The Suez Canal
Sinai Peninsula from Space. Source: (gettyimages.com)
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.
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.
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.
By the mid-19th century, another Frenchman had taken up the challenge of constructing the canal, and his name was Ferdinand de Lesseps. After years working as a diplomat in the region, De Lesseps had the knowledge and relationships required to champion such an undertaking. In 1855 he convened the succinctly named International Commission for the Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, and the project started to gain momentum.
Experts from around the world met in Paris to pour over maps, surveys, and documents and assess the feasibility of the project. After nearly a year of site investigations, analysis, and deliberation the panel concluded that the project was feasible, and expressed support for its construction.
With the plans evaluated by the greatest scholars and experts of the day, the Suez Canal Company was chartered and the millennia-old dream of building the canal was one step closer to realization. After initial investments from the Egyptian government, wealthy Frenchmen, and business leaders, the Suez Canal Company was ready to begin one of the greatest engineering projects of all time.
Work began in 1859 and would not conclude for another 10 years. Over the course of construction, more than one million people were employed, with tens of thousands excavating at any given time. Unfortunately, thousands of these laborers would later die from disease, accidents, and overexertion while working in the desert, but no exact accounting of their number exists.
The first ship sailed through the Suez Canal in November of 1869, forever altering the flow of global commerce and finally realizing what had been so long envisioned. Overnight, weeks were shaved off the journey from Europe to Asia and the entire system of international trade was disrupted. With its immense geostrategic relevance, the canal would go on to serve as a flashpoint for international conflict, nearly triggering a third world war in the heights of the 1956 Suez Crisis.
To this day, the Suez Canal remains a linchpin of the global economic system. Facilitating trade between Europe and Asia, thousands of ships ladened with goods transit the canal annually. With the rapid development of the Global South and skyrocketing volumes of world trade, the canal will only grow in importance in the decades ahead.
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