by Jimmy Dunn
There seems to have always been an interest in linking the Mediterranean
and Red Seas, because such a link would greatly shorten the time
required for trade goods that would otherwise require a considerably
longer sea voyage or shipment overland. 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 A view of the Suez Canalduring
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), whose
canal can still be seen along the Wadi Tumilat. According to Herodotus,
his canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each The
mouth of the Suez Canal at Port Saidother 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
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, The very active port at Port
Said, the northern entrance to the Suez Canalbut 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 The passenger
terminal at Port Saidthat the levels between the Mediterranean Sea
and the Red 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.
Ship traffic at the Port Said mouth of the Suez CanalMost 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
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 A train and
ship along the Suez Canal at daybreak between Port Said and QantaraBellefonds
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.
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
huge bridge at Qantara between Port Said and Ismailiathe 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 Qantara
Bridge from abovewith 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.
A ship transit past Qantara heading South where a spit in the Canal
allows for two way passage. 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
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 southern Mouth of the Suez Canal at SuezThe canal had a dramatic
effect 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 Cruise Ships
horbor at Suez, the southern entrance to the Suez CanalZone, 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 One of the original houses for the enginers of the Suez
Canalof 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 Qantara 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 A large container ship enters the
Canal at Suez heading north at sunriseSuez, 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.
Patrol boats guard the entrance to the Canal at SuezImprovements
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.
For tourists, the Canal Zone makes an interesting visit, though
one need not, and really cannot traverse the whole of it except
by ship. Outside of an ocean cruise, visiting the Canal is easiest
at Suez. It can in fact be a very easy day tour, as Cairo is only
about an hour and a half away. On the other hand, it could also
be visited as part of a little longer tour, also taking in the Eastern
Desert Monasteries and some other site seeing.