The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal

The idea of a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea dates back to ancient times. Unlike the modern Canal, earlier ones linked the Red Sea to the Nile, therefore forcing the ships to sail along the River on their journey from Europe to India. It has been suggested that the first Canal was dug during the reign of Tuthmosis III, although more solid evidence credits the Pharaoh Necho (Sixth Century BC) for the attempt. During the Persian invasion of Egypt, King Darius I ordered the Canal completed. The Red Sea Canal, consisted of two parts: the first linking the Gulf of Suez to the Great Bitter Lake, and the second connecting the Lake to one of the Nile branches in the Delta. The canal remained in good condition during the Ptolemaic era, but fell into disrepair afterwards. It was re-dug during the rule of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and later the Arab ruler Amr Ibn-Al-Aas. Over the years, it fell again into disrepair, and was completely abandoned upon the discovery of the trade route around Africa.

It was Napoleon's engineers who, around 1800 AD, revived the idea of a shorter trade route to India via a Suez Canal. However, the calculation carried out by the French engineers showed a difference in level of 10 meters between both seas. If constructed under such circumstances, a large land area would be flooded. Later, the calculations showed to be wrong, and the final attempt to dig the Canal was undertaken by former French Consul in Cairo and famous Canal digger Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was granted a "firman" or decree by the khedive Said of Egypt to run the Canal for 99 years after completion.

In 1859, Egyptian workers started working on the construction of the Canal in conditions described by historians as slave labor, and the project was completed around 1867. On November 17, 1869, the Canal was officially inaugurated by Khedive Ismail in an extravagant and lavish ceremony. French, British, Russian, and other Royalty were invited for the inauguration which coincided with the re-planning of Cairo. A highway was constructed linking Cairo to the new city of Ismailia, an Opera House was built, and Verdi was commissioned to compose his famous opera, "Aida" for the opening ceremony. Ironically, Verdi did not complete the work in time and "Aida" premiered at the Cairo Opera a year later.

The Suez Canal emerged on the political scene in 1956, during the Suez crisis. It was in July of that years the Egyptian president Nasser, at age 38, announced the nationalization of the Canal at Mansheya Square in Alexandria in front of a cheering crowd. His decision was in response to the British, French, and American refusal for a loan aimed at building the Aswan High Dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the High Dam project. The announcement triggered a swift reaction by Great Britain, France, and Israel, who all invaded Egypt less than two months later. Their action would be condemned by the International community, and Nasser would eventually claim victorious.

In 1967, the Canal was closed at the wake of the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, causing the Canal to act as a buffer zone between the fighting forces. The Egyptians reclaimed the Canal upon the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the re-opening ceremony took place in 1975. Since then, the Canal, which stretches 167 kms across the Egyptian desert, has been widened twice. Today, approximately 100 ships cross the canal daily, and, with the threat of war long gone, the cities and beaches along the Bitter Lakes and the Canal serve as a summer resort for tourists.