History of the Suez Canal: a disputed strategic enterprise

A project with ancient origins, implemented in the twentieth century, that played a key role in the history of recent centuries.

It is now in its 150th year. The history of the Suez Canal is a real epic and it could not have been otherwise: this pharaonic work unites three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, making direct navigation possible between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Without it, there were only two trade routes available to and from Asia, neither of which was particularly easy: on one hand, the circumnavigation of Africa and, on the other, the option of unloading all the merchandise, crossing dry land and reloading it at the other end.

The importance of the Suez Canal is still unquestionable today (even if the dramatic melting of the Arctic ice pack is opening up new navigable routes to the East) and demonstrates that maritime transport is still fundamental. Here, 14% of global transport passes through this artificial canal that cuts through the land: it is said to carry more than 16,000 ships a year with a total tonnage of around 800 million tons of goods every 12 months.

It is not surprising that much of the history of the twentieth century revolved around this colossal work: on welcoming the creator of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps (the same designer of the first Panama Canal, doubled in 2016 by the Webuild Group), to the Académie Française on 23 April 1885, Ernest Renan said: “You have marked the site of the great battles of the future”. And he was not wrong.

Before the Suez Canal was built

While it is true that the actual construction of the Suez Canal took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is also true that its history began much earlier. Indeed, the Pharaohs entertained the idea of connecting the two seas. The first to actually dig up the Egyptian soil was Pharaoh Senusret III (who lived between 1878 and 1762 B.C.): the construction works of this first, narrow canal, apparently, were only finished a thousand years later by Darius I of Persia. That passage was not destined to last, however, and, after being destroyed several times, it was completely closed in 755 by the caliph, Al-Mansur, for political reasons.

The first to think of constructing the Suez Canal as we know it today were the Venetians, who were searching for a new route to the East in order to beat the Portuguese who, in 1498, had rounded the Cape of Good Hope thanks to Vasco da Gama. The Venetian plan went up in smoke, although Italians did play an important role in the history of the Canal that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

At the end of the eighteenth century, there was also an attempt by Napoleon who, manoeuvring against Tsar Paul I, tried to get work underway for the construction of the Canal; the future French emperor was thwarted by the lack of the success of the Egyptian expedition, which was halted by the English.

Construction of the Suez Canal

The situation was unblocked and the final push for the construction of the Suez Canal was given by the Saint-Simonianists, a French socialist movement that succeeded in obtaining the agreement of the Egyptian governor, Muhammad Ali, on condition that the Canal would remain Egyptian and, in any event, open to all nations.

Over the years, various projects were put forward, such as, for example, that of the engineer Prosper Enfantin in 1830, who, however, envisaged the passage would only be open to steamships, which made up a very small part of the vessels of the period. The definitive project was that of the engineer Luigi Negrelli from Trento, who finished the drawings in 1854.

The works, coordinated by the French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began on 25 April 1859 and took around 10 years. The workforce on which construction depended was enormous: indeed, it is said there were a million and a half Egyptians, working under conditions of forced labour. It is difficult to calculate how many workers died, including those struck down by a cholera epidemic that killed more than 120,000 workers. Ten years’ work, 21,000 French shareholders and the continuous modernisation of the construction site with steam-powered machines and other absolutely innovative devices for that time finally turned the plans into reality: the first ship crossed the Canal in February 1867 and the official inauguration took place on 17 November 1869. An extravagant party was held to baptise the new waterway with more than 2,000 guests, including – as the guest of honour – Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

When it opened, the Suez Canal was 101.9 miles long, 26 feet and 3 inches deep and 173 feet and 10.6 inches wide, enabling the transit of ships with a maximum draught of 22 feet.

The Suez Canal’s key role in modern history

As predicted by Renan, the Suez Canal would play a key role in history. Egypt owned 44% of the Canal, with the rest held by French shareholders. However, due to the large debt run up for its construction, Egypt was soon forced to yield its share to the United Kingdom and British troops took control of the passage, starting with the revolt led by the Egyptian officer Ahmed ‘Urabi in 1882.

The real crises over the Suez Canal began in the second half of the twentieth century as Egypt’s intolerance of the British grew. The opportunity to seize back the canal came in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war, at the end of which the Egyptians first decided to prevent the passage of Israeli ships and then to repudiate the Anglo-Egyptian treaty.

In 1956, Nasser launched another surprise manoeuvre with the nationalisation of the company that operated the Suez Canal: this brought military intervention by Great Britain, France and Israel, which led to the canal passing into the hands of the UN in an attempt to calm the waters. However, this did not prevent prolonged new closures of the Suez Canal during conflicts between the Arab world and Israel in 1967 and 1975.

The extension of the Suez Canal

In recent times, the Suez Canal has undergone major works: on 6 August 2015, an extension to part of the canal was opened with a second stretch, 22 miles long, in order to allow the simultaneous passage of ships in opposite directions. Currently, the Suez Canal – which represents 20% of the Egyptian budget – is 120.11 miles long overall, between 656 and 738 feet wide and 78 feet 9 inches deep. The total journey time is 15 hours: vessels move at a safe distance of around one nautical mile at a speed of 9 knots.