Suez Canal History and Overview

Connecting the Red Sea With the Mediterranean

Cargo ship passing through the Suez Canal

Frederic Neema/Getty Images

The Suez Canal, a major shipping lane through Egypt, connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea. It officially opened in November 1869.

Construction History

Although the Suez Canal wasn't officially completed until 1869, there is a long history of interest in connecting both the Nile River in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

Pharaoh Senusret III is thought to be the first to connect the Mediterranean and Red seas by digging connections through branches of the Nile River in the 19th century BCE. Those eventually filled with silt.

Various other pharaohs, the Romans and possibly Omar the Great built other passageways over the centuries, but those, too, yielded too disuse.

Napoleon's Plan

The first modern attempts to build a canal came in the late 1700s when Napoleon Bonaparte conducted an expedition to Egypt.

He believed that building a French-controlled canal on the Isthmus of Suez would cause trade problems for the British as they would either have to pay dues to France or continue sending goods over land or around the southern part of Africa.

Studies for Napoleon's canal plan began in 1799 but a miscalculation in measurement showed the sea levels between the Mediterranean and the Red seas as being too different, causing fear of flooding the Nile Delta.

Universal Suez Ship Canal Company

The next attempt occurred in the mid-1800s when a French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support building a canal.

In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was formed and given the right to begin construction of the canal and operate it for 99 years, when the Egyptian government would take over control. At its founding, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was owned by French and Egyptian interests.

Construction of the Suez Canal officially began on April 25, 1859. Low-paid forced Egyptian labors using picks and shovels did the initial digging which was extremely slow and painstaking. This was eventually abandoned for steam- and coal-powered machines that quickly finished the work.

It opened 10 years later on November 17, 1869, at a cost of $100 million.

Significant Impact on World Trade

Almost immediately, the Suez Canal had a significant impact on world trade as goods were moved around the world in record time.

Its initial size was 25 feet (7.6 meters) deep, 72 feet (22 meters) wide at the bottom and between 200 feet and 300 feet (61-91 meters) wide at the top.

In 1875, debt forced Egypt to sell its shares in ownership of the Suez Canal to the United Kingdom. However, an international convention in 1888 made the canal available for all ships from any nation to use.

Conflicts Over Use and Control

A few conflicts have arisen over the use and control of the Suez Canal:

  • 1936: The United Kingdom was given the right to maintain military forces in the Suez Canal Zone and control entry points.
  • 1954: Egypt and the United Kingdom signed a seven-year contract that resulted in the withdrawal of British forces from the canal area and allowed Egypt to take control of the former British installations.
  • 1948: With the creation of Israel, the Egyptian government prohibited the use of the canal by ships coming and going from the country.

The Suez Crisis

In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced the country was nationalizing the canal to help finance the Aswan High Dam after the United States and the United Kingdom withdrew support from funding.

On October 29 of that same year, Israel invaded Egypt and two days later Britain and France followed on grounds that passage through the canal was to be free. In retaliation, Egypt blocked the canal by intentionally sinking 40 ships.

The Soviet Union offers to back Egypt militarily, and eventually, the Suez Crisis is ended with a United Nations-negotiated cease fire.

A Truce and Later Egypt Takes Control

In November 1956, the Suez Crisis ended when the United Nations arranged a truce between the four nations. The Suez Canal then reopened in March 1957 when the sunken ships were removed.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Suez Canal was closed several more times because of conflicts between Egypt and Israel. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, 14 ships that were in passage in the canal became trapped and could not leave until 1975 because both ends of the canal were blocked by sunken boats on either side of the canal. They became known as the "Yellow Fleet" for the desert sand that accumulated on them over the years.

In 1962, Egypt made its final payments for the canal to its original owners (the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company) and the nation took full control of the Suez Canal.

101 Miles Long and 984 Feet Wide

Today, the Suez Canal is operated by the Suez Canal Authority. The canal itself is 101 miles (163 kilometers) long and 984 feet (300 meters) wide.

It begins at the Mediterranean Sea at Point Said, flows through Ismailia in Egypt, and ends at Suez on the Gulf of Suez. It also has a railroad running its entire length parallel to its west bank.

The Suez Canal can accommodate ships with a vertical height (draft) of 62 feet (19 meters) or 210,000 deadweight tons.

Most of the Suez Canal is not wide enough for two ships to pass side by side. To accommodate this, there is one shipping lane and several passing bays where ships can wait for others to pass.

No Locks

The Suez Canal has no locks because the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea's Gulf of Suez have approximately the same water level. It takes around 11 to 16 hours to pass through the canal and ships must travel at low speed to prevent erosion of the canal's banks by the ships' waves.

The Significance of the Suez Canal

In addition to dramatically reducing transit time for trade worldwide, the Suez Canal is one of the world's most significant waterways as it supports 8% of the world's shipping traffic. Almost 50 ships pass through the canal daily.

Because of its narrow width, the canal is also considered a significant geographic chokepoint as it could easily be blocked and disrupt this flow of trade.

Future plans for the Suez Canal include a project to widen and deepen the canal to accommodate the passage of larger and more ships at one time.

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