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The Suez Canal

 A History

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 The Suez canal - a brief history

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The Suez Canal

 A History

Margaret Penfold and Ami Isseroff

The modern Suez canal that was built in the 19th century connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean in Egypt. The Isthmus of Egypt is so narrow at that point that it suggested the building of a canal to many people in antiquity, and in fact many such canals were built. Apparently, they were all shallow waterways, that took advantage of existing rivers and waterways in the Nile delta, and  led to the Nile rather than the Mediterranean sea. The southern section of the modern canal runs along the ancient routes.

The inscriptions in the tomb of Weni the Elder, who lived during the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (c. 2407-2260 BC)  tell us a lot about Egyptian canal building and the reasons for building them - (for war ships and for transporting monument stone). Scholars are still debating, however, whether his waterways ran all the way from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. A canal was also supposedly built by Thutmose III in about 1500 B.C.E.

Inscriptions of Rameses 2 (1279-1212 BC) claim that he finished (or repaired) a canal leading from the Nile to the Red sea via the wadi Tumilat and the Bitter lakes. Sometime in the next 600 years it must have silted up because Nekhau (Necho) 2 (609-594 BC) began and later abandoned its re-excavation.

Herodotus presumably had no access to the earlier inscriptions when he wrote:

This man (Necho) was the first who attempted the channel leading to the Erythraian Sea, which Dareios the Persian afterwards completed: the length of this is a voyage of four days, and in breadth it was so dug that two triremes could go side by side driven by oars; and the water is brought into it from the Nile. The channel is conducted a little above the city of Bubastis by Patumos the Arabian city, and runs into the Erythraian Sea: and it is dug first along those parts of the plain of Egypt which lie towards Arabia, just above which run the mountains which extend opposite Memphis, where are the stone-quarries,--along the base of these mountains the channel is conducted from West to East for a great way; and after that it is directed towards a break in the hills and tends from these mountains towards the noon-day and the South Wind to the Arabian gulf. Now in the place where the journey is least and shortest from the Northern to the Southern Sea (which is also called Erythraian), that is from Mount Casion, which is the boundary between Egypt and Syria, the distance is exactly a thousand furlongs to the Arabian gulf; but the channel is much longer, since it is more winding; and in the reign of Necos there perished while digging it twelve myriads of the Egyptians. Now Necos ceased in the midst of his digging, because the utterance of an Oracle impeded him, which was to the effect that he was working for the Barbarian: and the Egyptians call all men Barbarians who do not agree with them in speech.  Herodotus, Histories 2.158, translated by Macaulay
Project Gutenberg

Darius put up monuments to his feat along the length of the canal The one at Suez states amongst other things:

'I, Darius, Great King, king of kings, king of the countries of all languages, king of the wide and far-off earth, son of Hystaspes the Achaemenid. say:

 I, the Persian, with the Persian (soldiers), have taken Egypt. I gave the order to dig this stream from the river which is in Egypt (Piru is its name) to the River Amer sea which comes out of Persia. This stream was dug as I have ordered, and the vessels journeyed on this stream from Egypt to Persia, as I have ordered.' (Re-translated from a French translation in Vincent Scheil's, Inscription de Darius à Suez, Le Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale.30 (1931), p.297)

Darius' canal seems to have lasted for about 200 or more years, but by the time of Cleopatra it was blocked up again. The Roman Emperor Trajan put it right and Hadrian worked on it as well. By the time Amr ibn el-As conquered Egypt, however, the canal had fallen into disrepair again. He restored it.

A canal existed in the eight century and was recorded by an English scholar, Dicuil, who recorded that the monk Fidelis has sailed from the Nile to the Red Sea while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was used for shipping grain to Arabia it seems. The canal was stopped up in 767 by the Caliph Al Mansur, apparently in order to  starve out rebels in Medina. (Tuchman, Barbara, Bible and Sword, 1956 p 30 ).

On the advice of Leibniz, Louis XIV, King of France, considered the idea of constructing a canal at Suez, to give France a monopoly on trade.

Napoleon's engineers also considered the idea of a canal running directly between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but they miscalculated a difference of ten meters between the two sea levels and gave up the idea, as it would have resulted in flooding of large land areas.

When their mistake was discovered in the 1840's, a junior French consul, Ferdinand de Lesseps , presented his own plan to the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, The viceroy agreed and work started at the Mediterranean end with a port named after the viceroy. The canal was not completed. Said Pasha died in 1863 and was succeeded as viceroy by his nephew, Ismail Pasha. In 1866 Napoleon III got a decree from the Sultan allowing the building of a canal. The British under Lord Palmerston had opposed the construction of the canal. Palmerston told de Lesseps:

I must tell you frankly, that what we are afraid of losing is our commercial and maritime pre-eminence, for this Canal will put other nations on an equal footing with us. (Tuchman, Barbara, Bible and Sword, 1956 p 258).

But Lord Palmerston died in 1865. Eventually it was completed in 1869 and the city along the Canal was called Ismailia, after Ismail Pasha.  During construction, apparently a large number of Egyptian laborers died because of poor conditions and disease.

Egypt under Ismail Pasha almost went bankrupt however, and so did Ishmael Pasha in 1875,  and Ismail decided to sell his shares for four million pounds sterling. When the British PM, Benjamin Disraeli. heard that the French were negotiating for purchase of the shares, he decided to purchase Ismail's shares. As he could not wait for parliamentary allocation of funds, he sent his private secretary, Montagu Corry to Lord Rothschild to float a loan. According to Corry, when told that the Prime Minister wanted 4,000,000 pounds tomorrow, Rothschild ate a grape, and asked "What is your security?"

"The British government," said Corry.

"You shall have it," said Rothshchild."

(Tuchman, op cit. page 259)


Suez Canal: Plan of De Lesseps

Plan of the Suez Canal of Ferdinand de Lesseps - North is to the left

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