The Suez Canal’s opening in 1869 brought fundamental change to the international trade system. The waterway eliminated an estimated 10,000 kilometers and 24 days from the traditional maritime trade route between Europe and Asia.
In this article, we will explore the chronology of the waterway’s development and its role in international trade systems today.
What Is the Suez Canal?
The Suez Canal connects the North Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, giving ships the ability to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean without having to travel around the African continent. The waterway is 120 miles long, running from Port Said of Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez in the Red Sea.
Early Attempts at Canalization
The importance of connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean is nothing new, as small canals were built connecting the Nile River (which flows from the Mediterranean) to the Red Sea as far back as 2000 B.C.
The Suez region played a vital role in international trade. Many overland trade practices were used, including horse-drawn carriages and later trains by Great Britain. These overland trade routes were a central component of Britain’s trading relationship with India.
After leading a successful French invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte made plans to connect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea with a canal through the Isthmus of Suez. However, his researchers found that the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had different altitudes, which would make a canal a costly endeavor and possibly a flood hazard for the entire Nile Delta.
The construction of a canal through the Sinai was primarily looked at by the British government with disapproval, as the waterway’s opening to other countries could create competition with its trade relationship with India.
Planning of the Canal
In 1830, General Francis Chesney discovered that the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were actually at the same altitude. This meant that a canal would not require lock systems, making it much cheaper and relatively easier to construct.
In 1856, Khedive Said Pasha of Egypt allowed French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps to create the Suez Canal Company, where he was given a 99-year lease on the waterway and larger Suez region to build the canal. Lesseps created the International Commission for the Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, which was responsible for planning the construction project. This commission was made up of 13 experts from seven different countries.
Alois Negrelli, a civil engineer who had previously conducted an expedition through the Isthmus of Suez, laid out a plan that would place the waterway entrance slightly westward than the original location. This design was approved as the most efficient plan by the rest of the commission, and Lesseps formally established the Suez Canal Company in 1958.
In early 1859 the construction of the northern stretch of the canal began at Port Said. An estimated 1.5 million people were involved in the canal’s construction.
During the first years of the canal’s construction, many of these workers were slave laborers. They were subject to horrific working conditions. Most were Egyptian peasants that were condemned to intense physical labor in the Sinai Desert heat. These workers were crowded into cramped, unsanitary living quarters near the canal banks, where thousands died from diseases like cholera.
Because the British government hoped that the project would be unsuccessful and therefore not undermine its trade relationship with India, it condemned the Egyptian government for its use of forced labor.
This was more of an attempt to hamper the progress and profitability of the canal than a humanitarian act against the practice of slave labor. Egyptian leader Ismail Pasha signed an agreement with the British that banned slave labor in 1864, which considerably slowed the project.
Lesseps was angered by this move by the British and personally sent a letter to London, commenting on their sudden stance against forced labor when the British used thousands of Egyptian slaves to build railroads in the region just a few years before.
Facing a massive shortage of human labor, the Suez Canal Company increasingly resorted to using heavy machineries like steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers to build the canal during the project’s final two years. This gave the project a much-needed boost, as an estimated three-fourths of the canal’s sand was moved by heavy machinery.
The total costs of the canal’s construction doubled in size from the proposed budget by the end of the waterway’s construction. This was mainly due to internal political unrest in British- controlled Egypt, as well as the use of expensive heavy machinery.
Aside from France, shares of the Suez Canal Company generally did not advertise well overseas in Europe. During the canal’s construction, the French government controlled the overwhelming majority of the company’s shares.
The Statue of Liberty located in New York City was originally meant to be put at the Mediterranean entrance of the waterway at Port Said, but the project never materialized.
The statue was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who was inspired by the Ancient Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel and the Ancient Greek sculpture “Colossus of Rhodes.”
Bartholdi called the statue “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.” However, due to the country’s growing financial troubles, the Egyptian government declined the project.
Opening of the Canal
The Suez Canal officially opened on November 17, 1869, with a grand ceremony hosted by Egyptian Khedive Ismail Pasha. European leaders like Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Crown Prince of Prussia were invited to the event. Temporary mosques and Christian churches were placed on the banks of the canal, and a grand firework display commenced at the end of the night.
While the canal became a vital part of international trade, the canal saw less traffic in its first years than was previously expected. Due to rising debt in the Egyptian government, Khedive Ismail Pasha was forced to sell 44 percent of his shares in the Suez Canal Company to Britain and France in 1875. France remained the primary shareholder of the canal during this period.
In 1876, a report of Ismail Pasha’s finances convinced the British government that direct intervention was needed for Ismail to pay back his debts. As a result, the British and French governments effectively took over the finances of the Egyptian government, and Ismail had no choice but to allow the intervention.
Due to ensuing internal unrest throughout the Egyptian population, in 1882, Britain launched an invasion of Egypt and led a de facto occupation of the country. This would last until the formal British occupation of the country in 1914. Throughout this period, the British governmental force made great strides in modernizing the Egyptian government and increased the waterway traffic.
While most of the major countries throughout Europe profited greatly from the new trade routes to Asia, Austria-Hungary benefitted the most from the canal out of all the major European powers due to its prime location on the Mediterranean coastline.
The Osterreichischer Lloyd trading company grew immensely after the canal’s opening. In addition, the Italian port city of Trieste, which the Austria-Hungarian government controls, rose to prominence on the Mediterranean.
The canal played an integral role in the European colonization of Africa. The waterway significantly helped European powers ship colonial troops and supplies throughout the African continent and transport resources back to Europe.
The 1888 Convention of Constantinople declared that the waterway would act as a neutral zone between the European powers. The convention stipulated that the region would be placed under British military protection.
World War I
Egypt was officially under British protection in 1914 and therefore declared war against the nearby Ottoman Empire. Egyptian and British leaders knew that an Ottoman attack on Egypt from Palestine would indeed occur due to the importance of the Suez Canal for the war effort.
This worry was exacerbated with fervent anti-British sentiments within Egypt’s own internal political system. The British made the decision to remove the anti-Western Abbas Il Helmi from the head of state and replace him with Prince Hussein Kamel.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Fourth Turkish Army, led by Djemal Pasha, was building up thousands of troops in Palestine to invade Egypt.
By the beginning of 1915, 70,000 British troops, including many soldiers from the colonial Indian Army, were stationed in Egypt. Around 30,000 of these troops were explicitly placed to defend the Suez Canal. The primary defenses were placed on the canal’s west bank, with many outpost defenses eastward. These defenses were supplied via railway from Cairo.
The Turkish forces had to make a difficult decision on how to attack through the inhospitable Sinai desert. While attacking along the coast would allow the use of railway tracks, they would be vulnerable to British naval attacks.
In late January of 1915, a column of Ottoman troops crossed the central route of the Sinai desert. Allied ships immediately opened fire from the canal, and the infantry defenses successfully held off the attackers. However, the defenders allowed the Ottoman forces to reach the canal’s east bank as there was minimal cover on the waterway’s bank. The Ottomans were soon forced to retreat eastward.
Ottoman forces continually conducted small raids on British defensive positions along the canal, but no other major offensive would occur throughout the conflict’s duration. By the end of 1915, the defensive lines were moved across the canal to the east bank.
Defensive positions were moved further forward to ensure that Ottoman shelling would not reach the ships traveling through the canal.
World War II
Following World War I, Great Britain had significant influence in Egypt, and thousands of British troops were stationed in the canal zone. This troop count grew exponentially in 1935 when Egyptian leaders were growing worried because of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
Upon the beginning of the war in 1939, vessels belonging to the Axis powers were prohibited from using the waterway throughout the conflict’s duration. Just as in the previous war, the canal was seen as a vital component of the allied war effort due to its connection to the Far East. North Africa and the Middle East had much greater importance in the Second World War, as oil became a vital part of industrialized nations’ war machines.
Throughout the conflict, the Axis powers made many attempts to take Egypt but were ultimately unsuccessful. Extensive combat between British-led allied forces and German-Italian axis forces took place in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, culminating in the Battle of El Alamein.
On July 23, 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and other officers in the Egyptian military, called the “Free Officers,” overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk. In 1954 Nasser became the prime minister of Egypt and was elected as the first president of Egypt in 1956.
Upon taking power, Nasser began championing a nationalist Pan-Arabism movement throughout the Middle East, which included a policy of removing British influence from Egypt.
As Nasser’s nationalist sentiments increasingly threatened British influence in Egypt, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden increasingly approached U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower with plans to oust Nasser from power. However, President Eisenhower, looking through the lens of growing Cold War tensions, knew that an openly antagonistic relationship with Nasser could push Egypt into allying with the Soviet Union.
Nasser had already shown interest in siding with the Soviets, and a formal Egyptian-Soviet alliance would be detrimental to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Eisenhower knew that if Nasser welcomed the Soviets into Egypt, the Soviet Union could spread its influence from Cairo to other countries in the Middle East and threaten U.S. oil interests in the region.
These escalating tensions culminated in 1956 when President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal after the U.S. and Britain reversed their decision to help fund the Aswan Dam project.
The U.S. decision to withdraw funding for the dam project largely resulted from Nasser’s support of the Communist People’s Republic of China instead of the U.S.-backed Republic of China. (Nasser also increasingly showed support for the Soviet Union and communist Czechoslovakia.)
President Nasser nationalized the canal’s operation in a televised speech in Alexandria on July 26, 1956. The canal was immediately put under the control of the Egyptian military, and all assets of the Suez Canal Company were frozen. He announced that all stockholders of the canal would be reimbursed, and also shut down all Israeli shipping in the canal.
Despite this massive blow to Western interests, the U.S. government still did not approve Britain’s request to use military force to oust Nasser from power. However, the French and Israeli governments both expressed outrage to Prime Minister Eden over the nationalization of the canal. Lacking U.S. support, the British government formed a secret alliance with France and Israel for an invasion of Egypt.
Throughout July and August, the alliance began planning their invasion of Egypt. Britain and French troops were at a combined strength of 80,000 men for the invasion force.
However, the lack of adequate supplies and vehicles proved to be a major hurdle for the invasion effort. Most notably, the combined force only had a small number of ships and landing craft for an amphibious landing on the Egyptian coast.
The alliance originally planned to land an amphibious force at the port city of Alexandria and immediately send an armored force to Cairo. They would then push on to the Sinai and secure Port Said and the rest of the Suez region. The invasion was set to begin on September 15 and was anticipated to last for a little over a week.
However, the shortage of amphibious landing vessels caused the military leadership of the alliance to change the plan of attack. Instead, the invading force would immediately attack Port Said and work their way down the canal.
This plan was further changed to a diversionary invasion by the Israeli military on the Sinai Peninsula. Once the Egyptian forces were distracted and sent into the Sinai to defend against the Israeli attack, the French and British forces would act as peacemakers and occupy the Suez Canal. This plan commenced on October 29 with an Israeli invasion of the Sinai.
Initially, the invasion went exactly to plan, as Britain and France publicly called for a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt. Nasser refused the ceasefire, and the allied powers immediately began making concentrated attacks on the Egyptian Air Force.
Within a week of the Israeli invasion, British paratroopers took the El Gamil airfield, and French paratroopers took Port Fuad. On November 6, Royal Marines arrived at Port Said in an amphibious landing, while others were transported throughout the Suez area by helicopter.
Despite the enormous military successes of the invasion, it was immediately unraveled by public condemnation from President Eisenhower. Eisenhower believed that an escalation of the conflict could push more Arab states away from the West and into an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Aside from financial threats from the United States, the British government received enormous backlash and protest from its population and the international community. The British and French forces soon agreed to a ceasefire and were forced to evacuate Egypt.
After the Suez Crisis a U.N. peacekeeping force was sent to the canal to ensure that the waterway would be open for all international powers. The Suez Crisis made President Nasser a leading figure in the Arab world for holding his ground and standing up to Western powers.
It was a humiliating defeat to the British government, as the conflict showed that it now had to receive express permission from the U.S. government in many of its international affairs.
During the days leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser ordered the U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai Peninsula. Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force on the first day of the conflict, and within two days, Israeli troops successfully crossed the Sinai Peninsula and reached the bank of the canal.
To block Israeli vessels from using the canal during the conflict and its aftermath, President Nasser blockaded the canal. Fifteen cargo ships called the “Yellow Fleet” were stuck in this blockade in the midpoint of the canal at the Great Bitter Lake and remained there for eight years.
The U.S. and British governments conducted a large mine-clearing operation following the Yom Kippur War in 1974 to ensure that the canal could safely open back up. In 1975 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat finally reopened the canal.
U.N.forces stayed in the Sinai until 1981 when a multinational coalition of troops replaced them as part of the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979.
Environmental Effects of the Canal
Since the canal’s construction, over 600 aquatic species native to the Red Sea have spread to the Mediterranean Sea in what scientists call the “Lessepsian Migration.” Many of these are invasive species that are greatly altering the fragile aquatic ecosystems of the Mediterranean.
In addition, over 20 percent of the species living in the Mediterranean Sea are not found in any other body of water in the world, which makes many of these species especially vulnerable.
The Eastern Mediterranean is especially affected by the migrations through the canal due to the appearance of the rabbitfish, which feeds off the brown algae that is an integral part of Mediterranean shallow-water ecosystems. These fish and their rapid grazing of algae have turned what were once vibrant reef ecosystems into barren rock.
But scientists and environmental activists are not the only ones increasingly expressing concern over the environmental impacts of the canal. Mediterranean fisheries are increasingly seeing lower catch yields every year due to the depleting ecosystems. Small, local fishing operations are hurt especially hard by these environmental changes, as their income is solely dependent on the Mediterranean fish populations.
Some scientists are worried that some parts of the Mediterranean will not even be open for recreational swimming due to dangerous invasive species. For example, the Nomad Jellyfish has increasingly been found in the Mediterranean. Not only does this invasive species feed off larvae that are vital to marine ecosystems, but it can seriously injure swimmers with its poisonous sting.
While environmental researchers have been calling for the Mediterranean governments to take the threat seriously and implement environmental policies to combat these environmental problems, most of the governments have ignored the growing environmental threat of the canal. For many of these governments, namely the Egyptian government, the profitability of the canal far outweighs the destruction of Mediterranean ecosystems.
The Suez Canal Today
After years of expansion projects, the canal is today 164 kilometers long and 8 meters deep. Around 50 ships navigate through the Suez Canal every day, and over 300 million tons of trading goods are carried through the canal every year. It is estimated that around 8 percent of total maritime international trade travels through the canal.
In 2014, the Egyptian government embarked on an $8 billion project to expand the width of the Ballah Bypass section of the canal, which now enables ships to travel in different directions simultaneously. The project cost an estimated $9 billion and was successfully opened for traffic in August of 2015.
In March 2021, the Golden-class container ship “Ever Given” became stuck in the canal when strong winds caused the ship to run aground. The ship became stuck in a section of the canal that only had one channel, making it impossible for other ships to pass through the waterway.
The incident severely disrupted international shipping through the strait for nearly a week. The Egyptian government announced a plan to widen narrow sections to prevent another blocking of the canal.
We have covered many aspects of the Suez Canal.
Let’s review the main ideas:
- The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowing vessels to travel between Europe and Asia without sailing around the African continent.
- Before constructing the canal, many attempts were made to construct a canal in the Isthmus of Suez, including Napoleon Bonaparte.
- The Suez Canal opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction. While the old world frequently used slave labor throughout the initial stages of the construction, it was soon replaced by machinery.
- The waterway brought in less revenue than anticipated, and its construction was much more costly than anticipated. This helped contribute to the destabilization of the regime of Egyptian Khedive Ismail Pasha and the occupation of Egypt by Britain.
- The canal would be a focal point in many international conflicts, including both the World Wars and the Israeli-Arab conflicts.
- In 1956 a British-French-Israeli alliance led an invasion of Egypt when Egyptian President Gamal Nasser nationalized the waterway. The condemnation of the U.S. government soon dismantled this invasion.
- Throughout the 21st century, many expansion projects on the canal were conducted by the Egyptian government.
Today, the Suez Canal is a vital waterway, acting as a vital component of international trade. Moreover, its rich history and vital importance in global trade networks make it one of the world’s most revered engineering projects.