Suez Canal: Through Dr. José Rizal’s Eyes

POSTED: Friday, February 22nd, 2013

What an international buzz the Suez Canal created in 1868 at the opening ceremony!!! The Egyptian Pasha pulled all the stops.  The guest of honor was Empress Eugenie, Napoleon’s wife.

The effect on the Philippines was overwhelming. The voyage from Manila to Spain which normally took 4 to 5 months, now averaged about a month. The so called “filibusteros” of 1872 (the Three Martyred Priest, Burgos, Gomez, Zamora) would have been saved had they self-exiled themselves via the Suez Canal to Spain, where the environment was more liberal than in the colony.  Many illustrious Filipino families like Pardo de Taveras took advantage of the Suez opening and emigrated to Paris and Spain.

Many sons of well-to do Filipinos were sent to Madrid to study and become lawyers (Paternos, Lete; doctors (Pardo de Tavera, Apacible, Cabangis;  artists (Luna,  Resurrecion, Figueroa); writers, (Sanciango, Lopez Jaena, del Pilar);  musicians, (Calero), residents, skilled workers, and many more. The Suez Canal passage made the trip easy, affordable and worthwhile.

It was not one-way though. Many Spanish functionaries were assigned to posts in the Philippines to enlarge the Peninsulares’ population in Manila. Communication and liberal ideas from Europe flowed more freely to the islands.

Rizal left Manila on May 3rd and was at the Suez Canal Port Authority on June 2nd. His first trip abroad, he was like the proverbial bull in a porcelain shop. He noted everything. He sketched the scenery. He was loquacious and full of self-importance. He traveled First Class! He mailed postcards to friends and sent long letters to his parents at every sea-mail stop. He fed his daily journals with descriptive observations and factoids!!!

It’s not straight throughout its length; it has curves but small ones; sometimes it flows into a lake where it is believed Moses passed, and again enters the desert.  It crosses three lakes in its course.  On both banks, which are all yellow and white, where it is a real jewel to find grass, are erected some telegraph stations placed at several intervals.  (p. 18, Letters Between Rizal and Family Members, 1876-1896. NHI, 1962).

He wrote about people, animals, food, phenomenon.

We have seen a traveler on a camel and two magnificent Arabian horses.  One of these, mounted by a customs officer attracted the attention of everybody.  


In my re-tracing of Rizal’s footsteps, the Suez  I experienced was different. Instead of the mounted customs officers on Arabian horses I noted Army soldiers standing hawk-eyed along the canal.  It was  the end of August and I was caught up in the Arab Spring revolution in Cairo that brought Mubarak’s fall  as president of Egypt.  Everyone on the Canal was on security watch.

Egyptian military forces guard post at the bri...II
Army sentry on the Canal.

I was unfortunately an unwilling participant in the Alexandria demonstration, having been swept into the throng.  I thought I was evading a street riot by docking into a street alley by the mosque.  Wrong turn!

Rizal made his readers’ mouth water by the various fruits he tasted  in Suez:

Here I have tasted cherries, apricots, and green almonds.


Rizal was extremely taken by witnessing a curious spectacle, a mirage:  in his own words…the reflection on the desert of seas and islands that do not exist.


In my re-tracing of José Rizal’s Suez, the only camels I noted were dressed with tassels and draped with colorful Bedouin woven cloth saddles to attract tourists for a photo-shoot.

I did sample their green almonds. Great taste, a little bit tart but makes one chew with character (kasi ma-asim).  I came during the season for dates (August).  It was also the beginning of Ramadan when I arrived Suez.  That meant all the devout were on fast from sunup to sundown.  However, this is what I learned that Rizal failed to document: When Muslims break their fast, they sip a glass of water first and the first bite of solid food they take is a date fruit.  It is fresh, and very sweet, ensuring that a sugar-packed natural energy food is taken in first.

However, I admit that Rizal has the last word here.  He said he ate a fruit named dates!

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