The Suez Canal: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
The Suez Canal stands as one of the technical achievements of 19th century technology. It also represents vested interests for economic and military powers reliant on trade through the waterway.

Definition of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal, or Qanat al-Suways in Arabic, is the 101 mile/162 km (expanded to 120 mile/193 km) waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea at Port Said with the Red Sea through Egypt. At roughly equal sea levels, both seas allow two-way passage (and the introduction of over 1000 foreign and sometimes harmful species into both seas) through the canal.

This waterway more importantly allows transit from Europe to Asia and Africa without sailing around the whole of Africa. Goods and oil from Asia and the Middle East can flow quickly to markets in Europe, while goods from Europe flow in reverse. Additionally, control of the Suez Canal guarantees access to both sides of the canal, including the oil-rich areas of the Middle East, obviously increasing the Suez Canal's military importance significantly.

Suez Canal
Suez Canal

History and Egyptian Identity

It was a long a dream of pharaohs, conquerors of Egypt, and later imperialists and industrialists, to build a canal connecting the two bodies of water. The ancient Egyptians built canals that connected the Nile to the Red Sea, thus by extension connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, as did the Persians under Darius.

Over time, these canals fell in disuse or disrepair because of the constantly shifting nature of the Nile and silting, or the collection and blocking by layers of sand and dirt. They were built and rebuilt numerous times before the Venetians in the 15th century envisioned a water route connecting the Mediterranean, their sphere of influence, and the riches of the East. This dream ended in Ottoman Turkey taking over Egypt in 1517.

Napoleon Bonaparte strongly considered the building of a canal during French campaign of Egypt from 1798-1801, but most believed there was a land-level difference resulting in the construction of costly locks, and the plan was abandoned. When it was proven that the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were roughly at the same level, the French took up construction again about 1859. Working conditions were hellish, including disease and forced labor.

When the Egyptian leader Ismail Pasha stopped this practice of forced labor, the French began to use machines, and the Suez Canal was completed by 1869. Strange footnote of history: the Statue of Liberty was meant for the entrance of the Suez Canal. The plan never worked out. Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the statue, repackaged the idea and the statue was moved to New York Harbor instead.

The Suez Canal has also served as a key determiner in the creation of a modern Egyptian identity. The British, who were opposed to the idea of the canal out of fear that they would lose control of global shipping, eventually bought out the Egyptian share of the canal, effectively taking control of the canal.

Egypt became independent after the collapse of Ottoman Turkey in 1922. The British retained control of the canal. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser proclaimed Arab unity and took control of the Suez Canal. A joint force of British, French, and Israeli troops, fearing loss of control of and access to the canal, attacked Egypt and nearly succeeded in taking control of the canal; this was especially critical for Great Britain and France, as this was a route to British and French colonies in Africa and Asia. Both the United States and the Soviet Union condemned the attack, and threats of nuclear retaliation by the Soviets were enough to keep the canal under Egyptian control.

The Suez Canal was shut down from 1967-1975. After the Six Day War (1967) between Israel and Egypt, mines, destroyed boats and downed planes in the canal discontinued passage through the canal. In another quirk of history, 15 ships got stuck in the canal because of the closure. Crew members would rotate every three months but the ships remained. Over the years, the 15 ships created their own stamps and trading system. Finally released in 1975, only two ships were still sea-worthy to leave.

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