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Crossing Egypt

Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, travellers to India and Australasia, like so many ancient traders before them, passed through Egypt on the ‘Overland Route’.

The desert crossing was an arduous one. Disembarking their steamer at Alexandria, early P&O passengers continued their journey in cramped canal boats before joining a caravan of horse-drawn carriages across 150 miles of desert.

Lieutenant Thomas Waghorn had pioneered this route for the mails and it was certainly more suited to post than people. In the 1840s P&O and Arthur Anderson had taken steps to improve the journey with the addition of: a Nile steamer, new carriages, rest houses (15 in all), horse stations, carts, landing places and wharves, all provided with assistance of the Egyptian ruler, Pasha Ishmail. But it was in the 1850s that the real progress was made with the railways. The first section, Alexandria to Cairo service opened in 1854 reducing the travel time across the desert by almost a day. By the end of the decade the railway ran all the way to Suez, where P&O had its own ‘transit’ hotel. Passengers were quick to appreciate the improvements in the journey, but it was some time before the Government allowed the mails to cross Egypt by rail too.