The Mesmerising Story of Egypt’s Suez Canal, the World’s Most Important Artificial Waterway
Updated On: September 07, 2023
Like the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Karnak Temple in Luxor and the Abu Simbel Temple in Aswan, like mesmerising Sharm el-Sheikh and downtown Cairo, like beans, falafel and koshary, and every match for the Egyptian national football team in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 African Cup of Nations, the Suez Canal is one of the countless astounding hallmarks of Egypt that earned it even more worldwide vitality and recognition and became a huge turning point that completely transformed its entire economy and politics.
Since it connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal provides a shortcut for all the ships coming back and forth between Asia and Europe instead of going all the way around the west coast of Africa, historically known as the Cape Route. The canal has had a massive impact on worldwide trade, saving tremendous amounts of money and allowing goods to reach the markets in a shorter time, only nine days compared to 22 days through the Cape route.
What makes the Suez Canal even more vital is that it is impossible to connect Europe to Asia except through an artificial waterway in this very region, which has proved a significant commercial privilege for Egypt. In 2021 alone, for instance, over 20,600 vessels, with an average of 56 vessels per day, passed through the canal.
That is why when the 220,000-tonne Taiwanese Ever Given container ship ran aground in the canal in March 2021, the whole world was concerned about the delay such a misfortune would cause and how severe its consequences would be on the markets, given that over 360 other vessels were waiting in vain in the bitter lakes for their turn to pass through and continue toward their destinations.
Although Egypt succeeded in the near-impossible mission of refloating the cargo ship and the navigation in the canal went back to normal in only a week, the consequences of the delay could barely be contained, and even Egypt sued the shipping company.
While the Suez Canal is just as profound as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the iconic Karnak Temple in Luxor, the historic downtown Cairo, and every match for the Egyptian national football team in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 African Cup of Nations, little is known about its history, how it came into being or what kind of impact it has had on Egypt.
So here is how the story of one of the world’s most important artificial waterways goes.
Senusret II (∼1897 BC)
Although the Suez Canal was constructed in 1869, the idea for building such a passage to link the Mediterranean with the Red Sea goes as far back as ancient Egypt, with credit for the idea given to the Pharaoh Senusret II, who came to power in 1897 BC and ruled during the 12th Dynasty.
The only difference is that all the attempts, the failures as well as the successful ones, to build such a link did not directly connect both water bodies. Throughout tens of centuries, many canals were dug between the Red Sea and the River Nile, which is in turn connected to the Mediterranean through the Damietta and Rosetta branches, where the former empties into the latter.
Amr ibn al-‘As (∼641)
After the Muslim Conquest of Egypt, which was led by Amr ibn al-‘As in 641, a canal connecting Old Cairo, through the Nile, to the Red Sea at what is now Suez City was built.
During that time, Arabia suffered extreme food scarcity due to severe drought, so Caliphate Umar ibn al-Khattab ordered the rulers of all the Muslim states to send grains to Arabia, which they did. Given that the land route was so long and extremely strenuous, the caravans took so long.
So either Amr ibn al-‘As or Umar himself, no one is sure, suggested building such a waterway between the Nile and the Red Sea. It would tremendously reduce the time needed to travel from Egypt to Arabia and therefore Arabia did not have to worry about any famine in the future. The canal would also ease the pilgrimage for Egyptian Muslims.
Instead of travelling by land for months and months, now boats would carry people and goods and reach the Holy Land in only five days and way less hassle.
The construction work for the new canal started immediately and was completed in only six months. The canal was named the ‘Amir-ul-Momineen Canal’ or the ‘Canal of the Commander of the Faithful’. It was 111 kilometres and connected Egypt’s new Muslim capital at the time, Fustat, with the Red Sea.
Excited that the new project paid off almost instantly, Amr had a new suggestion to build a canal directly connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, a vertical one this time. Yet, when Umar learned about it, he opposed the idea. He feared that building such a direct link from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea would give the enemies straightforward access to Egypt.
Unlike its predecessor, the new suggestion was turned town.
Sokollu Mehmed Pasha (∼1570)
The same idea came up to the surface once again sometime in the 16th century as a suggestion from the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. It was primarily to help the Ottoman Empire tighten its grip when the Black Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean would all become connected.
However, for financial reasons this time, the project was rejected again.
When he started the French Campaign in Egypt (1798-1801), Napoleon had already brought tens of scholars to study everything about Egypt from ancient times to the 18th century, the work of whom resulted in the Description of Egypt. When the idea for the Suez Canal again popped up, he thought thoroughly about it and asked his scholars to make the necessary measurements to see how feasible this canal would be.
Not even Napoleon was destined for the honour of building the Suez Canal. Due to some errors in the measurements, it was concluded that there was an eight-metre sea level difference between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Consequently, a canal between them would necessarily require using locks to raise and lower the boats and make up for that difference. This false notion made Napoleon reject the idea altogether, for it was too costly.
Ironically, the difference in the sea level turned out to be only 24 centimetres which would require no locks whatsoever!
Ferdinand de Lesseps (1856)
Yet, the Suez Canal idea was more persistent.
In 1846, the Société d’Études du Canal de Suez was established in Paris to study whether or not building the Suez Canal was possible and feasible. In the same year, the society found evidence that there was almost no sea level difference between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. That removed the need for any locks.
In other circumstances, such a discovery would have led to the immediate construction of the Suez Canal. Yet, it was Britain this time that ceased the project, for it was concerned about its trade in India. So it convinced the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Egypt, to reject the project, and the Suez Canal remained just an idea for some more years.
In 1854, the ruler of Egypt, Abbas Helmy I, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s grandson, was assassinated and succeeded by Sa’id I. The latter was an acquaintance of the former French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps who served as the French consul in Cairo in the 1830s. De Lesseps was in touch with the Société d’Études du Canal de Suez and genuinely believed in the Suez Canal idea.
So he took advantage of his friendship with Sa’id I Pasha and convinced him with the idea, the thing that ended with the latter signing a concession giving de Lesseps the authority to create a company to fund, build and manage the Suez Canal.
The Sa’id I’s concession stated that the company would operate the canal for 99 years from its opening date, after which the canal would become a complete Egyptian property. It also noted that the Egyptian government would receive about 15% of the net annual profit.
That was on 30 November 1854.
After profound research led by de Lesseps himself, a detailed description and the entire plan for the new canal was produced in 1856 and just awaited execution. The Suez Canal Company was created in 1858 under the name The Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez. The company, indeed, was universal, given that it was divided into 400,000 shares, each with the cost of 500 Francs. The shares were unevenly distributed between Egypt, France and other European investors.
At first, the Egyptian government bought 92,136 of the 400,000 shares, while the French investors bought a little over 200,000 shares. That left some 85,506 shares for investors from Britain, Austria, Russia and the United States. For some reason, they did not buy the shares, and Egypt ended up taking a loan of 28 million Francs with a tremendously high interest to buy the shares, as advised by de Lesseps himself. At that point, Egypt owned 177,642 shares of 44% of the company’s capital, with a value of 89 million Francs.
The construction of the Suez Canal officially started in April 1859 under the eyes of the British government and despite its desperate opposition and fear of losing its prominent control over the trade routes with Asia, especially India.
According to some records, over 1.5 million people from different countries were hired to build the canal, with more than 30,000 people working on-site at any given moment. Although that was about the same time as the industrial revolution, huge digging machinery was not yet invented, apparently, and workers did dig the canal manually. This led to thousands of workers losing their lives either from overwork or disease.
The Suez Canal was completed in early November 1869, and a huge lavish opening ceremony was organised on the 15th, hosted by the new ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail. About 6000 guests from all over the world were invited to the ceremony, most notably the French Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Eugene. The ceremony started from Port Said in the north, where a vast parade of 78 ships carrying the guests entered the canal and sailed all the way to the southern end at Suez City.
During his reign, Ismail started a series of intensive reforms and developments that placed a huge financial burden on Egypt and the country eventually fell into colossal debt. To pay it off, Ismail sold Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Company, 44%, to the British government, which opened the door for British intervention in Egyptian affairs.
Ismail was removed in 1879 and the British invaded Egypt under the request of the new Khedive, Tawfik, who could not deal with the Urabi Revolt that broke out in 1881, which they found a great chance to protect their financial interests in the country.
Although the French still had the majority of the shares, 56%, the British took full control of the Suez Canal and tightened their grip on it as time went by. During World War I and II, the canal became strategically important, and the British fiercely defended it to suppress any attack from the Central and Axis powers.
Gamal Abdul Nasser (1956)
The Suez Canal stayed under British control until President Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power. He, too, started a series of huge changes and reforms to rebuild the newly declared republic of Egypt, on top of which was forcing the British out in June 1956.
Among his top plans, Nasser wanted to control the Nile’s flooding, increase agricultural production and produce more hydroelectric power, which required building the High Dam in Aswan. At first, the United States and the United Kingdom offered to finance the project. Yet, at the time, amidst the Cold War, Nasser was showing an increasing interest in the Soviet Union, which eventually led the US and the UK to break their financial promises.
Nasser responded to such betrayal by nationalising the Suez Canal Company on 26 July 1956, whose entire profit from then on would go to Egypt. This way, he could finance the High Dam, which was completed in July 1970.
The Suez Crisis
Both France and Britain were taken by surprise, and their loss of the Suez Canal Company totally outraged them, so they attacked Egypt in October 1956. Israel also attacked Egypt as a result of Nasser closing the Strait of Tiran to all Israeli ships.
So Israel started by attacking Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and advanced toward the Suez Canal on 29 October 1956. When Egypt responded by engaging militarily, France and Britain entered the war with the pretext of protecting the stability of the region yet all they wanted was to regain control over the canal and suppress Nasser’s government, who was very clearly going to cause them a lot of trouble.
This war is known as the Suez Crisis.
Huge international condemnation caused the three countries to withdraw from Sinai, and the invasion did not last more than a month. After that, Egypt retrieved its control over the Suez Canal.
But it did not end there. On 5 June 1967, Egypt underwent another attack by Israel, whose forces spread all over Sinai. This forced Nasser to block the canal and completely stop navigation. Egyptians were on the canal’s west bank while the Israelis were on the east, with neither of them making a serious move until 1973.
I hear you mumbling about why Egypt did not counter-attack and seize the canal again.
Well, the situation was super complicated, especially with both the US and Soviet Union getting involved. The memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was still vivid, and everyone feared a nuclear war would break out in the Middle East.
One of the many difficulties, for instance, that delayed Egypt’s attack was that crossing the canal was pretty suicidal. Israel had managed to build a massive chain of 21-metre-tall sand fortifications known as the Bar Lev Line right on the east bank of the Suez Canal. Not only would they open fire on the Egyptians if they tried to cross the canal, but even if the Egyptians did make it to the west bank, the Bar Lev Line would give the Israelis enough time to request reinforcement.
Egypt attacked on 6 October 1973, managed to cross the canal, opened tunnels in the Bar Lev Line using high-pressure water pipes, and transferred their tanks to Sinai. And to make a long and complicated story short, Egypt won the war, reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula and retrieved complete control over the Suez Canal, which was reopened for navigation in June 1975 and has been under Egyptian authority ever since.
The Suez Canal is one great landmark that has transformed Egypt since its construction. While you surely can go on a day tour in the Suez Canal, countless other stunning attractions are waiting to provide you with the best vacation ever. So if you still have not decided where you are going next, do not think twice and start packing for Egypt.