The Suez canal
1. History of the Suez Canal
A. Historical overview
The idea of building a canal in Egypt to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by using the branches of the Nile, dates from the time of the Pharaohs. Sesostris or Senusret III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1874 BC) was the first to dig a canal. Because of silting, the project was abandoned and re-started several times during different periods: Sity I canal around 1310 BC, Necho II canal around 610 BC, Darius I canal around 510 BC, Ptolemy II canal around 285 BC, the Roman canal around 117 AD and the Amir El-Moemeneen canal around 640 AD
In modern times, in 1798, during Napoleon's expedition to Egypt the French sent several engineers (Jacques-Marie Le Père) to study the possibility of piercing the Isthmus of Suez. In the 1820's the Saint-Simonians (followers of Claude Henri de Saint-Simon) planned a ship canal, using the engineering skills of Linant Bellefonds (former naval officer and engineer in charge of the works of Upper Egypt) and later of Ferdinand de Lesseps.
In 1846, the leader of the Saint-Simonians, Prosper Enfantin, created a research company to develop the project. In 1847, Louis-Maurice Linant Bellefonds, a brilliant French engineer working in Egypt, made a full technical study on the feasibility of piercing the isthmus. An earlier study, presented to the Egyptians in 1833, had not been taken up by Mehemet Ali, Egypt's Viceroy.
A survey during Napoleon's campaign had shown a clear difference in altitude (of about ten metres) between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This difference was in fact due to an error of triangulation made in Jacques-Marie Le Père's report. The new survey by Paul-Adrien Bourdaloue showed that the difference was actually almost minimal, so the canal could be made without locks.
B. The concept of the Suez Canal and its construction
After incessant efforts and numerous journeys, on November 5th 1858 De Lesseps created the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (the Suez Canal Company) with its headquarters in Alexandria and administrative headquarters in Paris. On November 30th 1854, the Viceroy of Egypt granted Ferdinand de Lesseps a 99 year concession, allowing him to pierce the Isthmus of Suez and create a route between the Mediterranean and Red Sea. At the end of the 99 years, the canal would become the property of Egypt.
To supervise the site and manage the finance, De Lesseps created the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, which, using Linant Bellefonds and Alois Negrelli's plans, began digging the Canal in 1859. Although the project was plagued by disagreements with the British, it was completed in 1869.
Subscriptions for the canal's construction were offered in the major countries of the world and shares were originally split as follows: French subscribers 52%, Egyptian viceroy 44% (which were subsequently sold to the British government); other shareholders 4%. It has been estimated that 1.5 million Egyptians worked on the construction of the Canal and that 125,000 died during its digging, mainly of cholera.
On February 17th 1867 the first ship went down the canal, but the official opening didn't take place until November 17th 1869 in the presence of the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, and the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. At its inauguration, the Suez Canal measured 162 km by 54 metres wide and 8 metres deep. Linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, it enabled travellers from London to get to Bombay without going right round the entire African continent. The British took control of the canal and kept it until President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956.
“Les vaisseaux du désert 1ere partie / le canal de Ferdinand” (Ships of the Desert / Ferdinand's canal)
“Les vaisseaux du désert / tempête sur le canal” (Ships of the desert / storm over the canal)
C. What were the reasons for digging the Suez Canal ?
With rights over the waters along its coast, and its strategic position between Africa and Asia and between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, Egypt became a key player in maritime transport thanks to the Suez Canal.
The desire to create projects around the Mediterranean shows the important economic and geopolitical issues at stake. The English for example were opposed to the canal's construction because they feared French domination of a highly strategic region on the route to India. They preferred their project of building a railway through Egypt. On several occasions the English did manage to stop work on the canal which threatened to compete with them: once in October 1859 with the help of the Ottoman Finance Minister, Muktar Bey, and another time when Said Pasha died. The construction continued thanks to the insistence and personal intervention of Napoleon III. The episode is a good example of Franco-British rivalries in the region and shows the canal was built for varying reasons and for interests that were international as well as national.
D. The canal's status since its opening until the present
On October 29th 1888, the Convention of Constantinople declared the canal a neutral zone, enabling all ships to use it without exception, whatever their nationality, in times of peace as well as war. The Convention also appointed the British to protect the canal. But during the next sixty years, especially during the two world wars, the Convention was not always respected by the protector nation.
On July 26th 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced his plan to nationalize the Suez Canal and to freeze all the assets of the Compagnie universelle du Canal de Suez. His decision came after Britain and the United States had refused to co-finance the construction of the Aswan Dam. Nasser's decision caused an international crisis because both France and England made profits on the canal tolls.
“Le Canal de Suez et la nationalisation par le colonel Nasser” (The Suez Canal and nationalisation by Colonel Nasser)
On October 31st 1956, Great Britain and France joined Israel to attack Egypt and thus, they hoped, guarantee free passage through the canal. DOCUMENT “Cessez le feu en Egypte”
The conflict ended on November 6th under pressure from the U.S. and the USSR.
On October 13th 1956, the United Nations Security Council offered Egypt a compromise reaffirming the right of free passage through the Canal without direct or indirect discrimination. On April 24th 1957, the Egyptian government approved the compromise.
After the Six Day War of 1967, the canal was closed. A UN peacekeeping force remained in place until 1974 and in June 1975, after 8 years, the Canal was finally re-opened.
But it was not until March 26th 1979, when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in Washington, that Egypt lifted its ban on Israeli ships passing through the Canal.
1. History of the Suez Canal
2. Opening celebrations for the...
3. The Suez Canal Authority
4. The Suez Canal
5. The Suez Canal Collection at...
The idea of building a canal in Egypt to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by using the branches of the Nile, dates from the time of the Pharaohs. Sesostris or Senusret III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1874 BC) was the first to dig a canal. Because of silting, the project was abandoned and re-started several times during different periods: Sity I canal around 1310 BC, Necho II canal around 610 BC, Darius I canal around 510 BC, Ptolemy II canal around 285 BC, the Roman canal around 117 AD and the Amir El-Moemeneen canal around 640 AD...
El Sahn Marwa
Doctor in Information & Communication Sciences, Manager of Multimedia Department at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.