideal spot for the canal, he was forced to abandon the project when his engineers mistakenly reported 15 meters (30 feet) of difference between the levels of the Mediterranean and Red Seas (which would have entailed the difficult and expensive construction of locks). Plus, Napoleon had other more pressing problems to think about, namely, the Egyptians' objections to his presence, which was, ultimately, short-lived.

Basically, the Egyptians were not too enamored of all the social programs that Napoleon had introduced. So, barely a month after Napoleon arrived in Egypt, in an action applauded by the Egyptians, the British Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet off the coast of Alexandria. A year later, the British sent a force of 15,000 Turkish soldiers to expel the French completely. Although the French initially held on, by 1801, they had been convinced to leave.

Thus began a period of political instability that resulted in the rise of Mohammed Ali to power. Mohammed ruled until his death in 1848 and succeeded in repelling most of the Ottoman Empire's advances. He was eventually stopped by the British who were concerned about the threat to India that a strong Muslim power might represent in the strategically important Suez Isthmus.

But Napoleon's dream of a canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas was not lost. Mohammed Ali's great-grandson, Said Pasha, succeeded where others had failed. Ironically it was the French consul to Egypt at the time, Ferdinand de Lessups, who, after careful re-examination of both French and British data, decided that a canal was actually possible. Thus, in 1854, the Compagnie Universelle de Canal Maritime de Suez (the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal — the predecessor of the modern-day Suez Canal Authority) was created with the intention of constructing a ship canal through the Isthmus of Suez.

Unfortunately, the French and British governments both created all sorts of problems for the new company. Each wanted to be the dominant partner in the canal company (to control this new shortcut to Asia). For Britain, there was concern about both the lucrative trade route to India and maintaining British control of the corridor that would bolster and nation's maritime power in Asia. The British knew that whoever controlled the canal would have power and influence over the entire world, a power they did not want to see used against Britain. (Interestingly the British were not the first to have this concern.)

Egypt's leader at the time, Said Pasha, ultimately granted the French company the right to construct the canal. The sale of 400,000 shares raised capital for the immense task at hand. France purchased 200,000 shares, while the Ottoman Empire acquired another 100,000. The remainder of the shares was purchased by Said Pasha himself. And so construction of the canal finally began on April 25, 1859, near what was to become the city of Port Said. Work on the canal was an immense undertaking, made even more difficult by the lack of drinkable water in the isthmus. Until a fresh water canal was dug to the Nile, 3,000 camels were utilized to guarantee a regular supply.

In 1863, Pasha Ismail succeeded Said Pasha as khedive (ruler) of Egypt. Under his rule, construction of the canal was quickened. Ismail wanted to take advantage of the the Civil War in America that had disrupted the world cotton market. Egyptian cotton was suddenly very much in demand and the Suez Canal would greatly facilitate trade.

Finally, on November 16, 1869, the grand opening was announced. Two small fleets, one leaving from Port Said and the other from the Red Sea city of Port Suez, met in Ismailia, and Africa was officially declared separate from Asia. Suddenly the 12,400-mile (19,950-kilometer) voyage from London around South Africa to Bombay, India, was shortened to only 7,250 miles (11,670 kilometers).

Completion of the canal was certainly cause for celebration. And celebrate is what Pasha Ismail intended to do, sparing no expense. In Cairo, the Opera House and the Pyramids Road were built (the Pyramids Road was established so that the wife of Napoleon III, Eugénie, would be able to visit the pyramids in her carriage!), and in the new city of Ismailia itself, a new palace was built. In Port Said, a dance ball was held for 6,000 guests. Elsewhere, events were scheduled along the entire length of the canal. The cost of celebration was added to the cost of the canal, which ended up being twice as much as originally estimated.

The debts that had been incurred were the ruin of Pasha Ismail. By 1875, Pasha Ismail was forced to sell almost half his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British government. This set in motion a period of British control over Egypt. Ironically, after all the British concern and protest over the canal, the first merchant ship to sail through it was British-owned. But, back to Pasha Ismail: The financial troubles he caused eventually led to his abdication and greater British (and French) control of Egyptian affairs.

In the 20th century, with the outbreak of World War I, the strategic importance of the Suez Canal became even more apparent. Egypt joined the Allies, and when Turkey (aligned with the Axis) made an abortive attack on the canal, the British Foreign Office placed Egypt "under the protection of His Majesty." Ultimately, though, the British did allow the formation of Egyptian nationalist and monarchist political parties, and after the first elections were held, in 1922, independence was granted. King Fuad I was elected and for the next 30 years the British jockeyed for power and position with the two local national parties. During the Second World War, Egypt served a vital role as a British base in the Middle East. It was in Egypt (in El Alamein, not far from Alexandria) that the tide of the war was turned with the Allied defeat of the German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

After World War II, Egypt was left in chaos, especially following its defeat in the 1948 war with Israel. The Free Officers (a group of dissident military officers), led by Abdel Nasser, overthrew British-backed King Farouk on the 23rd of July, 1952 (an event now named the Revolution of 1952). Three days later, the king officially abdicated and the first independent Arab Republic of Egypt was formed.

While Abdel Nasser is remembered for many things, one of the more controversial roles he played was as one of the architects of the Nonaligned Movement. This movement sought to distance itself from the world of the Cold War, divided between the eastern and the western blocs (or First and Second Worlds). The Nonaligned Movement sought to create a third force (later known as the Third World) in world politics. Through this movement, Nasser criticized the west — criticism which combined with his increasing economic ties to eastern Europe (Russia). One immediate result was a western unwillingness to help fund the building of an important dam on the Nile River, the Aswan High Dam, one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken. The dam would create the largest reservoir in the world and be instrumental in reclaiming thousands of acres from desert.

The United States, always hesitant, ultimately withdrew funding from the project when it was revealed that the Egyptians were buying arms from the Soviets. And the Suez Crisis began. As a result and in an effort to raise money for the dam's construction, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Authority (meaning he made it an Egypt-only business, eclipsing British and French interests). Russia contributed one third of the bill. Once again, concerns were raised about maintaining access to the canal, and the British and French, anxious to maintain some control over this waterway, secretly agreed to cooperate with an attack by the Israelis, who invaded the Sinai on the 29th of October 1956. After British and French paratroopers responded by "intervening" in Port Said, the United Nations had little trouble convincing the Israeli invaders to withdraw and allow a UN peacekeeping force to remain, thus ensuring that all ships would have safe passage regardless of Nasser's actions. (The world responded with universal outrage over the attack. Condemnation of the attack was one of the only times during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the United States could agree on something.)

But enough history (until tomorrow when Ethan will bring us up to the present day), and on to the facts:

Group Dispatch, December 3–4

picture of Anthony

Our dispatch starts bright and early, December 3, with the BikeAbout crew dragging their Compaq laptops into bed with them to put the finishing touches on their dispatches. A drawing of straws the night before had determined that Ethan, Corinne, and andrEa would take a morning bus back to Cairo and our friends at inTouch for our weekly Chat 'n' Debate. At the same time, Anthony and Padraic were to research the possibility of staying in a hotel in Qantara, a small town about 40 km (25 mi) north of Ismailia, the following evening. You see, the BikeAbout team was faced with the problem of getting across the Sinai Peninsula. Normally, biking along the Mediterranean cost is not much of a reason for stress, but, for once, we were concerned about the distance. Peering at our maps, we had discovered that Ismailia and Al Arish (our next projected destination) are separated by almost 200 km (124 mi)! While the BikeAbout team is approaching near superhuman strength when it comes to biking, even 200 kilometers is stretching the limits of endurance. So we thought that if we could cover the short 40 km distance to Qantara on one day, that would leave us a long but doable day of 160 km the next. But we needed to know that there was a place to stay in Qantara.

Anthony and Padraic, after bidding bon voyage and good luck to their compatriots, headed out to do some route research. As they wandered through Ismailia, they were able to see the European influence in the construction of the city. Ismailia (named after Pasha Ismail, the ruler of Egypt during the construction of the canal) was built as the halfway point between the two seas the canal connects — the Mediterranean and the Red — and was home to thousands of workers (both European and Egyptian). After finding the tourist information office, Anthony and Padraic were forced to break out their Lonely Planet Egyptian Arabic Phrasebook and practice their Words of the Day as they tried to find a town that might have a hotel somewhere on the road to Al Arish. While the people in the tourist office were extremely friendly, it quickly became obvious that Padraic and Anthony would need to travel to Qantara to check on the hotel situation firsthand.

A 35-km (22-mi) service taxi ride to the north along the canal left Anthony and Padraic in Qantara. Qantara is the only "real" town that the team would be passing through on the way to Al Arish and staying there would cut the bike ride down from almost 200 km (124 mi) to a more manageable 165 km (102 mi). The problem was finding a hotel. Anthony and Padraic decided first to check out the area near the canal. While in the service taxi, they had been able to look out to the east and see what appeared to be ships moving through the desert. From a distance, it is impossible to see the water in the canal so the ships passing through it looked as though they were sailing on the dunes of the desert! Up close, however, the canal looks very much like a long straight river.

Hopping in a free pedestrian ferry to cross the canal, our heroes quickly became the first BikeAbouters to cross over into Asia. In East Qantara, they quickly attracted the attention of approximately 10,000 school children (note to loyal reader — avoid East Qantara at 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, unless armed with many, many sticks of gum) who followed them down the one and only street that was East Qantara. West Qantara was small, but East Qantara . . . well, lets just say that it was easy to miss, aside from all the children. After answering students' questions about their names, nationality, and ages thousands of times, Padraic and Anthony broke free and, using their phrasebook once again, inquired about hotels. Nothing.

Not daunted, the intrepid searchers crossed back to the "Dark Continent" and plunged into the depths of West Qantara. Surprisingly, they were quickly able to find the only two hotels in Qantara, but dismayed to discover that they were both full. They found this odd, as both hotels seemed to have plenty of rooms available. Luckily, an off-duty police officer arrived who spoke ten words of English and helped communicate the need for a room the following night. After 45 minutes of discussion, everything seemed to be settled. Beds were reserved for all five BikeAbouters, and 4 p.m. was set as the hour for arrival. Everything seemed to be OK, or so everyone thought . . .

Anthony and Padraic returned to Ismailia exhausted by their travels and linguistic feats. They consumed a Snickers bar and napped before rousing themselves for dinner and then an early bedtime.

Early the next morning, they were met by the returning Cairo expedition. Looking at Ethan's hair (Padraic actually shrieked in fright — it was a terrible thing to see so early in the morning) and Corinne and andrEa's dour expressions, it was obvious that they had not obtained much sleep the night before. It seems that after arriving in Cairo, journeying to inTouch and setting up camp there, editing the dispatches, downloading email, sending email, chatting and debating for two hours, up- and downloading new information, and then sending and downloading email again, they only had time for three hours of sleep (in a odd local hostel not far from the bus station) before catching the first bus back to Ismailia. Fearing for their lives, Padraic and Anthony beat a hasty retreat from the room (preferring to let angry dogs fall asleep and then remain asleep until such a time as they were more human).

With time at their disposal, they set off in search of Crocodile Lake (Lake Timsah). While they did not see any crocodiles, Anthony and Padraic did learn that Lake Timsah is one of two bitter (salt) lakes that form part of the Suez Canal. It is only one of four locations where the canal is wide enough to allow bi-directional traffic (the others being Port Said, Al-Ballah and the Great Bitter Lake). They were also fascinated to learn that there had been a proposal to build a canal during the Arab rule of Egypt long before the 18th century. Harun al Rashid is credited with being the first man to predict that a canal would be dug. At that time, though, such a canal was considered foolish since it would open up Arabia to attack from the Byzantine fleet (the British echoed some of the same concerns centuries later). For lots more history about the Suez Canal, see the Place of the Day.

Returning to the hotel at noon, Padraic (he lost the coin toss) woke the crew and everyone prepared for the ride to Qantara.

Unfortunately, the Suez Canal is still a major security zone, so we were unable to take any photos. (Well, OK, we did sneak a couple . . . shhhh. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph) Also, biking (with our police escort, see the Person of the Day) along the canal — although it was about three km (two mi) off the road — we were unable to appreciate the amount of effort that went into its construction.

After a long delay, we finally checked into our hotel in Qantara (nothing is ever that easy — when we arrived, the hotel was again "full" and no one remembered Anthony or Padraic from the day before until we went to the police station and had them check us into the hotel, which then "magically" had room), ate a monstrous dinner followed by a yummy dessert, and then went to bed at the embarrassing hour of 9 p.m. After all, we were preparing to get up very early for our longest day of riding yet: more than 160 km (99 mi)!

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