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The Suez Canal: The Desert Ditch Ferrying 1 Billion Tons of Goods Every Year (When It’s Not Blocked)

Some megaprojects have re-defined a country. Some lead to greater innovation within a specific industry – but a few generate change on a truly global level. What we are talking about today redefined global trade and travel. It’s not surprising that 161 years after construction first began, it has perhaps lost a little of its shine, especially when compared to the bold, brash achievements of the 21st Century. But make no mistake about it, this grey-haired, grizzled megaproject changed the world 

The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, linked the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea for the first time. But perhaps more importantly, it, therefore, linked the Atlantic Ocean with the Indian Ocean. This was an absolute game-changer in terms of East-West connection. Before the canal, a journey by ship from London to Mumbai clocked in at 10,720 miles (17,2520 km), but the completion of the Suez canal meant that went down to just 6,260 miles (10,074 km), shaving a handy 23-26 days off the total journey.

This 120 mile (193 km) man-made slither of water, from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south, fundamentally changed the way we moved around the world, long before aeroplanes could jet us across the planet in a matter of hours.        

Ancient History

Ancient ocean illustration
Ancient ocean illustration

While it would be a stretch to call the Suez Canal a modern project, it certainly was in comparison to the earliest recorded canals in Ancient Egypt. As early as 2000 BC rudimentary channels connecting the River Nile and the Red Sea were already in operation, however, they were almost entirely lost, to both time, and the encroaching desert. 

It wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte ordered an in-depth survey of the area in 1798 and the publication of Description de l’Égypte, that details of these ancient waterways appeared once again. They were, of course, much smaller and simpler than what we have today, but they were still an extraordinary achievement for the ancient world.

The French Emperor initially showed a keen interest in the construction of a canal, but these ideas were abandoned when engineers concluded that the canal would need locks because of elevation difference – a conclusion that turned out to be completely wrong.

During the 1830s and 1840s, these doubts were finally disproven, and with trade between east and west booming, it seemed only a matter of time until a project was given the go-ahead. Both the British and the French were major players in the area at the time, but the prospect of a canal interested the French far more than the British, who instead chose to focus on their Alexandria to Suez railway line.     

Planning and building

Enter Ferdinand de Lesseps, Architect of Suez canal
Enter Ferdinand de Lesseps

Enter Ferdinand de Lesseps – a French diplomat who became the driving force of the entire project. In 1854 he was granted a concession by Sa’id Pasha, the Khedive (ruler) of Egypt and Sudan, to form a company and construct the canal. He also convened a group, wonderfully named the International Commission for the Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, in which 13 experts from seven different countries collaborated to form plans for the canal. On the 15th May 1858 – the Suez Canal Company was born, co-owned by France and Egypt.  

Construction began in Port Said on 25th April 1859 and took 10 years to complete. In terms of what we are used to in the 21st Century, the working conditions were barbaric. Until 1864 forced labour was commonly used, with as many as 120,000 workers dying throughout the construction process, many from disease – particularly cholera.  

Civil engineering: work on the Suez canal
Civil engineering: work on the Suez canal by Wellcome Images is licensed under CC-BY

The British, conveniently forgetting they had used forced labour in the construction of the Alexandra – Suez railway a few years before, objected fiercely to the working conditions, even going as far as to stir up an armed Bedouin revolt. Eventually, things calmed down and the Khedive decreed that forced labour would cease immediately. If you’re thinking that the British suddenly developed a conscience, let me stop you there. This was all about business. The British knew that a canal would affect trade along their railway, and maybe even challenge their position as the leading naval power of the time.  

An estimated 1.5 million people worked on the canal at some point throughout the decade, with around 30,000 working at any one time. Much of the early work was done by hand, with simple picks and shovels, but after forced labour was done away with, engineers were forced to invest in the most state of the art machinery of the time. These steam-powered shovels proved incredibly efficient and the project built up considerable speed. Of the 75 million cubic meters of sand removed, three-quarters were done so by heavy machinery.  

On completion, the canal was 7.6 metres (25ft) deep, 22 metres (72ft) wide at the bottom, and 60 to 90 metres (200-300ft) wide on the surface – smaller than it is today, which I will come to shortly. It also came out twice over-budget at $100 million, around $1.9 billion today.  

Inauguration and Early Stages

Inauguration of Suez canal
Inauguration {{PD-US}} 

A lavish opening ceremony to open the canal began on 15th November 1869, attended by royalty and dignitaries from around the world, and went on for the best part of 48 hours, including prayers, blessings, speeches and considering the French were heavily involved, one would imagine plenty of food and excellent wine. The first ships to enter the canal did so on the 17th November, but it’s fair to say that the first day didn’t entirely go to plan. The French ship, Péluse, managed to ground itself in Lake Timsah, around 41 miles south of Port Said, resulting in a blockage that stretched back into the canal itself. The ship needed to be pulled out the following morning and led some at the time to question whether the canal was as deep as claimed.  

But there was another intriguing tale that occurred that day. Confusion remains as to which ship entered the canal first. Official versions state that it was the French ship, Aigle, however, this is disputed. Another story goes that one particularly sneaky British Captain, George Nares, ordered his ship HMS Newport to jump the queue under the cover of darkness. The crew of the Aigle were said to have woken to find the British ship now in front of them. If only we could have recorded the looks on the French faces as they emerged from their bunks, no doubt a little groggy from all the festivities to find Union Jack fluttering ahead of them.    

George Nares was officially reprimanded for his most ungentlemanly behaviour but was secretly lauded for the sheer audacity of it all. The British always enjoyed antagonizing the French whenever possible, an affection that was usually returned. 

Initial shipping numbers in the first few years were lower than anticipated and led to a re-think in how a ship was taxed to pass through the canal. The Moorsome System, devised by the British in 1849, focused on the hypothetical tonnage of the entire ship, but a new system that instead looked at net tonnage was devised and is still in operation today. 

Interestingly, one proposed element of the canal that didn’t make it was an idea put forth by a French sculptor, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. His vision of an enormous statue at the entry to the canal at Port Said, a tribute to the Colossus of Rhodes, was eventually rejected by Ferdinand de Lesseps. I mean really, who wants to see an enormous statue of a woman dressed in robes holding aloft a flaming torch. Yes, that’s right – what was first designed as a project called “Egypt Bringing Light To Asia,”, went on to become – The Statue of Liberty.  

Global Impact and Financial Problems

Despite a slow start, the canal had a huge impact on trade around the world. Combined with the Intercontinental Railroad completed in the U.S six months earlier, it was now possible to circumnavigate the globe at speeds that would have been unimaginable a few years before. Goods could be distributed at a faster rate than ever and led to a huge increase in both supply and demand. The effect of this was a huge expansion of national economies, and considerably sped up the process of globalisation.   

In 1875 the French still retained a majority stake in the canal, with the ruler of Egypt, then Isma’il Pasha, holding a 44% stake. However, the ruler was in financial difficulties and was forced to sell. The British, having seemingly overcome their initial reluctance, were only too glad to offer him £4,000,000 equivalent to roughly £450 million today, for his shares in the company. Less than ten years later the British moved to quell local unrest by invading Egypt and seizing control of the canal, with the support of the French. In terms of the control of the canal, this was a situation that remained more or less the same for the next 70 years.   

Suez Crisis

Located close to one of the most combustible areas on the planet, the Suez Canal has seen its fair share conflict. From the early disagreements between the Egyptians and Turks in 1864, all the way through to the Egyptian war with Israel of 1973, the Suez Canal has had a turbulent history. 

But most famously was the Suez Crisis of 1956. By this point, about two-thirds of Europe’s oil was passing through the canal. It had become vital to global shipping and was bringing in sizable profits for its shareholders. But this was a delicate time in global politics when countries around the world were often forced to choose between the western democratic ideology and the Communist doctrine emanating out of the Soviet Union. Most, for better or worse, picked a side, but Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, openly courted both, which annoyed just about everybody involved. However, more significantly, after Britain and the U.S had withdrawn their support for the construction of the Aswan Dam, Nasser moved quickly to nationalise the Suez Canal – effectively seizing control. Not only was this seen as a viable way to pay for the dam, but it also responded to growing public resentment in Egypt about Britain and France’s colonial attitudes. If you remember, the original agreement for the canal was for a lease of 99 years, and at this point, it was still 13 years short.  

Any guesses to what happened next? Under the very shadowy pretext of “protecting overseas interests”, Britain, France and Israel waded into conflict with Egypt. Though the military objectives to secure the canal were achieved quickly, it was rendered useless because the Egyptians had blocked the canal before their defeat.

This created, what may be, the world’s most pointless war. Fighting stopped after just 9 days, while growing international pressure led to the British and French scampering home, tails firmly between their legs, less than two months later. The Israelis retained control of the Sinai Desert for an additional three months, before also withdrawing. The result was a humiliation for the British and French, with many arguing that, for the British at least, this ended their role as a global superpower. This also led to the deployment of the first U.N peacekeeping force to the canal.    

An Eight-Year Wait

While the crisis tends to dominate the Suez Canal’s history, the strangest set of events were still to come. On the 5th June 1967, war broke out once again, with Israel attacking Egypt and quickly drawing both Jordan and Syria into the conflict also. Israeli forces overwhelmed the Egyptians and thundered across the Sinai Desert, where they eventually came to a stop on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. 

The six-day war ended after, you’ve guessed it, just six days. And while the Israeli forces never crossed the canal, it had effectively become the front line, with the Israelis on the eastern bank, and the Egyptians on the west. 

By this point, Egypt had already blockaded the canal, preventing any ships from passing through. This was done by scuttling ships and laying mines at both entrances. But unfortunately for them, 15 ships were heading northbound in the canal when fighting broke out, and as escape routes became blocked, these ships had no choice but to set anchor and wait. 

And the wait went for an astonishing 8 years. Though their crews were rotated on and off the boats every 3 months, the 15 ships themselves remained stranded within the canal until 1975. They famously became known as the Yellow Fleet, after the thick sand that seemed to forever cake the ships. But they certainly made the best of it, forming a community between the boats, and even holding sports events. By 1975, when they were authorised to leave, only 2 of the 15 ships remained seaworthy and capable of returning to their home countries under their own power.    

The New Suez Canal

Southern exit of the Suez Canal
Southern exit of the Suez Canal

The most significant addition to the canal began on 15th August 2014 and was known as the New Suez Canal. Perhaps a little misleading because it wasn’t a new canal, but rather an extension to the old, combined with a widening and deepening of the original.  

Over the course of a year, a 22 miles (35 km) canal was dug parallel to the existing waterway and connected to it, with an additional 23 miles (37 km) section of the original canal deepened and widened, this allowed for two-way shipping along most of the canal for the first time. At a cost of $30 billion, it didn’t come cheap, but the Egyptian government estimates that it will increase the yearly revenue from $5 billion to $12.5 billion, so it would effectively be paid for in just 4 years – theoretically of course. Canal capacity has increased from 49 to 97 ships per day, while also reducing waiting times from 11 hours to just 3 hours for most ships. 

Currently, the canal is 120.11 miles (193.30 km) long, 24 metres (79 ft) deep and 205 metres (673 ft) wide and is composed of a northern access channel of 14 miles (22 km), the canal itself of 100.82 miles (162.25 km) and the southern access channel which is 5.6 miles (9 km). 

The canal is big enough for most types of nautical shipping, though in some extreme cases, the largest ships need to unload part of their cargo onto small ships before making their way through. The canal can support vessels up to 20 metres (66 ft) draft or 240,000 deadweight tons and up to a height of 68 metres (223 ft) above water level and a maximum beam of 77.5 metres (254 ft), which is its widest point.

The journey takes between 11 and 16 hours at a speed of around 8 knots (9 mph or 15 kph) and must be completed in ship conveys set at regulated times over 24 hours. 

The Future of the Canal

With the addition of the extension canal, you might think that the future looks bright for this historic project. And indeed with the additional revenue and shipping at an all-time high, it probably is for the time being. However, things aren’t quite black and white. In 2015, 115 ships chose to make the original trip around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, rather than go through the canal. Sounds like madness, right? Yes, in terms of the time it makes absolutely no sense, but financially it certainly does. 

A typical oil tanker pays in the region of $465,000 to pass through the canal, but astonishingly, despite being nearly five and half thousand miles further, ships can make a tidy saving of $235,000 by taking the longer trip. This becomes considerably more attractive because of what they are often carrying – oil. The price of oil has seen dramatic fluctuation over the last decade and has led to some bizarre stories of oil-tankers being ordered to move slowly with the hope that prices may increase, or so sellers might be able to find different buyers. The mad race to market is no longer there. Yes, 115 is a mere dent in the 17,000 ships that passed through the canal in 2015, but with oil prices now hitting record lows, the future may not be as rosy as once thought.

Whatsmore, because of climate change, ships are finding it easier and easier to use a northern route which passes above Russia. In 2009, Beluga Group claimed to have completed the sea route from Ulsan in South Korea to Rotterdam in the Netherlands without the assistance of icebreakers. By not using the canal, they had reduced the distance by 4000 nautical miles. 

The Suez canal connected the world like never before, but as our world evolves and our priorities change, it’s unclear just how important the canal will be in the future. But for now at least, what began 161 years ago, with thousands toiling away with picks and shovels under a fierce Egyptian sun, remains a vital commercial lifeline for the world. 

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