Connecting the Eastern and Western worlds by the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the Suez Canal was officially opened 145 years ago on November 17, 1869. The Suez Canal of Egypt took more than 15 years to plan and build but after completion it transformed international shipping as sea vessels were no longer forced to traverse the long and difficult route around the southern tip of Africa. The 101-mile long waterway was built amidst political disputes, labour shortages and even a cholera outbreak.
Here are 10 facts about Suez Canal:
- Ancient Egyptian Origins
Although the direct link created by the Suez Canal artificial sea-level waterway is comparatively recent, a similar canal known in ancient times as the ‘Canal Of The Pharaohs’ once connected the Red Sea and Nile River which joined the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘Canal Of The Pharaohs’ was built from 1850 B.C. and became functional around 3rd century BC. According to rumors, the famous Cleopatra travelled on the ancient canal.
- French Commander Napoleon Bonaparte Considered Building Suez Canal
When famed French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt in 1798, he sent a team to investigate the possibility of building a canal connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, but his team reported incorrectly that the Red Sea was 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean which would result in excessive flooding across the Nile Delta. Napoleon then gave up the idea.
- The British Government Opposed Suez Canal Construction
Planning for the construction of the Suez Canal officially began in 1854 after a French former diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps negotiated an agreement with the Egyptian viceroy to form the Suez Canal Company. However, since the canal was supported by French Emperor Napoleon III, British statesmen took the French assistance in a political vein believing that the Canal would be used to undermine the British dominated global shipping industry of the time. In 1875, the British Empire bought 44 percent stake in the waterway and the construction continued.
- Construction Began Manually, Ended By Machines
Massive amount of manpower was required to construct the Suez Canal. Initially construction began very slowly in 1861 with forced Egyption labourers chipping away at the canal by hand using picks and shovels. When forced labour was banned in 1863, machines and technology were brought in to speed up the construction. Around 3/4th of the 75 million cubic meters of sand removed for the canal was handled by machinary with the remaining done by hand.
- Statue of Liberty Originally Intended For Suez Canal
French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi envisioned building a 90-foot-tall statue of a woman clothed in Egyptian peasant robes and holding a massive torch, which would also serve as a lighthouse to guide ships into the canal, inspired by the ancient Colossus of Rhodes but the idea did not materialise. Sound familiar? In 1886 Bartholdi finally unveiled a completed version in New York Harbor which is now called Statue of Liberty.
- Creator of Suez Canal Tried To Build Panama Canal But Failed
After French former diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps completed Suez Canal, he turned his attention to designing a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Despite his prediction that the new canal would be easier to make than Suez Canal, the Panama Canal triggered a loss of nearly $260 million and resulted in the death of thousands of construction workers before the project was abandoned.
- Suez Canal Once Under Military Occupation
Britain exerted military occupation over the Suez Canal which continued even after Egypt gained independence in 1922. In July 1956, when Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Britain along with France and Israel launched an attack on Egypt resulting in what is known as the Suez crisis. The European forces finally withdrew after facing flak from United States and the Soviet Union.
8. A Fleet Of 15 Ships Were Stranded In Suez Canal For 8+ Years
When the Suez Canal was shut down by the Egyptian government during June 1967’s Six Day War between Egypt and Israel, 15 international shipping vessels got stuck at the canal’s midpoint and remained moored there for 8 years.
- Suez Canal Facilitated European Colonization Of Africa
The Suez Canal enabled European colonizers such as France, Great Britain, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Belgium to reach Africa quicker and much more easily, helping facilitate the “scramble for Africa” between 1881 and 1914.
- Suez Canal To Become Bigger By 2023
Although shipping tolls from the Suez Canal rake in around $5 billion for Egypt annually, its functioning is hampered by its narrow width and shallow depth as it is unable to accommodate two-way traffic from modern tanker ships. Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority announced in August 2014 a plan for the expansion of Suez Canal. The $8.5 billion project is in progress which aims to deepen the canal and add a new 22-mile line. The expansions are expected to be completed by 2023.