Antiquity                      Middle Ages                      Ottoman period                  19th & 20th century photography

The modern era

under Mohamed Ali

1. “Interview with Mehemet Ali in his Palace, Alexandria, 12 May 1839”, David Roberts, Egypt & Nubia, London, 1846-1849, v. 3, pt. 1. Collection J.-Y. Empereur. © CEAlex Archives

2. to 4. Drawings of Alexandria circa 1820 by Pascal-Xavier Coste, an architect and engineer from Marseille (1787-1879). Collection Pascal Coste © Bibliothèque de Marseille à vocation régionale, L’Alcazar

In 1805, Mohamed Ali became viceroy of Ottoman Egypt. He hoped to transform Egypt into a modern state and gain independence for the country. Thanks to the restoration of the canal connecting with the Nile and the development of the Western Harbour into a modern industrial port, the small seaside town of Alexandria once again became a major port city. The flourishing economy, especially of cotton, attracted many foreign traders, and the Ottoman town on the peninsula soon became too small. The restoration of the Western Harbour (Old Port), 10 km wide as far as Cape Agami, and the canal quays near the locks, encouraged the creation of new districts on the site of the abandoned medieval town. The Eastern Harbour (New Port), smaller and difficult to access, became a haven of fishermen and lost all military interest.

“ View of the New Port of Alexandria, July 1819”, drawing by Pascal-Xavier Coste, architect and engineer from Marseille (1787-1879). Collection Pascal Coste. © Bibliothèque de Marseille à vocation régionale, L’Alcazar

With the creation of the Frankish quarter and its various European-style residences, cosmopolitan Alexandria once again became an important destination for travellers. The viceroy’s welcome at the palace of Ras el-Tin was a must for explorers venturing into Egypt, following in the footsteps of Bonaparte’s expedition.


Champollion tells of his arrival in Alexandria in 1828


Georg Gustav Erbkam, member of the expedition led by Carl Lepsius arrives in Alexandria, 1842

The modernisation of the harbours


The Western Harbour

Chart of Alexandria’s two harbours, drafted by Le Saulnier de Vauhello in 1834 and partially updated in 1856, showing certain elements of the first phase of works in the Western Harbour (Ras el-Tin lighthouse and arsenal) © BnF

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Western Harbour underwent a succession of developments in tandem with the city’s commercial growth. In 1912, Basile Malaval (1861-1928) and Gaston Jondet (1866-1957), French engineers from the Ports and Lighthouses Department, retraced the major stages of the work in their book Le port d’Alexandrie.

  • 1829-1865: the arsenal, Ras el-Tin lighthouse, floating dock;

  • 1870-1880: creation of the inner harbour by Linant de Bellefonds, with breakwaters, the coal jetty and inner harbour quays;

  • 1890-1903: the Boghaz pass, lighthouses of Mex, quay K;

  • 1904-1910, among many projects: widening and lengthening of coal jetty, wood jetties, quarantine station, creation of the Great Pass, safe mooring for lighters and small sailboats.

In 1921, the port of Alexandria ranked second in the Mediterranean after Marseille and Genoa in terms of the annual tonnage of goods landed (coal, wood, iron) and shipped (cereals, cotton, onions, etc.).

1. Sections of the new quays in the Western Harbour: quarantine jetty, quay M and wood jetty. Detail from B. Malaval, G. Jondet, Le port d’Alexandrie, Cairo, 1912, vol. plates, pl. 15 © Collection C. Shaalan

2. The arsenal of Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century. Collection L. Borel © CEAlex Archives

3. General view of the Western harbour from the north: Ras el-Tin Palace to the left, centre-right the arsenal buildings (rope factory). Collection L. Borel © CEAlex Archives

4. Plan of the Alexandria arsenal development project, with legend, presented by Lefébure de Cérisy in 1829. From A.-B. Clot-bey, Aperçu général sur l’Égypte, Vol. 2, Paris, 1840 © CEAlex Archives

Louis-Charles Lefébure de Cérisy (1789-1864), a French naval engineer, was hired by the viceroy to build two frigates in Marseille and he left for Egypt in 1829. Cérisy Bey was subsequently appointed chief engineer of the Egyptian navy and accomplished a considerable amount in six years: construction of the arsenal in Alexandria’s Western Harbour, with construction slipways, workshops, warehousing, a rope factory of remarkable size, the building of ten 100-gun ships-of-the-line, frigates and corvettes and all the associated equipment. All this was enough to make Egypt the seventh naval power in the world in 1835, when Cérisy returned to France. His work was continued until 1841 by another French engineer, Dieudonné Eugène Mougel (1808-1890).
A street in the old Greek Quarter was named Cérisy (now rue Dr Hussein Hassab) in memory of this founder of the Alexandria arsenal and builder of the Egyptian fleet.

The modern lighthouses of the Western Harbour. Base map and photos from B. Malaval, G. Jondet, Le port d’Alexandrie, Cairo, 1912, vol. plates, pl. 24 / vol. text, ap. p. 48 © Collection C. Shaalan. CAD C. Shaalan

Five centuries after the destruction of the ancient Pharos, modern lighthouses appeared on the Alexandrian coast. No fewer than six were built between 1842 and 1907 at the entrance to the Western Harbour, five of which still stand today.
The first, located at the western tip of Ras el-Tin peninsula, was built in 1842 by Mohamed Mazhar Pasha and entered into service in 1848. At Mex, two lighthouses were built in 1890-1891 and began operating in 1894 to facilitate entrance to the port via the Boghaz Pass. In 1907, the “little lighthouse” at Mex was replaced by a new one 250 m to the east, when a wider and deeper channel (the “Great Pass”) was dug.
These lighthouses have been modernised and given new colours. While the old little lighthouse of Mex, a landmark building in Alexandria with its wooden pontoon, is no longer in use, four others are still operational.


The Eastern Harbour

The green band signifies land reclaimed from the sea along the Eastern Harbour after work to create the Corniche at the beginning of the 20th century. Base map, Mahmoud Bey el-Falaki, 1865. Collection J.-Y. Empereur © CEAlex Archives. CAD C. Shaalan

The outline of the Eastern Harbour was significantly altered at the beginning of the 20th century with the creation of the Corniche. This change was part of a general reorganisation and modernisation of the town that had been underway since the 1890s. Decided on in 1897 and completed by 1907, the development work smoothed out the irregularities of the Eastern Harbour shoreline over a distance of 4 km, from Qaitbay Fort to the tip of Silsileh. After laying a large sewer, backfilling and building the waterfront quay, parcels of land were reclaimed from the sea. However, as there was no breakwater to fully protect this part of the coast, urban development was slow to take off. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that the “wastelands” were transformed into built-up lots.
From the 1920s to the present day, the Corniche has been an important symbol of the city.

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