The Suez Canal stretches 120 miles, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt – a 75 mile-wide strip of land that is the boundary between the continents of Africa and Asia.
Today it is one of the world’s busiest trade routes – around 10% of global trade passes through the Suez canal, which provides the shortest direct sea link between Asia and Europe. This saves ships from having to go all the way around Africa, and is one of the most significant maritime “shortcuts” ever built.
How was the canal conceived and what impact has it had since its inception?
The idea for the Suez Canal
In 1854 French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps received approval from Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to build a canal across the Isthmus of Suez. The Suez Canal Company was formed in 1858 and construction began in April 1859.
It wasn’t the first time a canal here had been considered. Ancient sources suggest the existence of a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile River as early as 1850 BC, when an irrigation channel navigable during flooding was constructed – known as the ‘Canal of the Pharaohs’.
The channel was extended under the Romans and later reopened by the early Arabs. Whilst Venetians in the 15th century and the French in the 17th and 18th centuries had speculated upon the feasibility of constructing a canal through the isthmus, it was not until 1798 when Napoleon arranged for surveyors to assess the feasibility of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that this was fully assessed. The result was a paper entitled “Canal des Deux Mers” (Canal of the Two Seas).
Ferdinand de Lesseps was 29 years old when, whilst serving as vice-consul in Egypt, he came across this same paper. Over the next 20 years he returned again and again to the idea of the canal, yet it was not until after the death of his wife and son from scarlet fever that de Lesseps threw himself into the task of making the canal a reality.
De Lesseps hoped to find additional finance for the project in Britain but he was sorely disappointed. British engineer Robert Stevenson was sent to assess the plans and delivered an uninspiring report to the government, no doubt influenced by his own scheme for a railway between Alexandria and Cairo. De Lesseps spoke with Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in person but found him totally opposed to the idea.
Nevertheless, he continued to canvas British businessmen on the idea and when Stevenson denounced his methods in parliament, de Lesseps challenged him to a duel – though no such encounter ever occurred.
It was only through the intervention of Said Pasha, who purchased 44% of the Suez Canal Company, that the project was kept afloat.
The canal’s construction required a vast workforce. Egyptian peasants were drafted in at a rate of 20,000 every ten months to carry out the work by hand with picks and shovels. However this work came to a halt in 1863 when Said Pasha was succeeded by Ismail Pasha (Ismāʾīl Pasha), who banned the use of forced labour.
In response, the Suez Canal Company brought in steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers that completed the removal of the 75 million cubic metres of sand required to create the canal.
The Suez Canal was officially opened in a large, elaborate ceremony on 17 November 1869 followed by a dazzling fireworks display. Ismail Pasha was particularly keen to use the event to impress European leaders, among them Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, the Prince of Wales, the Prince of the Netherlands, and most notably the French Empress Eugenie. However, many Muslim leaders did not receive an invitation.
Ismail treated his guests to a lavish stay and the partying continued for several weeks. This included boat trips on the Nile, stop-overs to eat in ancient temples or beneath tents in the desert decorated in red and yellow satin, and traditional Arab ceremonies featuring music, dancers, Bedouin horsemen and fire-eaters.
Despite its obvious advantage in cutting journey times, initially the canal experienced problems with ships running aground.
The Suez Canal does not contain locks, and although there are extensive straight lengths, it includes eight bends. Instead of taking the shortest route across the isthmus (at 75 miles) the canal utilises three shallow lakes as part of its route – Lake Manzala, Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes. Additionally, the Isthmus of Suez’s topography varies, with harder rock in the south, a narrow vallley leading from Lake Timsah, and even Nile alluvium to its north.
When it first opened, the canal consisted of a shallow channel 8 metres deep, 22 metres wide at the bottom, and between 61-91 metres wide at its surface, with bays built every 5-6 miles to allow ships to pass each other. However, this was to prove insufficient.
Between 1870-1884, approximately 3,000 ships were grounded due to the narrowness and bending of the channel, which impacted global trade. This prompted major improvements which began in 1876, just 7 years after the canal’s opening, including widening and deepening of the channel.
Having initially been disparaging of the canal project, Britain soon became acutely aware of its strategic importance. The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. Combined with the American transcontinental railroad (completed six months before the canal), it allowed the world to be circled in record time. The canal’s new route from Europe to the Far East also halved the journey time between Britain and India.
In 1875, financial troubles meant that Ismāʾīl Pasha sold Egypt’s shares in the canal to Britain (Britain’s purchase was at the instigation of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli), with French shareholders still holding the majority.
Local unrest prompted by a nationalist uprising meant that 7 years later Britain invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882, taking full control – although nominally Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire. Britain’s representative modernised the government and suppressed rebellions and corruption, subsequently facilitating increased traffic on the canal.
Britain defended the strategically important passage against a major Ottoman attack in 1915, during the First World War, and under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which granted Egypt’s independence, the UK was permitted to maintain a defensive force on the canal.
With the onset of World War Two, Italo-German attempts to capture the canal were repulsed during the North Africa Campaign, during which the canal was closed to Axis shipping. Despite Britain relinquishing its military presence in other parts of Egypt after the end of the war, it continued to keep its forces in military installations along the canal, in case of future war with the Soviet Bloc.
Nevertheless, after Egypt repudiated the treaty in 1951, by 1954 the UK agreed to remove its troops, completing its withdrawal on 18 July 1956.
1956 Suez Crisis and blockade of the canal
Tensions flared again in 1956 during the “Suez Crisis”. Egyptian overtures towards the Soviet Union had promoted Britain and America to withdraw support for the construction of the Aswan Dam, resulting in Egyptian President Nasser nationalising the canal and transferring it to the Suez Canal Authority, as well as closing the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships. Egypt was consequently invaded by Israel, France and Britain.
Successive widenings and deepenings to the canal by the 1960s had increased its capacity, along with the enlargening of passing bays, but plans for further enlargement were overtaken by the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, during which the canal was blocked – remaining inoperative until 1975.
Under the Convention of Constantinople, the canal may now still be used “in time of war as in time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.”
The canal today
In 2015 the Egyptian government finished a nearly $8.5 billion project to upgrade and expand the canal to significantly increase its capacity; nearly 18 miles were added to its original length of 102 miles.
Its depth is now 24 metres at its maximum, and the width of the navigational channel is between 200-210 metres. (Before this, the canal had been too narrow for free two-way traffic, so ships would pass in convoys and use bypasses). Typically, it now takes a ship 12-16 hours to transit the canal, but nevertheless, unexpected events can occur.
On 23 March 2021 the Suez Canal became blocked in both directions by the huge Golden-class container ship Ever Given. At a quarter of a mile long and 193ft wide, the Ever Given is among the largest cargo ships in the world. The ship had been en-route from China to the Netherlands but ran aground after a strong gust of wind blew it off course, resulting in it turning sideways and thus blocking the canal – reportedly the first time the canal had been accidentally obstructed since its opening.
With around 30% of global container shipping volumes passing through the Suez Canal each day, the Ever Given’s obstruction of the Suez Canal inevitably had huge ramifications to world trade and oil prices.