Satellite image of the Suez Canal in Egypt, 2015. (Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. It enables a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, effectively allowing for passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean without having to circumnavigate the African continent. The waterway is vital for international trade and, as a result, has been at the center of conflict since it opened in 1869.

The Suez Canal stretches 120 miles from Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt southward to the city of Suez (located on the northern shores of the Gulf of Suez). The canal separates the bulk of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula. It took 10 years to build, and was officially opened on November 17, 1869.

Owned and operated by the Suez Canal Authority, the Suez Canal’s use is intended to be open to ships of all countries, be it for purposes of commerce or war—though that hasn’t always been the case.

Interest in a marine route connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea dates back to ancient times. A series of small canals connecting the Nile River (and, thus, by extension, the Mediterranean) to the Red Sea were in use as early as 2000 B.C.

However, a direct connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was considered impossible over concerns that they sat at distinct levels of altitude.

Therefore, various overland routes—using horse-drawn vehicles and, later, trains—were employed, most notably by Great Britain, which conducted significant trade with its colonies in present-day India and Pakistan.

The idea of a large canal providing a direct route between the two bodies of water was first discussed in the 1830s, thanks to the work of French explorer and engineer Linant de Bellefonds, who specialized in Egypt.

Bellefonds performed a survey of the Isthmus of Suez and confirmed that the Mediterranean and Red seas were, contrary to popular belief, at the same level of altitude. This meant a canal without locks could be built, making construction significantly easier.

By the 1850s, seeing an opportunity for Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, which governed the country at the time, Khedive Said Pasha (who oversaw Egypt and the Sudan for the Ottomans) had granted French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps permission to create a company to construct a canal. That company eventually became known as the Suez Canal Company, and it was given a 99-year lease over the waterway and surrounding area.

Lesseps’ first action was to create the Commission Internationale pour le percement de l’isthme des Suez—or International Commission for the Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez. The commission was made up of 13 experts from seven countries, including, most notably, Alois Negrelli, a leading civil engineer.

Negrelli effectively built upon the work of Bellefonds and his original survey of the region and took a leading role in developing the architectural plans for the Suez Canal. The commission’s final report was completed in 1856; two years later, the Suez Canal Company was formally established.

Construction began, at the northernmost Port Said end of the canal, in early 1859. The excavation work took 10 years, and an estimated 1.5 million people worked on the project.

Unfortunately, over the objections of many British, French and American investors in the canal, many of these were slave laborers, and it is believed that tens of thousands died while working on the Suez, from cholera and other causes.

Political turmoil in the region negatively impacted the construction of the canal. Egypt was ruled by Britain and France at the time, and there were several rebellions against colonial rule.

This, coupled with the limitations of construction technology at the time, caused the total costs of building the Suez Canal to balloon to $100 million, more than double the original estimate.

Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt and the Sudan, formally opened the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869.

Officially, the first ship to navigate through the canal was the imperial yacht of French Empress Eugenie, the L’Aigle, followed by the British ocean liner Delta.

However, the HMS Newport, a British navy ship, was actually the first to enter the waterway, with its captain having navigated it to the front of the line under the cover of darkness the night before the ceremonial opening. The captain, George Nares, was officially reprimanded for the deed, but also secretly lauded by the British government for his efforts in promoting the country’s interests in the region.

The S.S. Dido, was the first vessel to pass through the Suez Canal from South to North.

At least initially, only steamships were able to use the canal, as sailing vessels still had difficulty navigating the narrow channel in the region’s tricky winds.

Although traffic was less than expected during the canal’s first two years of operation, the waterway had a profound impact on world trade and played a key role in the colonization of Africa by European powers. Still, the owners of the Suez experienced financial troubles, and Ismail Pasha and others were forced to sell their stock shares to Great Britain in 1875.

France, however, was still the majority shareholder in the canal.

In 1888, the Convention of Constantinople decreed that the Suez Canal would operate as a neutral zone, under the protection of the British, who had by then assumed control of the surrounding region, including Egypt and the Sudan.

The British famously defended the canal from attack by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 during World War I.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 reaffirmed Britain’s control over the important waterway, which became vital during World War II, when the Axis powers of Italy and German attempted to capture it. Despite the supposedly neutral status of the canal, Axis ships were prohibited from accessing it for much of the war.

After the end of World War II, in 1951, Egypt withdrew from the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

Following years of negotiation, the British withdrew their troops from the Suez Canal in 1956, effectively handing control over to the Egyptian government, under the leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nasser quickly moved to nationalize the canal’s operation, and did so by transferring ownership to the Suez Canal Authority, a quasi-government agency, in July 1956.

Both Great Britain and the United States were angered by this move, as well as by the Egyptian government’s efforts to establish relations with Soviet Union at the time. Initially, they withdrew promised financial support of planned improvements to the Suez, including construction of the Aswan Dam.

However, they along with other European powers were further enraged by the Nasser government’s decision to close the Straits of Tiran, a body of water linking Israel with the Red Sea, to all Israeli ships.

In response, in October 1956, troops from Britain, France and Israel threatened to invade Egypt, leading to the so-called Suez Crisis.

Fearing an escalation in the conflict, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson recommended the establishment of a United Nations peacekeeping force, the first of its kind, to protect the canal and ensure access to all. The U.N. ratified Pearson’s proposal on November 4, 1956.

Although the Suez Canal Company continued to operate the waterway, the U.N. force maintained access as well as peace in the nearby Sinai Peninsula. This was not the last time the Suez Canal would play a central role in international conflict, however.

At the onset of the Six-Day War of 1967, Nasser ordered the U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel immediately sent troops into the region, and ultimately took control of the east bank of the Suez Canal. Not wanting Israeli ships to have access to the waterway, Nasser imposed a blockade on all maritime traffic.

Notably, 15 cargo ships that had already entered the canal at the time of blockade’s implementation remained trapped there for years.

U.S. and British minesweepers eventually cleared the Suez and made it once again safe for passage. New Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reopened the canal in 1975, and led a convoy of ships northbound to Port Said.

However, Israeli troops remained in the Sinai Peninsula until 1981, when, as part of the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the so-called Multinational Force and Observers was stationed there to maintain order and protect the canal. They remain in place to this day.

Today, an average of 50 ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods per year.

In 2014, the Egyptian government oversaw at $8 billion expansion project that widened the Suez from 61 meters to 312 meters for a 21-mile distance. The project took one year to complete and, as a result, the canal can accommodate ships to pass both directions simultaneously.

Canal History. Suez Canal Authority.
The Suez Crisis, 1956. Office of the Historian. US State Department.
A Brief History of the Suez Canal. Marine Insight.