On This Day

suez canal, suez canal construction, el guisr
Engraving showing construction trains at El Guisr on the Suez Canal, from an 1869 edition of Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art.

On This Day: Egypt Begins Dredging the Suez Canal

April 25, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 25, 1859, Egyptian laborers began work on the Suez Canal. It would take 10 years to complete the waterway.

Lesseps Organizes Construction of Suez Canal

For millennia, there had been an interest in creating a shipping route through Egypt that connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Several ancient Egyptian leaders attempted to construct a canal connecting the two seas, and it is likely that such a canal once existed.

The idea of building a canal connecting Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea was revived by Napoleon, but plans for the canal were deemed unfeasible. In the mid-19th century, while traveling through Egypt, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps became interested in building the canal, and in 1854 he was given approval for the project by viceroy Said Pasha.

Granted a 99-year concession for the canal, Lesseps formed the Suez Canal Company and raised money for the project from Said and French investors. His projected was greeted with some resistance, in the form of French apathy and British opposition.

“It was repeated again, in and out of Parliament, that even if the canal were ever made, it would be no more than a ‘stagnant ditch,’” according to a 1876 story in British publication All the Year Round.

Construction began in 1859, and took 10 years and an estimated $100 million to complete. Much of the work was done by tens of thousands of Egyptian laborers, who dug the canal with their bare hands. It was opened to shipping traffic in November 1869, and soon developed into a critical channel for international trade.

“This thin blue ribbon—just 300m wide at its narrowest point—is one of the world's most vital waterways, a crucial commercial shortcut,” writes the BBC. “A ship that passes along the 162km (101 mile) Suez Canal is saved a 9,654km circumnavigation of Africa; the average journey time cut from 20 days to just 13 hours.”

Background: Ancient Canals and Napoleon’s Attempt

The earliest attempt to build a canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea may have occurred in 13th century B.C., according to Tour Egypt. Around 600 B.C., a canal was built linking the Nile River, which reaches the Mediterranean, and the Bitter Lake, located just north of the Red Sea.

In 500, Darius refurbished the canal and began work on a second canal connecting it to the Red Sea. His work was completed in the third century B.C. by Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

“By 250 BC, a substantial canal linked the Red Sea and the Mediterranean,” writes University of Houston engineering professor John H. Lienhard. “It was fifty yards wide and it served ocean-going vessels. Cleopatra probably rode that canal in her royal barge, a few years before the birth of Christ.”

As centuries passed, the channels fell in disrepair and were lost. In 1798, Napoleon traveled to Egypt with a group of engineers to search for remnants of the ancient canals and trace a route for a new canal.

Jacques-Marie Le Pere, Napoleon’s chief civil engineer, was able to “eventually trace the canal from the Red Sea all the way to the Nile,” according to the Linda Hall Library. “Le Pere concluded that a new canal along the old route was entirely possible. Unfortunately, he also concluded, erroneously, that the Red Sea was 8.5 meters or 30 ft higher than the Mediterranean, making a working canal without locks impossible.” Napoleon chose to abandon the project.

Key Player: Ferdinand de Lesseps

Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat who traveled to Egypt in the early years of his career and befriended Said Pasha, the viceroy’s son. When Said Pasha became viceroy, Lesseps returned to Egypt and began plans for the canal.

According to the BBC, “De Lesseps was no engineer—his achievement lay in organising the necessary political and financial backing, and providing the technical support necessary for such a huge project.”

Following the success of the Suez Canal, Lesseps was chosen to head the building of the Panama Canal. His efforts to build a canal through the mountains and jungles of Panama ended disastrously, and he would be fined and given a prison sentence for mismanagement.

This time he didn't have the old Egyptians to lead him,” writes Lienhard. “In Panama, he undertook a problem that hadn't been solved, millennia before him, by some of finest engineers the world has known.”

Later Developments: The Suez Crisis

The Suez Canal was at the center of an international incident in 1956, just as the 99-year concession was expiring.  After the United States, Britain and the World Bank withdrew their funding for Egypt’s Aswan Dam, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal.

France, Israel and Britain devised a plan to regain control of the waterway; Israel launched a small invasion so that France and England could attack Egypt under the guise of “protecting” the canal. However, the UN intervened and returned the Suez to Egypt. The canal remains in the hands of the Egyptian-run Suez Canal Authority.

Reference: “Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal”


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