The Suez Canal: A Man-Made Marvel Connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea

Maritime transportation is vital in our daily life as it benefits everyone worldwide. Even though the developments in the aviation industry have moved people and goods faster, the shipping industry remains critical to the growth of economies.

As a backbone of international trade, freight transportation enables the movement of tonnes and thousands of goods- from toys to trucks- every day through the vast and eternal oceans and seas.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, the shipping industry, with over 50,000 merchant ships offering service internationally, carries out almost 90 per cent of world trade.

Related Reading: These Panama Canal Facts Will Surprise You 

However, not only the various natural bodies that enable the international seaborne trade but several human interventions in marine transportation also strengthened the movement of people and goods worldwide.

The artificial canals in different parts of the world have transformed international shipping by shortening shipping routes and reducing operating costs.

The primary artificial canals, such as the Panama Canal, Volga-Don Canal, the Corinth Canal, the Grand Canal and the Suez Canal, provide alternative transportation routes across major seawater networks worldwide, facilitating efficient marine transportation.

Where is Suez Canal?

The 193.30 km (120 miles)-long Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway located in Egypt and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea.

Officially opened in November 1869, the Suez Canal is one of the world’s most heavily used shipping routes, witnessing the passage of thousands of vessels every year.

The canal, which separates Asia from the African continent, offers the shortest maritime route between Europe and the regions that share a border with the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.

The journey from Europe through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, transiting through the Suez Canal, cuts around 7,000 kilometres off the trip compared to the one carried out through the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. The canal also connects Port Said in northeast Egypt with Port Tewfik in the city of Suez in the south.

The Suez Canal was constructed between 1859 and 1869 by the Suez Canal Company, and the Suez Canal Authority owned and maintained the waterway.

In 2015, Egypt completed a significant expansion of the Suez Canal that saw the deepening of the parts of the canal and the construction of a second 35km-long shipping lane along part of the main waterway.

The expansion allowed the canal to accommodate two-way traffic along part of the route and the transiting of larger vessels. In December 2017, the world’s largest container ship, the 400-meter long OOCL Hong Kong, passed through the Suez Canal carrying 21,400 containers.

Witnessing around 8 per cent of global seaborne trade annually, the canal plays a significant role in the growth of Egypt’s economy. According to Reuters, the Suez Canal generated $5.3 billion in 2017.

Though the Suez Canal wasn’t formally completed until 1869, there is a long history of connecting the Nile River in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

The history of the Suez Canal dates back to around 40 centuries as the idea of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea emerged during the period of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

The concept of a canal that connects these seas and the Nile River lasted until the construction of the first canal in the area, linking both the waters through the Nile River under the reign of Senausret III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1887-1849 BC). However, the canal was often abandoned for many years following its construction.

At the same time, the canal was also reopened several times for navigation under the reign of various rulers, including Sity I (1310 BC), Necho II (610 BC), Persian King Darius (522 BC), Emperor Trajan (117 AD) and Amro Ibn Elass (640 AD), among others.

The historical documents suggest that the canal was extended, and several other attempts to build new channels were also carried out during these periods.

The first modern effort to build a canal came in the late 1700s, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt expedition. He believed that creating a French-controlled channel 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. Still, 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 was immediately stopped.

With the rise of new Europe and the development of industry and seaborne trade, entrepreneurs began to think of building canals. One such plan aimed to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean directly, thus saving time to sail around Africa or transhipping freight or passengers across the Suez Peninsula.

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 canal building.

In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company (La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez)was formed and given the right to begin constructing the canal and operate it for 99 years. After that time, the Egyptian government would control the canal.

How Ships Transit Suez Canal?

Construction of the Suez Canal

The construction of the Suez Canal officially began on April 25, 1859. It was estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth- 600 million on land and 2,013 million through dredging- would have to be moved for building the canal. Furthermore, the total original cost of the project was estimated at 200 million francs.

However, the decision to build a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea invited criticism from Briton, who considered the project a political scheme to weaken the country’s dominance in seaborne trade.

Britain continued to oppose the project until the Empire bought a 44 per cent stake in the canal after the Egyptian government auctioned off its shares in 1875 due to financial problems.

Initially, the construction of the canal was carried out by forced labourers. It is said that thousands of people were forcefully assigned to dig the canal using picks and shovels until Pasha banned the use of forced labour in 1863.

This compelled the Suez Canal Company to bring custom-made steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers to build the canal.

With the help of this machinery, the project received the boost it required and allowed the waters of the Mediterranean to flow into the Red Sea through the canal on November 17, 1869.

When it opened for navigation, the Suez Canal was 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface, 72 feet wide at the bottom and 25 feet deep. At the time of completion, the project’s total cost was more than twice the original estimate.

The Suez Canal and Political Crises

After the completion of the project, the Suez Canal had a significant impact on world trade despite the traffic through the waterway being below expectations in the initial years.

Meanwhile, the financial problems linked with the canal construction allowed the British government to buy the stakes owned by Egyptian interests in 1875 to become the major shareholder in the Suez Canal Company.

The canal was vital to the British economy as it provided a shorter sea route to its colonies and the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.

Britain strengthened its control over Egypt in 1875 when the latter went bankrupt, allowing the European banks to take control of the country financially.

As the French and British continued their control over the country, it started resentment among the Egyptians. This caused Brittan to invade Egypt in 1882.

Egypt remained virtually independent due to the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, but Britain took complete control of the Suez Canal. During the First World War, Britain announced Egypt a protectorate and sent forces to protect the canal, and this lasted till 1922, when Britain provided nominal independence to Egypt.

Though the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty declared Egypt a sovereign state in 1936, Britain only agreed to withdraw its troops from Egypt in 1956.

The major political unrest linked to the Suez Canal, known as the Suez Crisis, started in July 1956, when the then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and closed the Straits of Tiran.

The decision resulted in the invasion of Egypt by the UK, France, and Israel. Only after the intervention of the United Nations the three forces withdrew from Egypt, allowing the country to reopen the canal for commercial shipping.

However, the political unrest continued for a long time, and the Egyptian authorities shut down the canal in 1967 during the Six-day War between Israel and Egypt.

The canal’s closing also led to the stranding of 15 shipping vessels in the middle of the canal at the Great Bitter Lake. These vessels, known as Yellow Fleet, remained trapped until 1975 after Egypt reopened the Suez Canal after peace talks with Israel.

Since then, the canal remains a vital transport link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing international ships to avoid the problematic voyage around the southern tip of Africa.

According to the Suez Canal Authority, the world’s longest canal without a lock expects to raise the daily average of travelling vessels to 97 ships and revenue of $ 13.226 billion by 2023.

Suez Canal Map

suez canal map

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who built the Suez Canal?

In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the former french consul to Cairo, got an agreement with the Ottoman Governor of Egypt, Sa’id Pasha, to build the 100 miles long canal across the Isthmus of Suez. He envisaged that the channel would be open to ships from all nations, and his company would operate the canal for 99 years after its opening.

2. What is the importance of the Suez Canal?

The Suez canal links the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, making it the shortest shipping route from Europe to Asia. It was completed in 1869 and has become one of the world’s busiest maritime routes. Its construction has been a boon to the marine sector regarding shorter transit times and costs savings.

3. How deep is the Suez Canal now?

After many enlargements, the Suez Canal is 193.30 kilometres long, 24 km deep and 205 metres wide. The other access channel is 22 km long, and the southern track is 9 km long. The canal itself is 193 km long.

4. How many workers died during the construction of the Suez Canal?

One of the biggest maritime projects in the history of humankind took the lives of 120,000 workers among the 1.5 billion involved in its construction. Suez canal construction recorded the greatest number of deaths compared to other canal construction projects of a similar scale.

5. Who paid for the construction of the Suez Canal?

In 1875, Britain became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company when it bought the majority of the stocks of the New Ottoman Governor of Egypt. After seven years, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882, beginning a long occupation of the country.

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Disclaimer: The author’s views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the report have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

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  1. 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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