The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, was one of the major engineering feats of the mid-19th century, helping with the European access to India and east Asia. Since ancient times, many goods were carried by land along the route of where the Suez Canal was built, but offloading and then reloading all the goods was expensive and time consuming. This meant that some shipping companies preferred to go around the Cape of Good Hope, but this added much time to the journey.
It is believed that the pharaoh Senusret III (reigned 1878–1839 b.c.e.) started work on a canal that would join the River Nile to the Red Sea to allow direct trade with the fabled kingdom of Punt, and also to the Mediterranean, reducing the need for the Egyptians to have a navy in both places. However, over the next 1,200 years, the canal fell into disuse, although there were later attempts to rebuild it. In 1799, when Napoleon was in Egypt, he considered building the canal as it would not only help with trade, but it would also allow access to India. However, the survey work undertaken by the French showed that the Red Sea was 10 m higher than the Mediterranean, which was incorrect. Based on this, however, they felt that the locks needed would make the construction too complicated and far too expensive.
In 1854 the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps managed to get a concession from the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, to build a canal, and on December 15, 1858, he established the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (Suez Canal Company). Work started immediately and it took almost 11 years and work by as many as 30,000 people to build the canal, which stretched from Port Suez to Ismailia. It was opened for the first time on November 17, 1869. Because of the importance of trade to the British, they wanted to have a role in the construction of the canal, but when the company shares were sold, most were bought in France, with Ismail Pasha, the new viceroy of Egypt, being given a number of shares. However, he had severe debts and sold the shares in 1875 for £4 million, thus ensuring a major British interest in the company. The loan by which the British bought the shares was made possible by the good offices of the Rothschilds. By the Convention of Constantinople in 1888, the British undertook to protect the canal and it was to be a neutral zone in times of war. The AngloEgyptian Treaty of 1936 confirmed British control of the canal, and this was important in both World War I and World War II, as well as trade throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Egyptian nationalists resented the British control of the canal, the stationing of British soldiers in the Suez Canal Zone, and also the revenue from the canal which went to the Suez Canal Company. In 1951 the Egyptian government repudiated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and in 1954, the British agreed to remove their soldiers, completing this in July 1956. Soon afterward, the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser announced on July 26, 1956, that it was nationalizing the canal, buying all the company shares for the price they were quoted on the French stock market on the previous day. The British and the French objected to this and threatened to intervene, with Israel offering to launch a land attack. The British and French sent in their soldiers and they fought the Egyptians. However, the United States opposed the war, and the United Nations voted to create a peacekeeping force, the Canadian politician Lester Pearson being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work on this. The sinking of ships in the Suez Canal resulted in its being closed until 1957.
The Suez Canal was now under Egyptian management, but in 1967, the Israelis launched a strike against the Egyptian forces and attacked across the Sinai Peninsula to take the canal. It was then closed by an Egyptian blockade, with Egypt attacking Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The canal started operations again on June 5, 1975, and it has been open since then, under the control of the Suez Canal Authority. All ships going through it needed to take on pilots who were, until 1956, foreigners, and from then on Egyptians. The largest ships that are allowed through are supertankers known as “supermax.” It costs about $150,000 for an average ship to pass through the canal, which between July 2005 and May 2006, raised $3.246 billion, helping finance many projects for the Egyptian government.
- E. B. Duff, 100 Years of the Suez Canal (Clifton Books, 1969);
- John Pudney, Suez: De Lesseps’ Canal (Dent, 1969);
- Hugh J. Schonfield, The Suez Canal in Peace and War 1869–1969 (Valentine, Mitchell, 1969);
- Derek Varble, The Suez Crisis 1956 (Osprey, 2003).
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