It should have come as no surprise that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi chose to board the former royal yacht al-Mahrousa to inaugurate the New Suez Canal. Al-Mahrousa is one of the longest, largest and most prestigious yachts in the world, leading Sisi to deem it appropriate for the occasion, one of the biggest events in Egypt’s modern history. The president had to assume the ceremony would make international headlines, displaying Egypt’s greatness to the world.
On July 31, al-Mahrousa set sail from Alexandria for Port Said to await the Aug. 6 inauguration of the waterway's new lane. It was the first vessel to pass through it. Al-Mahrousa is the only vessel to have been present at the inauguration of both canal lanes. Khedive Ismail Pasha was on board the yacht Nov. 16, 1869, along with invited European leaders, when it became the first ship to pass through the original canal at its opening ceremony. The ship would traverse the canal again 146 years later, the first after the canal's reopening on June 5, 1975, following its closure in 1967 as a result of the June War against Israel.
Ismail had issued the decree to build Egypt's first royal yacht in 1863. He wanted to use it for a trip to Europe in 1869. The project was assigned to the British company Samuda Bros., which built the vessel on the River Thames. The Egyptian navy brought it to Alexandria in 1865.
At the time, it measured 125 meters long (410 feet), 14 meters wide (45 feet) and weighed 3,417 tons. The steam engine ran on coal. It also had paddle wheels, two smokestacks and eight Armstrong cannons and could travel at 16 knots.
The yacht’s engine room included, of course, machinery, boilers and fuel tanks. The main floor was fitted with seating, kitchens, storage rooms, a winter suite and a pharaonic hall in addition to a suite for princes and princesses. The first deck included the yacht’s bow, anchor, winches and a dining court and smoking area. The second deck consisted of the artillery emplacements, winter and summer gardens, summer pavilion and a blue lounge. It also had four lifts, including one for the private suite, and a garage.”
The yacht has unsurprisingly undergone several overhauls and renovations. In 1872, Ismail sent it to London to lengthen it to 137.5 meters (451 feet), and in 1905, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II dispatched it to Glasgow to have the side paddle wheels replaced with steam turbines. It was equipped in 1912 with a telegraph, the latest means of communication at the time. In 1919, Sultan Fuad modified the shape of its stern, increasing its length to 146 meters (479 feet).
Major improvements were made to al-Mahrousa in 1949, when King Farouk sent it to La Spezia, where the Italian company Ansaldo Energia increased its power and total tonnage and added a third deck with a walkway and rescue boats. The last upgrades were made in January 1952. Four years later, President Gamal Abdel Nasser changed the yacht's name from Mahrousa (Guarded) to al-Horria (Freedom). In 2000, its name was changed back to Mahrousa and the “al-” was added.
After arriving in Alexandria from England, al-Mahrousa's first big assignment was for military transport to quell the Cretan Revolt in Greece in 1867. It led a fleet of 10 ships after being detailed to the Egyptian fleet. Ismail used it in 1868 to attend exhibitions in Paris. The following year, he traveled to Marseille aboard it, and as noted, also opened the Suez. The khedive's last trip on board came 10 years later, to Naples, after he was ousted. Al-Mahrousa was then returned to Alexandria.
Al-Mahrousa sailed to Port Said in 1899 for the unveiling of a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, developer of the Suez Canal. In 1914, it sailed again to carry Khedive Abbas Hilmi II into exile at Astana, Kazakhstan. It remained docked there for protection until the end of World War I. In 1939, al-Mahrousa was sent to Iran for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who married Princess Fawzia, King Farouk's sister.
Al-Mahrousa’s final voyages under royal orders were in 1946 to Jeddah to transport Saudi King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to Port Fouad for an official visit and to return him to Jeddah after his 19-day stay, on Jan. 25. After the 1949 upgrades in Italy, Al-Mahrousa returned to Egypt, and following Farouk's overthrow in the 1952 revolution, it carried him into exile to Capri, Italy.
Nasser al-Kilawi, a researcher focusing on history and modern Egyptian civilization, asserted, “The yacht is a national treasure, being the oldest watercraft in the world that still maintains its luster and ability to sail. In addition, it had an essential part in the history of Egypt and accompanied its kings and leaders on important trips around the world for nearly 150 years.”
He further explained, “President Abdel Nasser took this yacht on very important trips, such as his participation in the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Indonesia, April 18, 1955, and his trip to the US on Oct. 5, 1960, to attend the Grand Peace meeting, as well as his trip to Algeria after its independence in 1962. President Anwar Sadat took al-Mahrousa on a trip to Jaffa to make peace with Israel. In 1976, the yacht sailed 12,700 nautical miles to the US to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its independence.”
Kilawi added, “Al-Mahrousa carries antique treasures, including a rare piano made in Germany especially for Empress Eugenie, Napoleon Bonaparte's wife, and presented to Khedive Ismail during the opening of the Suez Canal. [It is] a historic piece of art that is still in good condition. The yacht also has rare paintings decorating the walls of the halls, illustrating the history of Egypt since the pharaonic era until the royal one.”
The Egyptian navy also used al-Mahrousa for military operations and drills from 1955 until 1973. The yacht remained at the Ras al-Tin Palace marina in Alexandria from 2000 until its appearance in the TV show “King Farouk,” aired Sept. 13, 2007, by MBC television. The show sparked the public's curiosity, and Egyptians became interested in visiting it. In January 2008, the navy opened it to public tours.
Egyptians and government institutions alike felt it was important that al-Mahrousa sail at the opening of the new canal. To coincide with the inauguration, on Aug. 5 the army's Department of Morale Affairs released a short documentary about al-Mahrousa titled “Guarded Throughout Time.” On the same day, the Library of Alexandria released “Al-Mahrousa Yacht: A Trip With the Royal Yacht,” a photo-rich book detailing the yacht's illustrious history.