The little we know about Hippolyte Arnoux we have learned from his photographs. He was French and worked in Egypt during the 1860’s. Like many other photographers who set themselves up in the country, he succumbed to the fashion for orientalism. During that period, he produced views of the monuments in Cairo (Tombs of the Caliphs and the Citadel), photographed archaeological curiosities (The Sphinx and the Pyramids) and the street trades (The Arabian Knife Grinder and his Client, The Water Carrier, the Arabian Barber). He also composed numerous ethnographic portraits in his studio (Jewish Woman, Turkish Woman, Arabian Dancer). Others of his photographs, kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and in private collections, tell of his journeys to Aden, Jerusalem, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

    Unlike other professionals photographers resident in Egypt at the same time (e.g. Henri Béchard, Antonio Désiré Ermé, Hammerschmidt, G. Legekian, Carlo Naya, Pascal Sébah and even A. Varroquier), he chose to dedicate an important part of his production to another subject, the quintessence of modernity for the time: the Suez Canal. The Zangaki brothers, with whom he worked for a time, also chose this subject. In so doing, he inverted the usual perspective: instead of turning to the remains of the past, he turned to the promise of a great future. He photographed the piercing of the Suez isthmus and then the operation of the canal. It is this, the most original part of his work that is presented here.

    The 64 prints exhibited have been taken from the 11 albums left to the National Archives by the Association du souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du canal de Suez (Association in Memory of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal) together with the archives of the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez (Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal) ­ the volumes bear the shelf mark 153 AQ. These photographs appeared in an exhibition at the Centre historique de Archives Naitonales from the 6 November 1996 to 3 February 1997. The catalogue is still available. The selection has been made from over 250 prints on albuminous paper from glass negatives. The photographs, generally signed “Arnoux. Photographer, Port-Said”, were not dated but the subjects represented allow us to establish that they were taken between 1869 and 1890.

    Some of Hippolyte Arnoux’s photographs show us that his studio was in Port Said’s main square, Place Ferdinand de Lesseps. He also had a boat moored on the canal, where he put his dark room.

    Both the shop and the boat carried the inscription “Canal Photographer”. Arnoux sold his prints, a type of post card of the time, to tourists passing through or travellers who ventured up to the banks of the Suez Canal. Collected into albums, the Company sometimes gave these photographs to famous people. We do not know the real nature of the ties between the two commercial enterprises: did Company put orders through to Arnoux? Was the photographer subsidised by Company in some way? Was he given some help in his work? Even though there s no answer to this question to date, one thing is certain: if Arnoux was not employed by Company, there is no less proof that Company collected the his photographs and used them for advertising purposes given their aesthetic and documentary value.

    Arnoux liked straight lines for his compositions, vertical, horizontal and diagonal, and put simple, geometric shapes into his scenes against a background of sky, water or sand. The modern eye enjoys picking out certain shots where several scenes have been placed side by side.

    These views taken at regular intervals along the whole length of the canal are of undeniable documentary interest. Indeed, Arnoux provides us with invaluable documentation on all sorts of things, from the navigation conditions on the canal to the different types of steamship, from dredging techniques to the living conditions and even the development of the Suez isthmus.

    As far as the publicity element of the photos is concerned, the Company was fully aware of its impact because it exhibited a large number of photos at the Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1889. Arnoux’s shots were placed side by side with those of the Zangaki brothers and various maps and statistics displayed in the company’s pavilion. No doubt the Compagnie de Suez was determined to look after its image in 1889, just a few months after the collapse of the Compagnie de Panama with whom (in public opinion) they were closely linked.

    The Suez canal which is a little over 160 Kilometres long, connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. It greatly shortens the maritime link between Europe and the Far East by cutting off the route round the Cape of Good Hope. Inaugurated in November 1869, this new navigation route soon altered the traffic of international commerce in its entirety.

    After some difficult early years during which the traffic level was way below that projected, the number of ships crossing the Suez isthmus stopped increasing. The reasons for the initial hesitation to use the canal were force of habit but also the frequency of ships running aground. In 1870, despite guides in the employ of the Company going on board the ships to advise the captains in their manoeuvres, a third of ships ran aground during the crossing. That year, the average time it took to travel along the canal was forty-eight hours: seventeen hours actually to travel along the canal ­ at the canal speed limit of 10 Km/h ­ eighteen hours in mooring at night, five hours of mooring when passing other boats and ten hours for running aground.

    Boats using the Suez isthmus are mainly fall into one of three categories: postal steamers, liners and commercial ships. From 1870 to 1889, there was a constant increase in ship tonnage and the number of passengers travelling along the canal. During this period, over 40,000 ships passed along it, three-quarters of these being British. France, a long way behind Britain, representing 7% of the traffic, was the second biggest client of the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez. After France there was the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Austria, each representing 3% of the traffic.

    In 1882, even the most optimistic projections were surpassed: an average of 9 boats arrived per day. This, of course, led to an increase in the total time needed for boats to get through the canal. Nevertheless, the work carried out in the following years plus the authorisation to travel by night reduced the crossing time from 53 to 24 hours in 1890, despite a continuing increase in the amount of traffic.

    Arnoux’s photographs reveal the diversity of steam ships that sailed on the canal. They also show the smooth flow between the desert dunes.

    At the heart of the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez and alongside the transit service there was a works service which looked after the upkeep of the water route and its surroundings as well as its adaptation to shipping requirements. The constant development of naval construction and the desire to improve the sailing conditions along the canal have led to the establishment of series of successive work programmes. Even recently, the canal had to be adapted to accommodate large petrol tankers. This has earned the Suez canal the name “continuous creation”.

    The first important step in this continuous improvement came in 1884 when an international consultative commission met in Paris to establish an initial programme of work aimed at facilitating shipping in the canal. Most importantly, it provided for the widening of the navigable channel from 22 to 37 meters, its deepening to 8.5 meters, the straightening of some sharp corners and the protection of the banks by metalling. In the same period, it was decided to dig a canal for fresh water , called the Abassieh canal, which joined with the Ismaïlieh canal, coming from the Nile, at Ismaïlia and which went on to Port Said. The aim was to replace the double channel of cast iron pipes which had previously fed the town.

    The cutting of the Suez isthmus (1859-1869), was the first time in the history of civil engineering that the steam-powered bucket dredger was used intensively and systematically. The dredging machines used for the expansion work looked like the first machines but were much more powerful. The dredgers were built in Marseilles by the Société des forges et chantiers de la Méditerranée (the Forge and Depot Company of the Mediterranean) and shipped to Port Said in pieces where they were reassembled in the Company’s workshops.

    By providing the possibility of seeing these important machines which reflected the advanced technology of the time, Arnoux revealed the importance of French techniques in Egypt. Above all, he implied how important the Company’s efforts were in trying to improve the conditions of transit and customer satisfaction. Sometimes, workmen would pose by their machines. But do not be mistaken, they were only there as supporting actors, used by the photographer as a handy way to give a sense of scale to the machines, not to show how the work was done.

    The Company dealt with the digging and running of the canal across the Suez isthmus, but things did not stop there. Together with the participation of the Egyptian government, the Company transformed what was previously desert into a new Egyptian province. According to a witness at the time of the digging, the Company “had to colonise at the same time as canalise”. In fact, what the Company did in the Suez isthmus included creating transport infrastructures, providing water conveyance, assuring telegraph lines, running a postal service, building encampments, founding of towns, and constructing buildings and road.

    In order to meet the needs of a considerable work force, the first job was the construction of a fresh water canal, extended from the Ouady Canal. This brought Nile water to the centre of the isthmus and then on to Suez. As for the Northern part of the isthmus, this was fed with pipes going from Ismaïlia to Port Said. Encampments and towns were also created, the only place existing before the development being the small village of Suez. This is how Kantara, El Guisr, El Ferdane, Port-Said, Ismaïlia and Port Thewfik came into being.

    All named after Egyptian viceroys, these towns lived at the pace of the canal, each with its own personality. On the Mediterranean, Port Said is an industrial and commercial port. Half way between Port Said and Suez, on the edge of Lake Timsah, Ismailia is the administrative centre of the Company and where the top managers lived. As for Port Thewfik, at the time of the inauguration of this water route, it was no more than a small collection of buildings on the outskirts of the old town of Suez. Ismailia, on the other hand, held the promise of a great future thanks to its position at the intersection of the fresh water, navigation and maritime canals. But at the end of the 19th century, it was the port towns of Port Said and Port Thewfik which grew and prospered. In 1890, there were nearly 40,000 inhabitants at Port Said.

    The photographer’s eye lingers on the Company’s creations and social infrastructures which it put into place in these towns: plantations, employee housing, hospitals, etc. The Europeans brought their way of life with them when setting up in the Suez isthmus and nowhere does this transfer of civilisation seem more advanced than in Ismailia where here and there seem to have fused.

    So, consciously or unconsciously, Arnoux put the beauty of his photographs to the service of one of the largest enterprises ever undertaken in the Middle East. These pictures also served the Company’s interests by creating reassuring and strong images, showing how peaceful and easy the crossing was but also by showing work that had to be admired and which exalted the company’s stature. And Arnoux did not hesitate to play on the contrasts, showing powerful visions of the traditional next to the modern, potent images of the familiar West set against the foreign, the exotic Orient.

Nathalie Montel