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The Modern Wonder of the Suez Canal


The Suez Canal

Suez Canal

There seems to have always been an interest in linking the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Most of the early efforts were directed towards a link from the Nile to the Red Sea, thus indirectly linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through the Nile. Strabo and Pliny record that the earliest effort was directed by Senusret III, but no evidence that there was an actual canal built exists.The earliest efforts may have actually occurred at the command of Seti I or Ramesses II during the 13th century BC.


According to the Chronicle of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton, under Necho II (610-595 BC) a canal was built between the Pelusian branch of the Nile and the northern end of the Bitter Lakes (which lies between the two seas) at a cost of, reportedly, 100,000 lives. However, over many years, the canal fell into disrepair, only to be extended, abandoned, and rebuilt again. After having been neglected, it was rebuilt by the Persian ruler, Darius I (522-486 BC), who's canal can still be seen along the Wadi Tumilat. According to Herodotus, his canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and that it took four days to navigate. He commemorated the completion of his canal with a series of granite stelae set up along the Nile Bank.

This canal is said to have been extended to the Red Sea by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC), abandoned during the early Roman rule, but rebuilt again by Trajan (98-117 AD) Over the next several centuries, it once again was abandoned and sometimes dredged by various rulers for various but limited purposes. Amr Ibn el-As rebuilt the canal after the Islamic takeover of Egypt creating a new supply line from Cairo, but in 767 AD, the Abbasid caliph El-Mansur closed the canal a final time to cut off supplies to insurgents located in the Delta. Of course, over time, ships grew in size and so the ancient attempts to connect the two seas would not have worked anyway today.

The first efforts to build a modern canal came from the Egypt Expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hoped the project would create a devastating trade problem for the English. Though this project was begun in 1799 by Charles Le Pere, a miscalculation estimated that the levels between the Mediterranean Sea and the Read Sea were too great (estimating that the Red Sea was some ten meters higher than that of the Mediterranean Sea) and work was quickly suspended.

Then, in 1833, a group of French intellectuals known as the Saint-Simoniens arrived in Cairo and they became very interested in the Suez project despite such problems as the difference in sea levels. Unfortunately, at that time Mohammed Ali had little interest in the project, and in 1835, the Saint-Simoniens were devastated by a plague epidemic. Most of the twenty or so engineers returned to France. They did leave behind several enthusiasts for the canal, including Ferdinand de Lesseps (who was then the French vice-consul in Alexandria) and Linant de Bellefonds

In Paris, the Saint-Simoniens created an association in 1846 to study the possibility of the Suez Canal once again. In 1847, Bourdaloue confirmed that there was no real difference in the levels between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and it was Linant de Bellefonds that drew up the technical report. Unfortunately, there was considerable British opposition to the project, and Mohammed Ali, who was ill by this time, was less than enthusiastic.

Suez Canal, Egypt

However, Pasha Said was very open to European influence, and in fact, was a childhood friend of Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who ended up founding the La Campagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal) in 1858 to build the canal. This was a private company, which would build the canal under an agreement allowing it to operate the canal for 99 years, after which it would revert to Egyptian government ownership.

The pilot study estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth would have to be moved, including 600 million on land, and another 2,013 million dredged from water. The total original cost estimate was two hundred million francs.

When at first the company ran into financial problems, it was Pasha Said who purchased 44 percent of the company to keep it in operation. However, the British and Turks were concerned with the venture and managed to have work suspended for a short time, until the intervention of Napoleon III. Excavation of the canal actually began on April 25th, 1859, and between then and 1862, the first part of the canal was completed. However, after Ismail succeeded Pasha Said in 1863, the work was again suspended. After Ferdinand De Lesseps again appealed to Napoleon III, an international commission was formed in March of 1864. The commission resolved the problems and within three years, the canal was completed. On November 17, 1869 the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached and waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea.

The total original cost of building the canal was about $100 million, about twice its original estimated coast. However, about three times that sum was spent on later repairs and improvements.

The completion of the Suez Canal was a cause for considerable celebration. In Port Said, the extravaganza began with fireworks and a ball attended by six thousand people. They included many heads of state, including the Empress Eugenie, the Emperor of Austria, the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Prussia and the Prince of the Netherlands. Two convoys of ships entered the canal from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia. Parties continued for weeks, and the celebration also marked the opening of Ismail's old Opera House in Cairo, which is now gone.

The canal had a dramatic affect on world trade almost from the time it was opened, and even on world politics. Now, it was much easier for European nations to penetrate and colonize Africa.

Because of external debts the British government purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests, namely those of Said Pasha, in 1875, for some 400,000 pounds sterling. Yet France continued to have a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888 (The Convention of Constantinople), the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war. Nevertheless, Britain considered the canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests. Therefore, the provisions of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed Britain to maintain a defensive force along the Suez Canal Zone. However, Egyptian nationalists demanded repeatedly that Britain evacuate the Suez Canal Zone, and in 1954 the two countries signed a seven-year agreement that superseded the 1936 treaty and provided for the gradual withdrawal of all British troops from the zone.

By June 1956 all British troops had departed, and Egypt took over the British installations. Nevertheless, various conflicts caused the closure of the canal for intermittent periods.

Unfortunately between the Suez Crisis and later wars, the canal was damaged extensively and was not operated for several year after 1967. However, on June 5th, 1975, the canal was again opened, and since then has been updated and enlarged.

The canal stretches over 100 miles (163 kilometers) from Port Said and the Mediterranean Sea to Suez and the Red Sea and, along with other such projects, changed the face of maritime world trade.

The famous Canal (Translated from Arabic as Qana al-Suways) of the modern era is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern record. At its narrowest point, it is about 300 meters wide (197 feet) at the bottom. It is wide enough to allow ships having a a maximum draft of 16 meters (53 feet). The canal can accommodate ships as large as 150,000 dead weight tons fully loaded.

The Canal is really not wide enough to allow two way passage of ships, but there are several passing bays, and areas where ships may pass each other in the Bitter Lakes and between Qantarah and Ismailia. There is also a railway that runs the entire distance of the canal.

The Suez Canal has no locks, because the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Suez have roughly the same water level. Actually, the canal does not stretch continuously from one sea to the other. It really consists of two parts each flowing into the bitter lakes which lies between Port Said and Suez, and it also uses the waters of Lake Manzilah and Lake Timsah.

Three convoys transit the canal on a typical day, two southbound and one northbound. The first southbound convoy enters the canal in the early morning hours and proceeds to the Great Bitter Lake, where the ships anchor out of the fairway and await the passage of the northbound convoy. The northbound convoy passes the second southbound convoy, which moors to the canal bank in a by-pass, in the vicinity of El Qantara. Egypt's Suez Canal Authority (SCA) reported that in 2003 17,224 ships passed through the canal. The canal averages about 8% of the world shipping traffic. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours at a speed of around 8 knots. The low speed helps prevent erosion of the canal banks by ship's wakes.

Improvements are planned to allow supertanker passage though the canal by 2010. Presently, supertankers can offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned boat and reload at the other end of the canal.


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Last Updated: August 21st, 2011

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