A Brief History of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal, located in Egypt, is a 101 mile (163 km) long canal that bonds the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea. It was publicly opened in November 1869. Though the Suez Canal wasn’t formally completed until 1869, there is a long history of notice in connecting both the Nile River in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It is said that the first canal in the area was built linking the Nile River delta and the Red Sea in the 13th Century B.C.E. During the 1,000 years following its construction, the original canal was ignored and its use lastly stopped in the 8th Century.

The first modern effort 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 mistake in measurement showed the sea levels between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas as being too different for a canal to be feasible and construction immediately stopped.


Image Credits: Dual Freq/wikimedia.org

The next attempt to build a canal in the area occurred in the mid-1800s when a French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support the building of 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, after which time, the Egyptian government would take over control of the canal.

Building the Suez Canal

Building of the Suez Canal officially began on April 25, 1859. It opened ten years later on November 17, 1869 at a cost of $100 million.

With the rise of new Europe and the development of industry and sea borne trade, entrepreneurs began to think of building canals. One such plan aimed at connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean directly, thus saving time either to sail around Africa or transshipping freight or passengers across the Suez Peninsula. A French enterprise took the initiative in obtaining a 99-year concession for the Canal and arranged the Suez Canal Company, mainly with European capital, to construct and operate it.

The Canal was completed in 1869 under the leadership of the French promoter Ferdinand de Lesseps (who later tried unsuccessfully to build the Panama Canal). Numerous barriers had to be conquered, one of which was the extensively held assurance that the level of the Red Sea was more than 30 feet higher than that of the Mediterranean.

In present times, the canal is a significant transport link and assists in reducing transit time drastically. It is recognized as one of the most important waterways of the world, supporting nearly 8% of the shipping traffic of the world.

You may also like to read A Brief History of the Panama canal.

Reference: Mideastweb, Touregypt

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  1. Fred says

    It has been alleged that Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty may have originally been inspired by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Bartholdi had created blueprints for a toga-draped giant of a woman who’d double-up as a lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal.

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