The Suez Canal

By | May 31, 2019

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Sinai Peninsula from Space. Source: (

The Suez Canal, bridging the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, is one of the most important engineering feats in all of human history. This 120-mile trench dug through the Egyptian Isthmus of Suez has changed the course of world events, politics, and economics but, aside from the fact that there is a Suez Canal, most of us know very little about it.

Early Ideas

As far back as antiquity, the challenges of trade between civilizations in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean basins inspired the idea of a link between the two bodies of water. Seaborn trade is vastly cheaper and more efficient than moving goods over land, so eliminating the need to portage across the Isthmus of Suez would have greatly increased the prosperity of any people advanced enough to complete such an undertaking.

Contemporary records do not provide a concrete answer as to whether the canal was completed, but the first documented attempt to bridge the divide was nearly 3,900 years ago during the reign of Pharaoh Senusret III. Later Pharaohs, the Persians, Romans, and Ottomans all attempted similar feats—mostly running east-west, not north-south as the present canal—but there is no evidence of a largescale navigable canal with sustainable operation in the historical record.

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Digitally restored vector painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse. Source: (

Napoleon’s Involvement

Even the great French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte was seduced by the idea of linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. For centuries before his conquest of Egypt in the late 18th century, traders and explorers had rounded the Cape of Good Hoping to exchange goods with civilizations farther afield, and slashing the length of that journey, he thought, would cement France as Europe’s preeminent power.

Unfortunately for the French, a string of challenges and military defeats forced them to withdraw from Egypt, after having only completed an initial survey of the proposed route. The survey erroneously concluded that the difference in elevation between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was too great for a feasible canal. This miscalculation set back the mission of a Suez Canal for a generation.