On November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas was officially opened in a lavish ceremony at Egypt’s Port Said. The canal took more than 15 years to plan and build, and its construction was repeatedly hindered by political disputes, labor shortages and even a deadly cholera outbreak. When finally completed, the 101-mile-long waterway permanently transformed international shipping by allowing vessels to skip the long and treacherous transit around the southern tip of Africa. On the anniversary of its opening, check out nine surprising facts about the canal that links the Eastern and Western worlds.
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 “Canal 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 “a 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 manpower, and the Egyptian government initially supplied most of the labor 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 Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi tried to convince Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to let him build a sculpture called “Egypt 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.
6. Its creator later tried—and 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 “easier 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—convicted 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.
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. It’s about to get a major overhaul.
The Suez Canal has enjoyed increased traffic in recent years, with roughly 50 ships passing through its waters every day. Shipping tolls allow Egypt to rake in around $5 billion annually, but the canal is still hampered by its narrow width and shallow depth, which are 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. Preliminary work has already begun on the $8.5 billion project, which Egyptian authorities claim could more than double the canal’s annual revenue by 2023.