The desirability of a water connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was long appreciated in antiquity. A canal was built in the 20th or 19th cent. B.C. to Lake Timsah (then the northern end of the Red Sea). Xerxes I had the canal extended. It was restored several times (notably by Ptolemy II and Trajan) until the 8th cent. A.D., when it was closed and fell into disrepair.
The modern canal was planned by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also supervised construction (1859-69). Great Britain, which had opposed the construction of the canal, became the largest shareholder in 1875 by purchasing the interest of the Egyptian khedive. The Convention of Constantinople signed in 1888 by all major European powers of the time declared the canal neutral and guaranteed free passage to all in time of peace and war. Great Britain was the guarantor of the neutrality of the canal; management was placed in the hands of the Suez Canal Company.
Under the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which made Egypt virtually independent, Britain reserved rights for the protection of the canal, but after World War II, Egypt pressed for evacuation of British troops from the area. Egypt in 1951 repudiated the 1936 treaty, and anti-British rioting and clashes on the border of the zone erupted. In 1954, Britain agreed to withdraw, and in June, 1956, the British completed their evacuation of armed forces from Egypt and the canal zone.
After Great Britain and the United States withdrew their pledges of financial support to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam (see under Aswan), Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser nationalized (July, 1956) the Suez Canal and set up the Egyptian Canal Authority to replace the existing privately owned company. In August, British oil and embassy officials were expelled from the country. Having been denied passage through the canal since 1950 and having suffered repeated border raids from Egypt, Israel, with French and English air support, invaded Egyptian territory on Oct. 29, 1956. Within a few days France and Great Britain sent armed forces to retake the Suez Canal. Intervention by the United Nations brought an armistice in early November, and a UN emergency force replaced the British and French troops. The canal, blocked for more than six months because of damage and sunken ships, was cleared with UN help and reopened in Apr., 1957. Egypt agreed to pay, in six annual installments, approximately $81 million to shareholders of the nationalized Suez Canal Company; final payment was made on Jan. 1, 1963.
Despite UN efforts to guarantee the free passage of vessels through the canal, Egypt prevented Israeli ships from using the waterway. The canal was closed by Egypt during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, after which it formed part of the boundary between Egypt and the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula. Egypt lost considerable revenue as a result of the closing of the canal, but friendly Arab countries agreed to subsidize the Egyptian economy with contributions roughly equaling the former income from the canal. After the Suez Canal was closed, many ships (especially tankers) were built that were too large for the canal, and alternate sea routes were used increasingly in world trade.
In Oct., 1973, Egyptian troops crossed the canal and attacked Israeli forces on the east bank of the canal; Israeli units crossed the canal to the west and eventually encircled the Egyptian Third Army. In early 1974, Egypt and Israel signed an agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. With both banks of the canal again secured, Egypt, with the assistance of the U.S. navy, cleared it of mines and war wreckage, and it was reopened in 1975. Traffic declined in the 1980s, largely because of high fees and water too shallow for oil supertankers. In 1997 officials announced fee reductions and a plan to deepen the channel.
See D. A. Farnie, East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854-1956 (1969); K. Love, Suez, the Twice-Fought War (1969); A. G. Mezerik, ed., The Suez Canal 1956 Crisis-1967 War (1969); M. H. Heikal, Cutting the Lion's Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes (1987); D. Neff, Warriors at Suez (1987); Z. Karabell, Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (2003).
The Suez Canal is a canal in Egypt. Opened in 1869, it allows water transportation between Europe and Asia without circumnavigation of Africa or carrying goods overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
The canal is owned and maintained by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) of the state of Egypt.
The reliefs of the Punt expedition under Hatshepsut depict seagoing vessels carrying the expeditionary force returning from Punt. This has given rise to the theory that, at the time, a navigable link existed between the Red Sea and the Nile.
Evidence indicates its existence by the 13th century BC during the time of Ramesses II.
Herodotus was told that 120,000 men perished in this undertaking. According to Pliny the Elder, Necho's extension to the canal was approximately 57 English miles, equal to the total distance between Bubastis and the Great Bitter Lake, allowing for winding through valleys that it necessarily had to pass through. The length that Herodotus tells us, of over 1000 stadia (i.e., over 114 miles), must be understood to include the entire distance between the Nile and the Red Sea at that time.
With Necho's death, work was discontinued. Herodotus tells us that the reason the project was abandoned was because of a warning received from an oracle that the barbarians (i.e., the Persians) would benefit by its successful completion.
Necho's project was finally completed by Darius I of Persia, who conquered Egypt. We are told that by Darius's time a natural waterway passage which had existed between the Heroopolite Gulf and the Red Sea in the vicinity of the Egyptian town of Shaluf (alt. Chalouf or Shaloof), located just south of the Great Bitter Lake, had become so blocked with silt that Darius necessarily needed to clear it out so as to allow navigation once again.
According to Herodotus, Darius's canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and required four days to traverse. Darius commemorated his achievement with a number of granite stelae that he set up on the Nile bank, including one near Kabret, from Suez. The Darius Inscriptions read:
Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.
The canal left the Nile at Bubastis. An inscription on a pillar at Pithom records that in 270 or 269 BC it was again reopened, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In Arsinoe, Ptolemy constructed a navigable lock, with sluices, between the Heroopolite Gulf and the Red Sea which allowed the passage of vessels but prevented salt water from the Red Sea from mingling with the fresh water in the canal.
Only two hundred years after the construction of Ptolemy's canal, Cleopatra seems to have had no west-east waterway passage, because the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River, which had fed Ptolemy's west-east canal, had by that time dwindled, having choked up with silt.
Mehemet Ali is said to have ordered this canal closed in 1811.
Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, French cartographers would again record the discovery of the remnants of yet another ancient north-south canal running past the east side of Lake Timsah and ending near the north end of the Great Bitter Lake. This second canal followed a course along the ancient shoreline of the Red Sea when the Red Sea once extended north to Lake Timsah.
Unknown however are exactly when these two ancient canals were constructed and by whom.
Napoleon had contemplated the construction of another, modern, north-south canal to join the Mediterranean and Red Sea. But his project was abandoned after the preliminary survey erroneously concluded that the Red Sea was 10 metres higher than the Mediterranean, making a locks-based canal too expensive and very long to construct. The Napoleonic survey commission's error came from fragmented readings mostly done during wartime, which resulted in imprecise calculations.
The excavation took nearly 11 years using forced labour of Egyptian workers. Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were forced to work on the canal.
The British recognized the canal as an important trade route and perceived the French project as a threat to their geopolitical and financial interests. The British Empire was the major global naval force and officially condemned the forced work and sent armed bedouins to start a revolt among workers. Involuntary labour on the project ceased, and the viceroy condemned the slavery, halting the project.
Angered by the British opportunism, de Lesseps sent a letter to the British government remarking on the British lack of remorse a few years earlier when forced workers died in similar conditions building the British railroad in Egypt.
Initially international opinion was skeptical and Suez Canal Company shares did not sell well overseas. Britain, the United States, Austria and Russia did not buy any shares. All French shares were quickly sold in France. A contemporary British skeptic claimed:
"One thing is sure... our local merchant community doesn't pay practical attention at all to this grand work, and it is legitimate to doubt that the canal's receipts... could ever be sufficient to recover its maintenance fee. It will never become a large ships accessible way in any case." (reported by German historian Uwe A. Oster)
The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. Combined with the American transcontinental railroad completed six months earlier, it allowed the entire world to be circled in record time. It played an important role in increasing European penetration and colonization of Africa. External debts forced Said Pasha's successor, Isma'il Pasha, to sell his country's share in the canal for £4,000,000 to the United Kingdom in 1875, but France still remained the majority shareholder. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was accused by William Gladstone of undermining Britain's constitutional system, due to his lack of reference or consent from Parliament when purchasing the shares with funding from the Rothschilds.
The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British; British troops had moved in to protect it during a civil war in Egypt in 1882. They were later to defend the strategically important passage against a major Ottoman attack in 1915. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the UK insisted on retaining control over the canal. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty, and in 1954 the UK agreed to remove its troops, and withdrawal was completed in July 1956.
After the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam due to Egyptian overtures towards the Soviet Union, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956, intending to finance the dam project using revenue from the canal, while at the same time closing the Gulf of Aqaba to all Israeli shipping by closure of the Straits of Tiran. This provoked the Suez Crisis, in which the UK, France and Israel colluded to invade Egypt. The intention was for Israel to invade on the ground, and for the Anglo-French partnership to give air and other support, later to intervene to resolve the crisis and control the canal.
To stop the war from spreading and to save the British from what he thought was a disastrous action, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, proposed the creation of the very first United Nations peacekeeping force to ensure access to the canal for all and an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. On 4 November 1956, a majority of nations at the United Nations voted for Pearson's peacekeeping resolution, which mandated the UN peacekeepers to stay in the Sinai Peninsula unless both Egypt and Israel agreed to their withdrawal. The US backed this proposal by putting financial pressure on the British government, which then agreed to withdraw its troops. Pearson was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As a result of damage and ships intentionally sunk under orders from Nasser the canal was closed until April 1957, when it was cleared with UN assistance. A UN force (UNEF) was established to maintain the neutrality of the canal and the Sinai Peninsula.
These actions were key factors in the Israeli decision to launch a pre-emptive attack on Egypt in June 1967, and to capture the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, also called the Six Day War, the canal was closed by an Egyptian blockade until 5 June, 1975. As a result, fourteen cargo ships known as "The Yellow Fleet" remained trapped in the canal for over eight years. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the canal was the scene of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-occupied Sinai. Much wreckage from this conflict remains visible along the canal's edges.
The UNEF mandate expired in 1979. Despite the efforts of the US, Israel, Egypt, and others to obtain an extension of the UN role in observing the peace between Israel and Egypt, as called for under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the mandate could not be extended because of the veto by the USSR in the security council, at the request of Syria. Accordingly, negotiations for a new observer force in the Sinai produced the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), stationed in Sinai in 1981 in coordination with a phased Israeli withdrawal. It is there under agreements between the US, Israel, Egypt, and other nations. (Multinational Force and Observers).
Some supertankers are too large. Others can offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned boat and reload at the other end of the canal.
See also Suezmax.
Also, before the canal's opening in 1869, goods were sometimes offloaded from ships and carried overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
The canal has no locks due to the flat terrain, and the minor sea level difference between each end is inconsequential.
There is one shipping lane with several passing areas. On a typical day, three convoys transit the canal, two southbound and one northbound. The first southbound convoy enters the canal in the early morning hours and proceeds to the Great Bitter Lake, where the ships anchor out of the fairway, awaiting passage of the northbound convoy. The northbound convoy passes the second southbound convoy, which moors in a bypass near El Qantara. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours at a speed of around . The low speed helps prevent erosion of the canal banks by ships' wakes.
By 1955 approximately two-thirds of Europe's oil passed through the canal. About 7.5% of world sea trade is carried via the canal today. Receipts from the canal July 2005 to May 2006 totaled $3.246 billion. In 2007, 18,193 vessels passed through the canal. Average per-ship cost is roughly $150,000.00
A railway on the west bank runs parallel to the canal for its entire length.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 created the first salt-water passage between the Mediterranean and Red seas. The Red Sea is about 1.2 m higher than the eastern Mediterranean , so the canal serves as a tidal strait that pours Red Sea water into the Mediterranean. The Bitter Lakes, which are hypersaline natural lakes that form part of the canal, blocked the migration of Red Sea species into the Mediterranean for many decades, but as the salinity of the lakes gradually equalised with that of the Red Sea, the barrier to migration was removed, and plants and animals from the Red Sea have begun to colonise the eastern Mediterranean. The Red Sea is generally saltier and more nutrient-poor than the Atlantic, the direction of flow is generally from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, so the Red Sea species have advantages over Atlantic species in the salty and nutrient-poor eastern Mediterranean. Accordingly, most Red Sea species invade the Mediterranean biota, and only few do the opposite. This migratory phenomenon is called Lessepsian migration (after Ferdinand de Lesseps) or Erythrean invasion. The construction of the Aswan High Dam across the River Nile in the 1960s reduced the inflow of freshwater and nutrient-rich silt from the Nile into the eastern Mediterranean, making conditions there even more like the Red Sea, worsening the impact of the invasive species.
Invasive species originated from the Red Sea and introduced into the Mediterranean by the construction of the canal have become a major component of the Mediterranean ecosystem, and have serious impacts on the Mediterranean ecology, endangering many local and endemic Mediterranean species. Currently about 300 species from the Red Sea have been identified in the Mediterranean Sea, and there are probably others yet unidentified. The Egyptian government's intent to enlarge the canal have raised concerns from marine biologists, fearing that this will worsen the invasion of Red Sea species in the Mediterranean. .
Construction of the Suez Canal was preceded by cutting a small fresh-water canal from the Nile delta along Wadi Tumilat to the future canal, with a southern branch to Suez and a northern branch to Port Said. Completed in 1863, these brought fresh water to a previously arid area, initially for canal construction, and subsequently facilitating growth of agriculture and settlements along the canal.
The Suez Canal is also a playable map in the game Battlefield 2142.