You might have heard a lot recently about the Egyptian Suez Canal, when the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the channel and halted international naval traffic for almost a week in March of 2021. So let me take you on a journey of a different kind to the Suez Canal and its National Museum. In the city of Suez, about two car hours northeast of the capital Cairo, you can learn about the history of the canal and the ships that sailed the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in the past. It is one of the easily missed gems among the many Egyptian museums, but absolutely worth your time if you are in the area.
If you imagined Egypt as being high and dry, Suez National Museum might convince you otherwise. Located in the city of Suez at the mouth of the equally named canal that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, it seems obvious that the Suez National Museum will provide a lot of information about ancient seafaring. No wonder that the first thing that will catch your eye on approaching the museum is a huge ship sitting in a pool in front of the concrete block (pictured above) that is the museum building. The building reminded us of Soviet era architecture (it is not that old, though).
After entering through the iron gate, visitors are standing in front of the extant fragments of one of the famous stone stelae that marked the route of the ancient Suez channel in the 5th century BCE. The restored stela is tucked in next to the staircase that leads into the imposing building.
To this day it remains unclear who exactly was the first pharaoh to undertake the monumental task to connect the Red Sea with Wadi Tumilat in the Nile delta and thus the Mediterranean, but a first, albeit unfinished phase of this mega project has been attributed to one of the kings named Sesostris by Aristotle (4th century BCE) as well as medieval Arab historians. Archaeologists have excavated Middle Kingdom remains that strengthen the notion that there was activity along the route in the 2nd millennium BCE. At the latest under the Persian / Achaemenid 27th Dynasty (6th-5th century BCE) a channel was successfully dug through the desert from the Red Sea to the northwest. This occasion was commemorated under King Darius I by these monumental stone stelae which were erected at several points along the channel. In subsequent periods, however, the channel silted up. It had to be re-excavated under Ptolemy II. The re-excavations were once again commemorated in stone. Fortunately, Ptolemy’s II stela, dated to 264 BCE, is much better preserved and can be seen in the first exhibition hall of the upper floor.
On the upper level, visitors can marvel at thousands of years of naval history (among other things). The new Suez National Museum was inaugurated in 2011 and the quality of the display shows this recent overhaul. If you understand Arabic, you can find a video on the construction of the new museum on their webpage: https://www.suezmuseum.eg/gallery .
Ambient lighting accentuates the splendid display as a statue of Senwosret III welcomes us. Could he be the Sesostris mentioned by Aristotle? Also: don’t comment on his ears, he might hear you! These first few rooms exemplify the importance of boat traffic, transportation, and trade for the ancient Egyptians, their deities, and their rulers. You can see boat graffiti from the earliest periods as well as boat models that helped people navigate their afterlives, but also the excavated wooden parts that built the basis for reconstructing the ship moored outside. Where the labels accompanying the objects aren’t enough, more information on the original usage of the artefacts is given in large scale wall pictures above or next to the displays. These images show, for instance, the placement of the excavated boat fragments on the hull or the transport of ceramic vessels on a trade ship.
Visitors also sail through time as they go through the rooms on the upper floor and end up in the Arabic era. The centerpiece of those last rooms is the Mahmal palanquin that transported the Kiswah curtains for the Ka’aba, which were woven in Egypt until 1962, from Cairo to Mekka.
Having finished the Descending into the belly of the museum, visitors are once again moving backwards in time to be confronted with mortality as the downstairs rooms are - fittingly - dedicated to the exploration of death and the afterlife of ancient Egypt. They house more marvelous pieces of burial equipment, sculpture, and, of course, more model boats.
Unfortunately, now it is time to leave the museum. Nonetheless, you might sport a wide grin just like the ruby-lipped colossus that wishes you farewell.
Address: 23rd of July Street, Houd El-Ders, Port Tawfik, Suez Governorate
Prices and opening hours:
Ticket prices are subject to change by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. At most museums, there is a cheaper ticket for Egyptians/Arabs and one slightly more expensive ticket for other foreign nationals. Therefore, you might be asked for your passport. We went in August 2021 when the foreigner ticket cost 80 Egyptian Pounds (EGP), which came out at around 6 US Dollars, per person. Be sure to have cash on you.
If you have the opportunity to call the museum beforehand, do so, since the opening hours might vary from what you can find online, especially if you come during Ramadan or national holidays. You can ask your hotel or host to help you if you don’t speak Arabic. We went on a random Friday and for an undisclosed reason the museum closed at 2 pm not at 5 pm as stated online.
There is an extra fee to take photos. It was 50 EGP when we went. Videography might not be permitted. Ask for permission at the entrance if you plan to record video.
There is an elevator and the upper floor was decently wide, but using a wheelchair downstairs might prove difficult. The bathrooms did not seem wheelchair accessible and there are a few steps on the way to the lowest level and the elevator. There might be a way to get in from the back and bypass the steps, but if so that was not shown to us (we also weren’t visiting with a wheelchair user).
The museum is easily accessible to those who read Arabic or English. Very small children might sometimes be too short to see the display, but most objects should be visible from a height of ca. 1.30 m and above.
During the Coronavirus pandemic you might be asked to wear a mask inside.
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Elisabeth Koch is a Ph.D. student in Iranian Studies and Egyptology at University of California, Los Angeles. She is particularly interested in ancient religions and their interactions. Wherever she travels, Elisabeth tries to explore heritage sites and museums. If not in a museum or library, you can find her on Twitter talking about a variety of topics, including past, present, and future @ElisabethKoch01.