Thursday, October 2, 2008
The Suez Canal, an artificial waterway across the Isthmus of Suez in northeastern Egypt, connects Port Said on the Mediterranean coast with Port Tawfiq on the Gulf of Suez, an inlet of the Red Sea. The 101-mile (163-kilometer) canal has no locks, making it the longest of its kind, sea level being the same at both ends. Because it exploits three natural bodies of water—Lake Manzala in the north; Lake Timsah, almost exactly at the midpoint; and a chain known as the Great Bitter Lake in the south, accounting for about 18 percent of its length—it does not follow the shortest possible route. For most of the canal, traffic is limited to a single lane, but there are passing bays, as well as two-lane bypasses in the Great Bitter Lake. A railway on the west bank runs parallel to the canal from end to end. It took a force of an estimated 1.5 million Egyptian laborers, often working under appalling conditions, eight years to dig the Suez Canal; more than 125,000 lost their lives. In every way, the project is comparable with the architectural and engineering feats of pharaonic Egypt.
In fact, the idea of a navigable link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas dates from dynastic Egypt. Earlier canals joined the Red Sea to the Nile, with obvious economic advantages for the land of the Nile. The first, said to have been commissioned by Ramses I around 2000 b.c., linked the Red Sea and the Nile, and a second component was formed by a branch of the Pelusian River that extended to the Mediterranean. Other sources claim that the first canal was constructed in the reign of Tuthmosis III (1512–1448 b.c.), and still others that Necho II (reigned 610–595 b.c.) initiated it, but lack of maintenance meant that it later became unnavigable. Whatever the case, the Persian king Darius I (558–486 b.c.) ordered the work to be completed. His canal, linking the Gulf of Suez to the Great Bitter Lake and the lake to the Nile Delta, remained in good repair through the Macedonian era. It was redug in the time of the Roman emperor Trajan (a.d. 53–117) and again by the Arab ruler Amr Ibn-Al-Aas. When a trade route around Africa was discovered, it again fell into disuse until about 1800. About then, Napoléon Bonaparte’s engineers proposed a shorter route to India by digging a north-south canal through the Isthmus of Suez. But they wrongly believed that there was a difference in sea level of about 32 feet (10 meters), an error that undermined the feasibility of the project. The Egyptian khedive Mohammed-Ali (reigned 1811–1848) showed little interest in the scheme, and it lapsed for almost half a century.
On 15 November 1854 the French diplomat and engineer Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who had long championed a canal across the isthmus, approached Egypt’s new ruler, his old friend khedive Said, with a plan privately devised by a French engineer in Mohammed-Ali’s service. A. Linant de Bellefonds proposed a canal between Suez and Peluse, crossing the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah. By the end of the month de Lesseps was granted a decree allowing him to dig the canal and manage it for ninety-nine years. A second agreement, signed in January 1856, ensured that the Suez Canal would be open to shipping of all nationalities and accessible for a transit fee. By December 1858 the Frenchman established the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, and shares were quickly bought by investors from all over Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Construction work started on the Suez Canal in April 1859.
Even during its construction, the canal was at the center of a political storm because of its critical military and economic importance. Before work started, the British—and particularly the prime minister, Lord Palmerston—were afraid that the French project would threaten their interests in India, and they tried to have the khedive’s decree set aside. When that failed, they used political pressure in an attempt to have the digging stopped, only six months after it had started. Such interference continued into the 1860s, after Said was succeeded by the khedive Ismael, who was persuaded to sell his shares in the Compagnie Universelle to Britain, making it the largest single shareholder.
The Suez Canal was completed in August 1869. In the course of its construction, three new towns had been built—Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said—and millions of hectares of farmland had been created. Built at immense human and economic cost (about $330 million in modern values), it was officially opened at Port Said by the French empress Eugénie on November 1869. The great waterway originally had a width of 72 feet (22 meters) at the bottom and 190 feet (58 meters) on the surface. The channel was 26 feet (8 meters) deep. It has been enlarged and deepened many times.
A couple of incidents have highlighted, at great economic cost, the Suez Canal’s critical strategic importance. In July 1956 Egypt’s President Nasser, in response to the British, French, and U.S. refusal of loans for the Aswan High Dam, nationalized the canal. That provoked the so-called Suez Crisis, beginning with the British and French invasion of Egypt in October. The Egyptians scuttled forty ships that were then in the canal. By the following March the United Nations had prevailed upon Egypt to clear and reopen the waterway. Ten years later, following the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the canal was again closed to shipping. The Egyptians reclaimed it after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and, cleared of mines and obstructions, it was reopened in 1975.
In 2001, about 6 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes through it. Of course, it dramatically reduces the east-west voyage distance for vessels; for example, the route between Tokyo and Europoort in the Netherlands is only three-quarters of the distance of that around the Cape of Good Hope. The canal is a major source of income for Egypt, and the Suez Canal Authority continually makes improvements to it. The world’s largest bulk carriers—vessels that are 1,600 feet long and 230 feet wide (500 by 70 meters), with drafts up to 70 feet (21.4 meters)—can now navigate the Suez Canal. The duration of the passage is normally about twelve hours. Its present annual traffic capacity is over 25,000 vessels. Tanker traffic has declined, mostly because of competition from the 200-mile (320-kilometer) Sumed oil pipeline between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.