Suez Canal Opens - History

Suez Canal Opens - History

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On November 17, 1869 the Suez Canal opened to traffic. The canal linked the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It was 103 miles long and it brought Oriental ports 5,000 miles closer to Europe. Work had begun on the canal in 1859. It was financed primarily by French investors. The canal increased the strategic importance of Egypt to European powers.

9 Fascinating Facts About the Suez Canal

1. Its origins date back to ancient Egypt.
The modern Suez Canal is only the most recent of several manmade waterways that once snaked their way across Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh Senusret III may have built an early canal connecting the Red Sea and the Nile River around 1850 B.C., and according to ancient sources, the Pharaoh Necho II and the Persian conqueror Darius both began and then abandoned work on a similar project. The canal was supposedly finished in the 3rd century B.C. during the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and many historical figures including Cleopatra may have traveled on it. Rather than the direct link offered by the modern Suez Canal, this ancient �nal of the Pharaohs” would have wound its way the through the desert to the Nile River, which was then used to access the Mediterranean.

2. Napoleon Bonaparte considered building it.
After conquering Egypt in 1798, the French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte sent a team of surveyors to investigate the feasibility of cutting the Isthmus of Suez and building a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. But following four separate excursions to the region, his scouts incorrectly concluded that the Red Sea was at least 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean. Any attempt to create a canal, they warned, could result in catastrophic flooding across the Nile Delta. The surveyors’ faulty calculations were enough to scare Napoleon away from the project, and plans for a canal stalled until 1847, when a team of researchers finally confirmed that there was no serious difference in altitude between the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

3. The British government was strongly opposed to its construction.
Planning for the Suez Canal officially began in 1854, when a French former diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps negotiated an agreement with the Egyptian viceroy to form the Suez Canal Company. Since Lesseps’ proposed canal had the support of the French Emperor Napoleon III, many British statesmen considered its construction a political scheme designed to undermine their dominance of global shipping. 

The British ambassador to France argued that supporting the canal would be a “suicidal act,” and when Lesseps tried to sell shares in the canal company, British papers labeled the project 𠇊 flagrant robbery gotten up to despoil the simple people.” 

Lesseps went on to engage in a public war of words with British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, and even challenged railway engineer Robert Stephenson to a duel after he condemned the project in Parliament. The British Empire continued to criticize the canal during its construction, but it later bought a 44 percent stake in the waterway after the cash-strapped Egyptian government auctioned off its shares in 1875.

4. It was built using a combination of forced peasant labor and state-of-the-art machinery.
Building the Suez Canal required massive labor, and the Egyptian government initially supplied most by forcing the poor to work for nominal pay and under threat of violence. Beginning in late-1861, tens of thousands of peasants used picks and shovels to dig the early portions of the canal by hand. Progress was painfully slow, and the project hit a snag after Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha abruptly banned the use of forced labor in 1863. 

Faced with a critical shortage of workers, Lesseps and the Suez Canal Company changed their strategy and began using several hundred custom-made steam- and coal-powered shovels and dredgers to dig the canal. The new technology gave the project the boost it needed, and the company went on to make rapid progress during the last two years of construction. Of the 75 million cubic meters of sand eventually moved during the construction of the main canal, some three-fourths of it was handled by heavy machinery.

5. The Statue of Liberty was originally intended for the canal.
As the Suez Canal neared completion in 1869, French sculptor Frຝéric-Auguste Bartholdi tried to convince Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to let him build a sculpture called 𠇎gypt Bringing Light to Asia” at its Mediterranean entrance. Inspired by the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, Bartholdi envisioned a 90-foot-tall statue of a woman clothed in Egyptian peasant robes and holding a massive torch, which would also serve as a lighthouse to guide ships into the canal. The project never materialized, but Bartholdi continued shopping the idea for his statue, and in 1886 he finally unveiled a completed version in New York Harbor. Officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the monument has since become better known as the Statue of Liberty.

The opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869 (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

6. Its creator later tried𠅊nd failed—to build the Panama Canal.
Having silenced his critics by completing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps later turned his attention toward cutting a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in Central America. Work began in 1881, but despite Lesseps’ prediction that the new canal would be �sier to make, easier to complete, and easier to keep up” than the Suez, the project eventually descended into chaos. Thousands died during construction in the sweltering, disease-ridden jungle, and the team burned through nearly $260 million without ever completing the project. 

The company finally went belly up in 1889, triggering a massive scandal that saw Lesseps and several others—including Eiffel Tower designer Gustave Eiffel, who had been hired to design canal locks𠅌onvicted of fraud and conspiracy. It would take another 25 years before the Panama Canal was finally completed in a decade-long, American-led construction project.

7. The canal played a crucial role in a Cold War-era crisis.
In 1956, the Suez Canal was at the center of a brief war between Egypt and the combined forces of Britain, France and Israel. The conflict had its origins in Britain’s military occupation of the canal zone, which had continued even after Egypt gained independence in 1922. Many Egyptians resented the lingering colonial influence, and tensions finally boiled over in July 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, supposedly to help fund a dam across the Nile River. 

In what became known as the Suez Crisis, a combined British, Israeli and French force launched an attack on Egypt in October 1956. The Europeans succeeded in advancing close to the canal, but later withdrew from Egypt in disgrace following condemnation from the United States and the threat of nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of the scandal, and the Suez Canal was left under Egyptian control.

Sunken ships during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis (Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

8. A fleet of ships was once stranded in the canal for more than eight years.
During June 1967’s Six Day War between Egypt and Israel, the Suez Canal was shut down by the Egyptian government and blocked on either side by mines and scuttled ships. At the time of the closure, 15 international shipping vessels were moored at the canal’s midpoint at the Great Bitter Lake. They would remain stranded in the waterway for eight years, eventually earning the nickname the “Yellow Fleet” for the desert sands that caked their decks. 

Most of the crewmembers were rotated on and off the stranded vessels on 3-month assignments, but the rest passed the time by forming their own floating community and hosting sporting and social events. As the years passed, the fleet even developed its own stamps and internal system of trade. The 15 marooned ships were finally allowed to leave the canal in 1975. By then, only two of the vessels were still seaworthy enough to make the voyage under their own power.

9. In 2015, the canal got a huge overhaul.
For years the canal was hampered by its narrow width and shallow depth, which were insufficient to accommodate two-way traffic from modern tanker ships. In August 2014, Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority announced an ambitious plan to deepen the canal and create a new 22-mile lane branching off the main channel. The expansion opened in 2015, providing ships with a 22-mile channel parallel to the newly deepened main waterway. 

The improvements, however, were not enough to preventਊਁ,300-foot਌ontainer ship from becoming wedged𠅊nd stuck—in the canal as it traveled from China in March 2021. The ship਋locked more than 100 ships at each end of the vital shipping artery for nearly a week, causing major disruptions to global commerce.

Canal of the Pharaohs: The Forerunner to The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal may be a marvel of modern engineering, but there is nothing modern about digging canals. Navigable waterways have been dug since ancient times, even across deserts in Northern Africa. The Suez Canal is only the most recent of these manmade waterways that once snaked their way across Egypt. Dug under the patronage of different Egyptian pharaohs under different time periods, they connected—unlike their modern version—the Red Sea with the Nile River.

According to Aristotle, the first attempt to dig a canal connecting the Red Sea and the Nile River was made by the legendary Egyptian Pharaoh Sesostris (who could either be Senusret III of the 12th Dynasty, circa 1800 BC, or Ramesses II of the much later 19th Dynasty, circa 1200 BC). Aristotle also notes that construction of the canal was stopped when the pharaoh discovered “that the sea was higher than the land”. The pharaoh feared that opening the Nile River to the Red Sea would cause the salty sea water to flow back into the river and spoil the Egyptian’s most important source of hydration.

According to Greek historians Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, after Sesostris, work on the canal was continued by Necho II in the late 6th century BC, but he did not live to see the canal completed. Later, Darius the Great picked up from where Necho II left, but like Sesostris, he too stopped short of the Red Sea when he was informed that the Red Sea was at a higher level and would submerge the land if an opening was made. It was finally Ptolemy II who finished the canal connecting Nile with the Red Sea. According to Strabo the canal was nearly 50 meters wide and of sufficient depth to float large ships. It began at the village of Phacusa and traversed the Bitter Lakes, emptying into the Gulf or Arabia near the the city of Cleopatris.

Route of the modern Suez Canal. Image: NCERT

However, according to Herodotus, the canal was completed by Darius and that it was wide enough for two triremes to pass each other with oars extended. By Darius's time a natural waterway passage possibly existed between Bitter Lakes and the Red Sea, but it had become blocked with silt. Darius, employing a vast army of slaves, cleared it out so as to allow navigation once again. Darius was so pleased with the results and with himself that he left several inscriptions on pink granite boasting of this accomplishment. One of these inscription discovered in the mid-19th century read: 

King Darius says: I am a Persian setting out from Persia I conquered Egypt. I ordered to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. Therefore, when this canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.

In the late 19th century, another stela called the ‘Stone of Pithom’ provides evidence that Ptolemy constructed a navigable lock, with sluices, at the Heroopolite Gulf of the Red Sea, which allowed the passage of vessels but prevented salt water from the Red Sea from mingling with the fresh water in the canal. There is evidence that in ancient times the Red Sea and its Gulf of Suez extended as far northward as the Bitter Lakes of Egypt. The Red Sea has gradually receded away over the centuries, with its coastline slowly moving southward away from Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake, so that two hundred years later, the eastern end of the canal that opened in the Red Sea became chocked with silt.

The canal existed in one form or the other up to the 8th century, until it was closed shut by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur in 767 to prevent his enemies and rebels from using the canal to ship men and supplies from Egypt to his detractors in Arabia. Lack of maintenance caused the canal to slit up and it disappeared into the desert and from people’s memory as well.

The Suez Canal in 1869. Engraving from "Appleton's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art", Wikimedia Commons

The canal was rediscovered by Napoleon in 1798 during the French campaign in Egypt and Syria. Napoleon had its motives to search for the canal, because if the canal could be reconstructed it would allow France to monopolize trade with India. With this design Napoleon instructed his chief civil engineer, Jacques-Marie Le Pére, to make a topographical survey of the Isthmus of Suez while looking for vestiges of the ancient canal. Le Pére and his fellow engineers were able to follow and eventually trace the “Canal of the Pharaohs” from the Red Sea all the way to the Nile. Later, when Napoleon became the Emperor, he asked his chief engineer to find a way to reopen the canal, but Le Père, like his predecessors two thousand years ago, erroneously reported to Napoleon that the Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean, and locks would be needed to prevent a catastrophic mingling of waters.

Construction of the Suez Canal wouldn't begin until fifty years later in 1859. Excavation was conducted using forced labor, just like under the pharaohs. Some sources estimated that tens of thousands of laborers died from diseases such as cholera and other epidemics, although a conservative estimate puts death at fewer than 3,000. The canal has no locks, for the sea level is the same. Its route, unlike the “Canal of the Pharaohs” goes through the isthmus passing through the Great Bitter Lakes northward until it opens in the Mediterranean near the port city of Suez.

Suez Canal Opens - History

The Suez Canal, which opened on 17 November 1869 after a decade-long construction, is an artificial waterway that cuts across the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt to connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. [1] The canal greatly reduced the time needed for vessels to sail from Europe to Asia, as they did not have to make the long journey around the African Cape. [2] The shorter travelling time, along with other factors such as the greater usage of steamers rather than sailing ships, led to an increase in trade between Europe and Asia. [3] This development could be seen in Singapore’s trade figures: total trade volume reached $71 million in 1870, a year after the canal was opened, up from only $39 million the year before. The trade boom would continue throughout the 1870s, and by 1879, the colony’s total trade volume was valued at $105 million. [4]

To facilitate the sudden increase in commerce, especially via steam shipping, Singapore began to shift its port activities from Boat Quay to New Harbour (renamed Keppel Harbour in 1900) located at Tanjong Pagar. [5] The number of vessels visiting the wharves at New Harbour rose from 99 steamers and 65 sailing ships in 1869 to 185 steamers and 63 sailing vessels three years later. By 1879, the numbers had increased to 541 steamers and 91 sailing ships. [6] Other than the congestion at Boat Quay, a key reason for the relocation of port activities to New Harbour was the better facilities there as well as the deep-water berths, which were more suitable for steamers. [7] The wharves at New Harbour also enabled bunkering and facilitated cargo-handling, regardless of the tidal phase. [8]

The growth of New Harbour following the opening of Suez Canal led to the eventual development of the Tanjong Pagar area. New roads such as Anson Road and Keppel Road, as well as a tram line, were constructed to improve the movement of goods and people between the harbour and the city. [9] Furthermore, part of the commercial centre began to move towards the harbour, resulting in an expansion of the town area in the direction of Tanjong Pagar as well as the reclamation of Telok Ayer Bay in 1887. [10]

1. Hoskins, H. L. (1943, July). The Suez Canal as an international waterway. The American Journal of International Law, 37(3), 373–374. Retrieved from JSTOR Dobbs, S. (2003). The Singapore River: A social history, 1819–2002 (p. 10). Singapore: Singapore University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.57 DOB-[HIS].
2. Dobbs, 2003, p. 10.
3. Dobbs, 2003, p. 10.
4. Bogaars, G. (1955, March). The effect of the opening of the Suez Canal on the trade and development of Singapore. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 28(1), 99–101. Retrieved from JSTOR.
5. Dobbs, 2003, pp. 10–11.
6. Bogaars, Mar 1955, p. 128.
7. Dobbs, 2003, pp. 10–11.
8. Dobbs, 2003, p. 10.
9. Bogaars, Mar 1955, pp. 133–134.
10. Bogaars, Mar 1955, pp. 135–136.

The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Watch: Ships resume sailing through Suez Canal after Ever Given removed

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the backlog could be cleared within a week, said Laleh Khalili, an international politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

But that’s not where the delays will end.

There is likely to be congestion at European ports where many of the ships are headed, Khalili added. That bottleneck could last several months, Jan Hoffmann, an expert with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, said at a news briefing Tuesday.

Port backlogs will then determine when containers on the delayed ships can be emptied before being refilled with other goods bound somewhere else.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

“Today’s four- or five-day delay is a four or five-day delay — in a couple of weeks time — for someone else trying to move a box from elsewhere,” said John Mangan, professor of marine transport and logistics at England’s Newcastle University.

Recent months have seen a significant spike in global freight rates as both production and consumption rebounded from their pandemic lows as the global economy began to recuperate, Mangan said.

That means any delays will come at a significantly higher cost.

Some goods on the delayed ships may also now be spoiled or time-constrained — intended to arrive by Easter, this Sunday, for example — and could thus be worthless.

“The timing of this is absolutely horrendous,” Mangan said. “The only thing worse, I guess, would be if it had happened maybe at Christmas time.”

Insurance and legal claims from companies whose vessels have been delayed and whose shipments have been disrupted are likely to rumble on for some time to come, according to maritime arbitrator Jeffrey Blum.

“I reckon we won't see the end of this for several years yet, because the knock-on effect is so vast,” Blum said.


Business Delay on Suez Canal could cripple already struggling auto industry

Europe and Asia are in line to be most affected by the consequences of the blockage, said Michael Roe, emeritus professor of maritime and logistics policy at England’s University of Plymouth.

The impact on the United States would likely be limited and indirect, he said.

However, some goods crossing through the canal may have been destined for ports in the northeastern U.S., Khalili said.

U.S. manufacturing that relies on components produced in places affected by the Suez blockage could also be touched.

“Because of the global nature of supply chains, things manufactured in the U.S. will take spare parts from Europe, and vice versa,” Mangan said. “We call it ‘supply chain contagion’ — the idea of an effect in one place very quickly impacting another location.”

That issue was clearly on some minds in the White House as news broke of the Ever Given being refloated.

"Just another reminder of how imperative it is to ensure the resilience of our supply chains going forward," the director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, said on Twitter.

Suez Canal Opens - History

In preparing the following article for the Victorian Web I have pieced together discussions from entries entitled “canals” in volume 4 and “Suez” and “Suez Canal” in volume 22. Since the Hathi Trust text version of these pages in the Britannica article was garbled — words and partial sentences from the left column mixed with the right and vice versa — I have used ABBYY OCR (optical character recognition) software to create the following transcription. In addition, I have added paragraphing far easy reading and added a cropped map from another edition of the Britannica . George P. Landow

From the 1881 The Encylopædia Britannica . Plate 36 in volume IV. Click on images to enlarge them.

he Suez Canal, one of the most remarkable engineering works of modern times, bears little resemblance to the works we have described under that name, for it has neither locks, gates, reservoirs, nor pumping-engines, nor has it, indeed, anything in common with canals, except that it affords a short route for sea-borne ships. It is, in fact, correctly speaking, an artificial strait or arm of the sea, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, from both of which it derives its water-supply and the fact that the two seas are nearly on the same level, and the rise of tide very small, allowed this construction to be adopted.

The opening of the canal to a great extent revolutionized the main lines of international traffic. It was indeed a great achievement to reduce the distance between Western Europe and India from 11,379 to 7628 miles, equal, according to Admiral Richards and Colonel Clarke, R.E., to a saving of thirty-six days on a voyage. Moreover, it has restored to the Mediterranean countries a share in the commerce of the world such as they have not possessed since the beginning of the modern period. In doing so it has naturally caused the decay of certain stations (such as St. Helena on the ocean highways previously in vogue.

The canal extends from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, and that, as shown by the section, it traverses a comparatively flat country. This route has been selected so as to take advantage of certain valleys or depressions which are called lakes, but were in fact, previous to the construction of the canal, low-lying tracts of country, at some places below the level of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. These valleys were found to be coated with a deep deposit of salt, and are described as having had all the appearance of being covered with snow, bearing evidence of their having been at one period overflowed by the sea. As will be seen from the plan, Lake Menzaleh is next to the Mediterranean, Lake Timsah about half-way across the isthmus, and the Bitter Lakes next to the Red Sea. Lake Timsah, which is about 5 miles long, and the Bitter Lakes, about 23, were quite dry before the cutting of the canal, and the water which has converted them into large inland lakes was supplied from the Red Sea and Mediterranean.

Planning and Financing the Canal

M. de Lesseps’s many years of planning and negotiation realized what were thought the dreams of commercial speculators, by carrying out the long-desired passage between the two seas. But the postponement of the scheme unquestionably favored the chances of its commercial success, for had the canal been completed even a few years earlier, comparatively few vessels would have been found to take advantage of it. Masters of sailing-vessels would not from choice have navigated the Med iterranean and encountered the passage through the canal and the tedious and difficult voyage of the Red Sea. But the introduction of ocean-going screw-steamers was an entirely new feature in navigation. Being independent of wind for their propulsion, and being admirably fitted for navigating narrow straits and passages, their rapid and general adoption by all the shipping firms in the world afforded not only a plea but a necessity for the short communication by the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

From 1849 to 1854 he [Lesseps] was occupied in maturing his project. In the latter year Mahonet Saïd Pasha became viceroy of Egypt, and sent at once for M. Lesseps to consider with him the propriety of carrying out the work. The result of this interview was, that on the 30th of November a commission was signed at Cairo, charging M. Lesseps to constitute a company named ‘The Universal Suez Canal, Company.’ In the following year, 1855, M. Lesseps, acting for the Viceroy, invited a number of gentlemen, eminent as directors of public works, as engineers, and distinguished in other ways, to form an International Commission for the purpose of considering and reporting on the practicability of the scheme. The Commission met in Egypt in December, 1855, and January, 1856, and made a careful examination of the harbors in the two seas, and of the intervening desert, and arrived at the conclusion that a ship canal was practicable between the Gulf of Pelusium in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea near Suez.

They differed, however, as to the mode in which such a canal should be constructed. Based upon an 1830 report by the English General Chesney, which mistakenly stated that the Mediterranean and Red Seas has a 30-foot difference, the three English engineering members of the Commission were of opinion that a ship canal, having its surface raised 25 feet above the sea-level, and communicating with the Bay of Pelusium at one end and the Red Sea at the other, by means of locks, and supplied with water from the Nile, was the best mode of construction. The foreign members, on the contrary, held that a canal having its bottom 27 feet below sea-level, from sea to sea, without any lock, and with harbors at each end, was the best system,-the harbors to be formed by piers and dredging out to deep water. The Commission met at Paris in June, 1856, when the views of the English engineers were rejected, and the report to the Viceroy recommended the system which has since been carried out.

Two years from the date of this report were spent in conferences and preliminary steps before M. Lesseps obtained the necessary funds for carrying out the works. About half the capital was subscribed on the Continent, by far the larger portion being taken in France, and the other half was found by the Viceroy. Further time was necessarily lost in preparation, and it was not till near the close of 1860 that the work was actually commenced.

The work thus commenced steadily proceeded until 1862, when the late Viceroy, during his visit to this country at the time of the International Exhibition, requested Sir John Hawkshaw to visit the canal and report on the condition of the works and the practicability of its being successfully completed and maintained. His Highness's instructions were that Sir John Hawkshaw should make an examination of the works quite independently of the French company and their engineers, and report the results at which he arrived. The following are given by Sir John as the objections to the work:—

  1. That the canal will become a stagnant ditch.
  2. That the canal will silt up, or that the moving sands of the Desert will fill it up.
  3. That the Bitter Lakes, through which the canal is to pass, will be filed up with salt.
  4. That the navigation of the Red Sea is dangerous and difficult.
  5. That shipping will not approach Port Said, because of the difficulties that will be met with, and the danger of that port on a lee shore.
  6. That it will be difficult, if not impracticable, to keep open the Mediterranean entrance to the canal.”

Nevertheless, Hawkshaw somewhat surprisingly concluded “there are no works on the canal presenting on their face any unusual diffitulty of execution” and “no obstacles would be met with that would prevent the work, when completed, being maintained with ease and efficiency, and without the necessity of incurring any extraordinary or unusual yearly expense.”

Building the Canal

The original concession granted extraordinary privileges to the Company. It included or contemplated the formation of a “sweet water' canal for the use of the work men engaged, and the Company were to become proprietors of all the land which could be irrigated by means of this canal. One of the conditions of the concession also was that the Viceroy should procure forced labor for the execution of the work, and soon after the commencement of operations, and for some time, the number of workmen so engaged amounted to from 25,000 to 30,000.

The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: Dredges and Elevators at Work . 1869.

Saïd Pasha died between the period of Sir John Hawkshaw's examination of the country and the date of his report. He was succeeded by his brother, Ismail, the present Viceroy or Khedive, who, alarmed at the largeness and uncertainty of the grants to the Canal Company, of the proprietorship of land which could be irrigated by the sweet water canal, and anxious to retire from the obligation of finding forced labor for the construction of the works, refused to ratify or agree to the concessions granted by his brother. The whole question was then referred to the arbitration of the late Emperor of the French, who kindly undertook the task, and awarded the sum of £3,800,000 to be paid by the Viceroy to the Canal Company as indemnification for the loss they would sustain by the withdrawal of forced or native labor, for the retrocession of large grants of land, and for the abandonment of other privileges attached to the original act of concession. This money was applied to the prosecution of the works.

Left: The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: The Cutting Near Chalouf. . Right: Ismailia and the Fresh Water Canal. . Both from the 1869 Illustrated London News

The loss of native labor involved very important changes in the mode of conducting the works, and occasioned at the time considerable delay. Mechanical appliances for the removal of the material, and European skilled labor, had to be substituted these had to be recruited from different parts of Europe, and great difficulty was experienced in procuring them. The accessory canals had to be widened for the conveyance of larger dredging-machines, and additional dwellings had to be made for the accommodation of European laborers. ultimately all difficulties were overcome, and the work proceeded.

Left: The Opening of the Suez Canal: The Procession of Ships in the Canal . Right: Opening of the Suez Canal: The Festival at Ismailia . Both pictures from the Illustrated London News for 18 December 1869.

The water began to flow from the Mediterranean in February, 1869 and from the Red Sea in July, and by the beginning of October of the same year these vast tracts of country, which had formerly been parched and arid valleys, were converted into great lakes navigated by vessels of the largest class. It will be seen from the section that the surface of the ground is generally very low, the chief cuttings being at Serapeum and El Guisr, where the sandy dunes attain an elevation of about 50 to 60 feet. The channel through the lakes was excavated partly by hand labor and partly by dredging, and for a considerable portion the level of the valleys was so low as to afford sufficient depth without excavation. The only rock was met with at El Guisr, where soft gypsum occurred, removable to a considerable extent by dredging, so that the canal works presented no physical difficulty.

The whole length of the navigation is 88 geographical miles. Of this distance 66 miles are actual canal, formed by cuttings, 14 miles are made by dredging through the lakes, and 8 miles required no works, the natural depth being equal to that of the canal. Throughout its whole length the canal was intended to have a navigable depth of 26 feet for a width of 72 feet at the bottom, and to have a width at the top varying according to the character of the cuttings. At those places where the cuttings are deep, the slopes were designed to be 2 to 1, with a surface width at the water-line of about 197 feet, as shown in fig 9, which is a cross-section at El Guisr.

Cross-section of Suez Canal at El Guisr.

In the less elevated portions of the land, where the stuff is softer, the slopes are increased, giving a surface width of 325 feet. It will be understood that in the lakes the canal consists of a navigable channel of sufficient depth and breadth to admit the traffic, the surface of the water extending on either side to the edge of the lake. Fig. 10 shows a cross-section at Lake Menzaleh.

Cross-section of Suez Canal at Lake Menzaleh.

The deep channel through the lakes is marked by iron beacons on either side, 250 feet apart, and the Admiralty reporters state that “in practice it is found more difficult to keep in the centre while passing through these beacons, than it is when between the embank ments.” At every 5 or 6 miles there is a passing-place, to enable large vessels to moor for the night, or to bring up in order to allow others to pass, all these movements being regulated by telegraph from Port Said, Ismailia, or Suez.

The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: Bird’s-Eye View of Entrance from the Red Sea, with New Harbour, Docks, and Town of Suez . Source: Illustrated London News . 1869.

Sale of Canal Shares to the British Government

Traffic in the canal has so greatly increased that in 1885 a vessel was considered fortunate that got through in forty-eight hours. In 1882 shipowners having expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of the service, schemes for rival canals were started,—one for a fresh-water canal from Alexandria to Cairo and thence to Suez bv wav of Tel-el-Kebir, and another for a canal from Alexandria to Mansurah and Ismailia, and then parallel to the original canal to Suez, and a third for the construction of a second Suez canal, to be finished in 1888. These proposals all fell to the ground but at length, in 1886, it was determined to widen the existing canal so as to accommodate the increased traffic, and the works are now in progress.

Originally constructed by French capital, the Suez Canal has passed more and more into the financial ownership as well as under the political protection of England. In 1875 the British Government purchased 176,602 shares from the khedive of Egypt at the price of £3,976,582 [$19,326,188.521], or, including commission and expenses, £4,076,622 [$19,812,382.92], and exchequer bonds were issued to the value of £4,000,000 [$19,440]. [4.693-97 22.652-53].

Shipping through the Canal, 1870-1886

Related material


“Egypt.” The Encylopædia Britannica or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Philadelphia: Maxwell Sommervile: 1891. 25 vols. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigne Library. Web. 13 August 2020.

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.

Egypt’s Suez Canal: A history of the key route

Here is a look back at stages in the enlargement of the key waterway for international maritime trade.

Egypt’s Suez Canal, where frantic efforts were being made on Wednesday to free a giant container ship, opened 150 years ago.

Since then, it has been regularly expanded and modernised and today is capable of accommodating some of the world’s largest supertankers.

Here is a look back at key stages in the enlargement of the waterway, which handles roughly 10 percent of international maritime trade.


When the sea-level canal was first opened in 1869, it was 164km (102 miles) long and eight metres (26 feet) deep.

It could accommodate ships weighing up to 5,000 tonnes with a draft (measurement of the submerged part of the ship) of up to 6.7 metres (22 feet), which was the bulk of the world’s fleet at the time, according to the Suez Canal Authority.

In 1887, the canal was modernised to allow navigation at night, which doubled its capacity.

Growth in the 1950s

It was not until the 1950s that the waterway was substantially expanded, deepened and lengthened, following demands from shipping companies.

By the time it was nationalised by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, it was 175km (109 miles) long and 14 metres (46 feet) deep, and could take tankers with a capacity of 30,000 tonnes and a draft of up to 10.7 metres (35 feet).

21st century

A major expansion in 2015 took the length of the waterway to 193.30km (120 miles) and its depth to 24 metres (79 feet).

It meant that the canal could handle supertankers with a capacity of 240,000 tonnes, some of the biggest in the world, with a draft of up to 20.1 metres (66 feet) deep in the water.

In 2019, approximately 50 ships used the canal daily, compared with three in 1869.

Traffic is expected to almost double by 2023, with two-way circulation also reducing waiting times, the authority says.

Fastest route

The majority of oil transported by sea passes through the Suez Canal, which is the fastest crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the Mediterranean and Red Seas, but it demands hefty passage tolls.

The journey between ports in the Gulf and London, for example, is roughly halved by going through Suez – compared with the alternate route around the southern tip of Africa.

Most of the cargo travelling from the Gulf to Western Europe is oil. Manufactured goods and grain also pass through the canal often between Europe and North America and the Far East and Asia.


The Suez Canal Company had been incorporated as an Egyptian joint-stock company with its head office in Paris. Despite much early official coolness, even hostility, on the part of Great Britain, Lesseps was anxious for international participation and offered shares widely. Only the French responded, however, buying 52 percent of the shares of the remainder, 44 percent was taken up by Saʾīd Pasha. The first board of directors included representatives of 14 countries.

In 1875, financial troubles compelled the new viceroy, Ismāʾīl Pasha, to sell his holding, which (at the instigation of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli) was at once bought by the British government. Until that year the shares had remained below their issue price of 500 francs each. With the British purchase (at 568 francs each), steady appreciation took place, to more than 3,600 francs in 1900.

Originally allocated 15 percent of the net profits, Egypt later relinquished the percentage and, after the sale of Ismāʿīl’s 176,602 shares, remained unrepresented on the board of directors until 1949, when it was, in effect, reinstated as a board member and allotted 7 percent of gross profits. In that year it was also agreed that 90 percent of new clerical jobs and 80 percent of technical appointments would be offered to Egyptians and that the Canal Company would provide hospitals, schools, and other amenities.

In 1956, 13 years before the concession was due to expire, the canal was nationalized by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, precipitating the Suez Crisis. Since then the Egyptian government has exercised complete control through its Suez Canal Authority (SCA), though the original company (now GDF Suez) continues in France as a multinational utilities company.


The Suez Canal Corridor Developing Project dates back to the 1970s when Hassaballah El Kafrawy (former Minister of Housing) proposed the project to President Anwar al Sadat, but due to various problems, the project failed to start. He proposed the project again to Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s, but to no avail. Engineer Hassaballah El Kafrawy sought to turn the canal corridor into an important international logistics region rather than just a passageway for ships.

In 2008, the former Minister of Transportation Mohamed Mansour again proposed the project. However, the Egyptian government again did not take any serious steps to initiate the project.

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood introduced a development project for the Suez Canal region during the presidential elections. In 2013, Prime Minister Hesham Qandil began studying the project and announced that the government would begin planning for the project.

New Suez Canal Edit

The New Suez Canal (Egyptian Arabic: قناة السويس الجديدة ‎ Kanāt El Sewēs El Gedīda) is an artificial waterway project in Egypt which created a second shipping lane along part of the Suez Canal, and deepened and widened other stretches. The project was inaugurated by the Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Mamish in the presence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on 5 August 2014. [3] The new canal was opened one year later in a ceremony attended by several international dignitaries including the then French President François Hollande.

The New Suez Canal is expected to expand trade along the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia. The new canal allows ships to sail to both directions at the same time. This decreases transit time from 18 to 11 hours for most ships. The expansion is expected to double the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day. [3]

The New Suez Canal is 72 km (45 mi) long, including 35 km (22 mi) of dry digging, and 37 km (23 mi) of "expansion and deep digging" to provide a second shipping lane in the existing 164-kilometre-long (102 mi) canal, allowing for separated passing of ships in opposite directions. It also includes the deepening and expansion of a 37-kilometre-long (23 mi) section of the existing canal. [4] [5] The construction, which was scheduled to take three years, was instead ordered by the President to be completed in a year. The chairman of the Suez Canal Authority announced that the revenues from the Suez Canal (after the completion of the New Suez Canal) will jump from 5 billion dollars to 12.5 billion dollars annually. The Egyptian government said that these revenues will be used to transform the cities along the Canal (Ismaïlia, Suez, and Port Said) into international trading centers. The government has also said that many new projects in the Suez province are being studied as a result of enlarging the Suez Canal capacity, such as building a new industrial zone, fish farms, and the completion of the valley of technology (wadi al thechnologia).

The project cost around 30 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately 4.2 billion dollars) and no foreign investors were allowed to invest in the project, but rather Egyptians were urged to participate in funding the project through bank certificates of deposit initially yielding 12%, later raised to 15.5%. [6] The Egyptian Armed Forces participated in the project by helping in digging and designing the canal. [7]

The enlarged capacity allows ships to sail in both directions at the same time over much of the canal's length. Beforehand, much of the canal was only one shipping lane wide, with limited wider basins for passing. This is expected to decrease waiting time from 11 hours to 3 hours for most ships, [4] [8] and to increase the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day. [ needs update ]

Progress Edit

Technical difficulties initially arose, such as the flooding of the new canal through seepage from the existing canal. [9] Nevertheless, work on the New Suez Canal was completed in July 2015. [10] [11] The channel was officially inaugurated with a ceremony attended by foreign leaders and featuring military flypasts on 6 August 2015, in accordance with the budgets laid out for the project. [12] [13]

Benefits, costs, and risks Edit

Egyptian officials especially the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, Vice-Admiral Mohab Mamish stated that the $8.2 billion project, which expands capacity to 97 ships per day, will more than double annual revenues to some $13.5 billion by 2023. That, however, would require yearly growth of 10%. A recent forecast from the IMF suggests that in the decade up to 2016 the annual rate of growth for global merchandise trade will have averaged 3.4%. [14]

About 18 scientists writing in the academic journal Biological Invasions in 2014 expressed concern about the project impacting the biodiversity and the ecosystem services of the Mediterranean Sea. They called on Egypt to assess the environmental effects that the canal expansion could cause, a request echoed by the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. [15] Over 1,000 invasive species have entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal since its original construction in the mid-19th century, [16] with human activities becoming a leading cause of the decline of the sea's biodiversity, according to the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. [17]

Initially, the project was to be financed through a stock market IPO, allowing partial private ownership of the project. However, the government quickly changed its financing strategy, relying on interest-bearing investment certificates that do not confer any ownership rights to investors. [18] The certificates were issued by the Suez Canal Authority with an interest rate of 12%. [ citation needed ]

Revenues Edit

The government blocked access to the official revenues reports for three months after the opening. It then published two reports for August and September, which showed consecutive decreases in the total Suez Canal revenues by 10% or $150 million. [19]

Seven new tunnels Edit

In 2014 the chairman of the Suez Canal authority announced that seven new tunnels will be dug to connect the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptian homeland. Three tunnels will be dug in Port Said (two for cars and one for railways) and four will be dug in Ismaïlia (two for cars, one for railways, and one for other special uses).

The tunnels will cost 4.2 billion dollars (approximately about 30 billion Egyptian pounds). The first three tunnels will cost 18 billion Egyptian pounds and Arab Contractors and Orascom are the builders for this project. [20] [21]

Floating bridge Edit

The Al-Nasr floating bridge to enable easy travel between Port Said and Port Fouad was built successfully and inaugurated in late 2016. The bridge extends from opposite banks, with the help of tugboats that push both parts until they connect to form a bridge that can be traversed by cars. It is 420 metres (1,380 ft) long. [22] [23] This was an important step towards the efficient movement of equipment and manpower. [24]

Technology Valley Edit

The technology valley is an old project that has stopped for about 17 years and now [ when? ] the government announced to re-continue the project. The project's location lies on the eastern part of Ismaïlia city and consists of four stages: the first stage covers 3,021 acres (1,223 ha), the second stage covers 4,082 acres (1,652 ha), the third stage covers 4,837 acres (1,957 ha), and the fourth stage covers 4,160 acres (1,680 ha). However, when the project started it completed only 108 acres and then stopped for seventeen years.

The technology valley will be the first step in starting Egypt's electronics industry for manufacturing technological devices.

Industrial Zone Edit

This project will cover 910 acres of land north west of the Gulf of Suez. The first stage of the project covers 132 acres and it is done with a cost of 20 million Egyptian pounds. The second stage is 132 acres and it is not yet done. Currently there are 23 factories operating and 56 still under construction. upon finishing the project it will provide 9386 work opportunities.

The chairman of the Suez Canal authority also said that shipyards and services will be built along the Suez Canal corridor which includes: catering and services center for ships, ship manufacturing and repair center, a center for manufacturing and repairing containers, and logistic redistribution centers. [25]

New Ismailia City Edit

This project will create "New Ismailia City", which will cover 16,500 acres of land. This new city will be created to accommodate approximately 500,000 Egyptians in order to relieve the pressure from the crowded towns of Cairo and the delta cities. The location of this city is designed to accommodate the workers of the nearby Wadi Al-technologiya (Technology Valley) which will be built in the following years.

Fish Farming Edit

The National Project for Fish Farming, new fish farms were built on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. The project includes twenty three tanks that cover 120 square km with depth of 3-5m. It covers the area from southern Tafrea to the gulf of Suez. This project is designed to produce high quality fish for food. [26] [27]

Russian Industrial Zone Edit

During a state visit to Russia in 2014, President Sisi said that he had agreed with his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to establish a Russian industrial zone in the new project. [28] In May 2018, Egypt and Russia signed a 50-year agreement to construct the new industrial zone. [29]

Western Port-said Port Edit

Western Port-said Port lies on the northern entrance of the Suez Canal and is considered one of the most important ports in Egypt because of its location on the entrance of the Suez Canal.

The port covers an area of 2.9 square km (the land area is 1.2 square km and the remaining 1.7 square km is water area). The port contains 37 docks which includes docks for passengers, yachts, and general goods. The port is divided into stations and each station contains a number of docks with its own working area (that includes repairing centers, equipment center, and stores). The maximum capacity of the port is 12 million tons yearly.

East Port-said Port Edit

Eastern Port-said Port lies on the north western entrance of the Suez Canal branch which is a unique location because it connects 3 continents. The design of the port is geometrically ideal. The port was built in 2004 to serve international trading and act as a transit center between the continents.

The port borders the Mediterranean Sea from the north, the industrial zone from the south, the salty lakes from the east, and the Suez Canal branch from the west. The port covers an area of 35 square km.

The port authority plans to build docks that will reach 12 km long and an industrial zone south of the port covering 78 square km. Three stages are still remaining to fully complete and improve the port:

  • Stage one is creating 8 stations with docks 8 km long
  • Stage two is creating 15 station with docks 16 km long
  • Stage three is creating 21 stations with docks 25 km long

El-Sokhna Port Edit

El-Sokhna Port lies on the southern entrance of the Suez Canal.

The port's total size is 24,919,337.85 square m:

  • 3,400,000 square m is the water area
  • 21,519,337 square m is the land area
  • 1,000,000 square m is the Customs center
  • The largest dock's size is 7 km long and 5.5 km wide

In 2008, an Emirati company bought the port and announced the plan to build a new 1.3 km dock to work with more than 1 million containers yearly. It also said that a general goods center will be built. [ citation needed ]

The port serves the oil and gas fields in the region. It exports products from the petrochemicals and refining factories in Ein al Sokhna region. It also exports the products of a ceramic factory, ammonia factory, and a sugar factory.

Arish Port Edit

Arish Port lies on the Mediterranean Sea on the northern coast of Arish city. in 1996 the port was transformed from a fishing port to a trading ships port.

The port contains a dock which is 242m long that can serve huge ships. There is another dock which is 122m long that serves smaller ships. The port also includes covered storage areas which cover 2 square km and non-covered storage areas which cover more than 2.7 square kilometres (1.0 sq mi). On 5 June 2014 the port was no longer controlled by the Port Said port authority, the Ministry of Defence took control of it due to its sensitive location. The port contains a lighthouse that can be seen from up to 18 miles (29 km). The main importance of the port is that it exports Sinai products to the Mediterranean countries.

  • Build a 2 km dock which will include containers station and a general goods station
  • Build new storage areas
  • Build a dock for yachts
  • Build new logistic centers

El-Adabiya Port Edit

El-Adabiya Port lies on the western side of the Suez Canal, about 17 km from Suez city. The Red Sea Ports Authority in Egypt controls the port.

El-Adabiya Port consists of 9 docks which reach 1840m long and 42–27 feet (12.8–8.2 m) deep. the water area is about 158 square km (which is also shared with the Suez Canal port and Petroleum Dock port) and the land area is 0.8 square km. The maximum carrying capacity of the port reaches 6.7 million tons yearly.

In 2014, the Suez Canal Corridor Project Authority announced that El-Adabiya Port will be improved after the completion of the new Suez Canal to serve more ships. [ citation needed ]