The Suez Canal: History, Location & Importance

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
The Suez Canal offers ships the shortest route between Europe and Asia, making it one of the most important passageways in the world. Review the canal's history, location, and importance in this lesson.

Where is the Suez Canal?

You've probably heard of the Panama Canal, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the country of Panama. It helps ships avoid having to go all the way around the tip of South America to cross the world. By cutting across Panama, this canal technically separates North and South America into two distinct land masses.

Equally important in many ways is the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway located in Egypt that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Like the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal helps ships avoid having to travel around the southern tip of Africa as they move between Europe and Asia. By cutting across the Isthmus of Suez, the Suez Canal technically separates Africa and Asia into two distinct land masses.

A satellite image of the Suez Canal.
Suez Canal

History of the Suez Canal

The first canals that linked various waterways in this area were built in ancient Egypt, as far back as 4,000 years ago. However, scholars debate whether the canals dug by the pharaohs, Ptolemies, and Romans actually linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

In more modern times, some of the first efforts to build a canal were begun by Napoleon Bonaparte around the end of the 18th century, as he had hoped such a canal would create a huge trade problem for his English enemies. Because his engineers miscalculated several factors, including the height of the Red Sea compared with the Mediterranean Sea, the project was abandoned.

However, interest in the project did not die down, especially in French intellectual circles in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, in 1854 the French diplomat Ferdinand De Lesseps was given permission by Said Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, to build the modern canal. This paved the way for the Suez Canal Company to build the canal, which they began to construct in 1859. The Suez Canal Company was originally owned by French and Egyptian entities, but in 1875, the British government bought out Egypt's shares. Surely, this would have made Napoleon spin in his grave!

Construction of the canal took ten years, partly as a result of financial problems, a cholera epidemic, and the long process of digging everything by hand, at least at first. The canal was finished in August 1869, and officially opened on November 17, 1869.

Importance of the Suez Canal

Today, the Suez Canal is operated entirely by the Egyptians, and it has only been completely closed twice in its history. Once was in 1956, during a British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt. The canal was re-opened in 1957. The second closure came as a result of the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, and the canal was not reopened until June 1975.

The Suez Canal's ability to stay open is important mainly for one reason: It is the shortest trade link between Europe and countries on the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Because the majority of the world's goods are transported via sea, the Suez Canal greatly reduces the time and cost of transporting goods. The alternatives are overland transport routes between the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, which are logistically challenging and time-consuming, or for ships to go around Africa, which is also highly time-consuming.

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