Théophile Gautier, Account of the Universal Exhibition
In 1867, Théophile Gautier wrote six accounts of the Universal Exhibition for Le Moniteur universel. The fifth article was dedicated entirely to a visit to the Suez Isthmus pavilion.

Théophile Gautier
“The Suez Isthmus”, Le Moniteur universel, no.215, Saturday, 3 August, 1867.

Let us go to Egypt again. Not far from the Arabian Okkel, where we saw the mummy, there is a kind of palace or temple whose walls are covered in hieroglyphics, with columns topped with capitals decorated with the golden masks of women and brightly painted lotus flowers.
Outside view of the Suez Isthmus pavilion (Carnavalet Museum)
©Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Degraces)
There is a small round edifice at the end of the building fitted rather like an apse onto the nave of a church. It is a small deviation from the rectilinear Egyptian architecture but all will soon be explained.

At the door, your eyes are immediately drawn to a square pillar made of a semi-transparent material. It is a block of rock salt cut from the bottom of the Bitter Lakes of the Suez Isthmus. If it had not been for the difficulty of transporting it, it could easily have been twice or even three times as big, as the layer of rock salt is so thick that they used to sculpt obelisks from it.

You go in and find yourself in a huge room lit from above and whose temperature, when the sun shines in at the windows, cannot be far from what was warming Mr de Lesseps workmen. A maharie, a white-haired racing camel, and very artistically stuffed, completes the local colour. Along the walls and in the windows are arranged examples of the small flora and fauna of the country, shells from the two seas, some fossil remains and a few small examples of antique art found when digging the canal. In the middle of the room, on a wide table, there is a model of the Suez isthmus, a strange yellow slash between the two azure seas.

Here and there, a few thin patches of green colour the sand; arid dunes undulate along the plain on the side of the Red Sea and cross that valley of Wilderness where the Tribes of Israel wandered after their exodus from Egypt. The Suez Isthmus forms a kind of dip between Africa and Asia, where the hills gradually flatten out to become almost imperceptible slopes.

Moreover, this tongue of land which connects two continents is only thirty leagues long - a mere snippet. In pre-history, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea must have been connected. At least one end of the Red Sea must have stretched into the Bitter Lakes since deep layers of salt and thick silt are to be found there.
Mr de Lesseps gives a lecture on the Suez canal which will be open in two years
This weak obstacle, this thin strip of ground only just visible on the map, has, for centuries, forced vessels to sail towards the South Pole right around the continent of Africa. The distance was so great that to the nations of Europe, India and China semed to be at the end of the world - the Far East was so far away that people almost didn't believe in it. But it was not always like this. Sesostris had the idea of joining the two seas by cutting the isthmus. But he dug his canal from the Pelusian branch of the Nile near Bubaste to near Arsinoe on the tip of the Arabian gulf. This canal, started by Sesostris and continued by Necho, Darius I and Ptolemy Philadelphus, was finished under the first of the Lagides; it was about two hundred kilometres long and ten metres deep and two triremes could pass along it side by side. Despite having to be frequently de-blocked it lasted until the eighth century when Caliph Al-Mansur ordered the opening to be blocked in order to stop trade with Baghdad. Traces of the canal can still be seen although it is now full of sand.

Sesostris’ idea was taken up again by Mr F. de Lesseps and achieved using the power of modern science. This gigantic project, conceived in 1844, is already no longer just a project. The dream is becoming reality. Only three tasks remain: a few kilometres need to be excavated on the El-Guisr plateau; the Serapeum has to be pierced; and the narrow band separating the extreme south of the Bitter Lakes from the tip of the Suez gulf must be dug. It is a job of two or three years, and then vessels will pass from one sea to the other through the ‘Bosphorus’ made by human hands.

A similar operation on the Panama isthmus, that thread holding together North and South America and blocking the passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, will allow man to circulate freely around his globe, eliminating useless, enormous, detours. We must do this soon because the planet has to be organised for the future, a future which although as yet unknown can be fairly accurately predicted, judging from great scientific discoveries which are the honour of our century.

But let us leave these thoughts, which are not suited to the passing frivolity of a stroll around the Universal Exhibition, and let us get back to our model. To the curious who enter the room, it presents itself as to a traveller arriving from India.
General view of the Egyptian Park of the Universal Exhibition of 1867: from left to right: the Suez Isthmus pavilion, the Egyptian Viceroy’s palace and the ancient temple.
©Jean-Marcel Humbert)
In front of you, to the North, you have the Mediterranean, and to the left, a section of Lower Egypt, cultivated and green, where the Nile, on its approach to the sea, divides up into branches and disappears into its delta like the top of a palm tree. Towns and villages mark this fertile region. To the right spreads the arid plain, dotted with sand hills, which the canal cuts through. Here reigns the scorching dryness of the desert and there would not have been anything else to drink except sweat, had it not been for the fresh water canal dug by the company. It goes from Zagazig and brings Nile water as far as Timsah which is nearly the half-way point of the maritime canal. The Suez Isthmus canal starts from the Gulf of Peluse and the first blow of the pickaxe broke the narrow line of sand where Port Said now stands, a completely new town created specially for the works of the company. The canal crosses Lake Menzaleh, a type of marsh or lagoon created by an overflow of the Nile and extending along the coast. A thin line of sand stretching as far as Damietta separates the stagnant water from the salt water. The bank rising from the canal forms an embankment which will soon dry the Eastern point of the lagoon where the old Peluse is, so preventing flooding from the Nile from reaching beyond it.

There are more models on other tables representing different sections of the canal and showing the powerful machines which now replace the fellahs. There are dredgers, chutes (a cross between sloping bridge and a steel roller coaster, designed for dumping the earth - torn from the bottom of the canal - as far as possible from the banks), lighters, tugboats and many sorts of amazingly specialised machines, all reproduced to such a scale that none of the detail is lost and ranged along this blue ribbon bordered by two banks of yellow sand.

On the side walls there are photographs showing the different aspects of the land and the work being done on the isthmus. Two paintings - one by Berchère and the other by Barry - show a striking contrast. In one you can see the isthmus in its natural state, scorched, beaten, barely spotted with any vegetation at all, and a picturesque barbarian caravan crossing the scene.
The Universal Exhibition of 1867. The foreign enclosure, the Egyptian temple, the mosque and the palace of the Viceroy of Egypt.
(Musée Carnavalet)
©Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Degraces)
In the other, we see the arrival of a boat for the first time in the deep hollow of the canal in the presence of a crowd of managers and engineers. The Company, which is aiming at communicating to the public the importance and difficulty of the work, have provided not only plans in relief, models of machines and photographic views, but have also - in the rotunda placed at the very end of the building - built a panorama of the isthmus which through the astute use of the magic of perspective gives an uncanny impression of reality. The panoramic view was painted by Messrs Rubé and Chaperon from drawings by M. Chapon the Company’s architect.

To get to the panorama you climb to the upper platform which is covered with canvass. Here you pass down a dark corridor. And when you suddenly emerge, the viewer is immediately struck by the sky (azure turning white from the intensity of the light). You’re straight-away transported to steamy Africa. It is as if beads of sweat are suddenly trickling down your temples after you have disembarked in Port Said from one the Messageries impériales boats. But this voyage can be completed in a much shorter time.


In the corner on the right (since the panorama is not completely circular) you see Port Said and the waters of the Mediterranean merging into the horizon. On the left you see the waves of lake Menzaleh, with its sandy beaches and myriad small islands stretching down the coast of Africa.
The Egyptian Temple: the Universal Exhibition of 1867
(Musée Carnavalet)
©Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Ladet)
You can also make out the port under construction, the blocks of cement lying out in the sun to dry before being submerged in the harbour, the white sails of the merchant harbour and, on the other side of the canal which spills into the sea, Port Said itself, the houses ranged along the banks of the canal. Lake Menzaleh swallows up the canal as it enters - all that marks its passage is the two banks made with the earth removed during the excavations.

A canal entering a lake as if it were passing between two brick walls is a strange thing in itself, but it is not the strangest of the elements in this gigantic construction. It represents a stretch of 45 kilometres - something which the panorama of course abbreviates. In one part we see the encampment at Al Quantara with its double rows of huts, its hospital on a rise and its swing bridge crossed by the Syrian caravans.

The canal leaves Lake Menzaleh and heads for the dry land - but not for long, for soon it reaches Lake Ballah, an irregular defile which over the years has either been abandoned or filled with water. Here the land rises up and forms a sort of barrier and it is called the sill of El Guisr. This sill had to be cut to allow the canal to pass through. We see the village of Ismailia, the director’s residence, and like a silver thread heading for fertile Egypt, there is the freshwater canal whose waters feed a new town. On the left the scorched, sterile sands stretch in dusty dunes towards Syria. Near to Ismailia, you can see the Arab village with its bazaar and mosque. The fact is, that in painting their panorama, Messrs Rubé and Chaperon have had to forget real proportion and to give more importance to certain points of note and to limit the amount of space given to the desert parts, which being so similar would have merely filled up large parts of the canvas to no good end.

The Serapeum - for such is the name of the piece of land which prevents the Red Sea from entering further down the isthmus - did not stop M. de Lesseps. The canal plunges through this part down to the Bitter Lakes, a vast dry basin, a valley of greyish blue, sparkling with salt and other deposits.
The Universal Exhibition of 1867
Their Imperial Majesties and the Viceroy of Egypt visiting the temple of Edfu
(Le Monde illustré )
In certain parts of the basin the deposits have taken on the forms of ruined villages or dilapidated fortresses.

This vast bowl holds the vast number of 900 million cubic metres of water, and a whole year will be required to fill it with sea water - this is planned for when all the construction work is finished. One last obstacle faced de Lesseps’s men preventing them from reaching the Red Sea - a ridge of exceptionally hard stone, stretching several kilometres in the Chalouf region and which had to be dynamited to create the appropriate gap. After this there is the Suez plain at the feet of the djebel Genessé and the last hillocks of the Attaka. The encampments of the Company workers stretch picturesquely across the sand and next to this the railway line, a thing line of metal, smoke streaming from the smoke stack at the front, passing from Cairo to Suez.

The whole of this corner of the panorama is superbly coloured. We see how the sun catches sand dunes, how the light catches a dark cloak, how azure and amethyst shadows contrast with golden and pink lights. Thus revealed, the ‘skin’ of the planet has the shining of a star, such as the earth must look in the sky when viewed from the moon.

When one leaves the rotunda, one gets the impression of having made the journey to the isthmus, of having passed from one sea to the other on the sort of steamboat which will soon make the direct trip from Marseilles to Calcutta.

Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)