It has been 147 years since the inauguration of the Suez Canal, probably the ‎largest and most important engineering project of the 19th century

Last year the Egyptian government completed their flagship project - an initiative designed to help rebuild the country's crumbling economy, which has been in a state of upheaval since the “Arab Spring”. Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi promised a huge Government structure that would bring in $13 billion per year and create a million new jobs. This injection of foreign currency is vital to the disintegrating economy.

The national project is the New Suez Canal. The huge investment cost eight billion dollars and took approximately a year to complete. Egyptians dug a canal parallel to the original Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing for two-way traffic in this important maritime thoroughfare. Beyond the economic benefits expected (still far from being realized), al-Sisi believes the grandiose project is a means to unite people around a national symbol that they can be proud of, as well as to nurse the wounds from two coups experienced by the country within a short period.

The choice of the Suez Canal is not accidental, of course. After all, this is one of the world's leading engineering enterprises. Opening in 1869 on November 16th, it significantly shortened trade routes from Europe to India and the Far East and had wide-ranging economic and political influences. It played an important role in European imperialism, its nationalization led to the invasion of three armies (Israel, France and Britain) into Sinai in 1956, and after the Six Day War it was closed for eight years and served as a border between Israel and Egypt, at a great cost to the economy of Egypt and the whole world.

Even the oil tankers market adapted to the dimensions of the canal, and adopted the “Suezmax” – standard measurements that allow for a ship to fit within the depth and width limitations of the canal. Ships with a draft of up to 18.9 meters can pass through, whereas larger tankers are forced to travel around Africa or to transfer their contents to smaller tankers or to a pipeline terminal that connects the two sides of the canal.

The path to India

In the mid-19th century the European powers encountered a problem. Their empires expanded all over the world and accordingly, so did their maritime trade of goods to the mainland. but geography was their downfall. Every ship that wanted to reach India, Australia or the Far East had to make a big detour via the Cape of Good Hope – the southern tip of the African continent – a route that greatly increases the length of the journey and raises the cost of goods. The British suffered the most because of its rule over India and Hong Kong, and therefore had many interests in the Far East.

But it was France who found a way to practically solve the problem by suggesting digging a canal through the isthmus (a strip of land) connecting Asia to Africa. Thus enabling ships to cross the Mediterranean to continue directly to the Red Sea and from there on to the Indian Ocean. This would result in huge savings in both time and money.

The idea itself was not new. Ancient Egypt already dug trenches from the Nile to the Red Sea, or to lakes that today can be found in the canal route. But practical measures for such construction between the two seas were only developed in the 1830s, when it finally became clear that there was no water level difference between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. At that time, Thomas Waghorn opened an overland route through Egypt to transfer mail and passengers from Europe to India and back.

During the same period, French researcher Linant de Bellefonds outlined the first plans for the Suez Canal. Others followed him, until finally in 1854 and 1856 the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained a concession from Egyptian ruler Sa’id Pasha to establish a company to construct and manage the canal for the next 99 years, ensuring it be open to all nationalities. A group of international experts were recruited to perfect Bellefonds’ original plans, until December 1858, when they formally established the Suez Canal Company and began construction by April 25th of the following year.

A huge time and money saver. Painting of the opening flotilla at the inauguration of the Suez Canal in November 1869. Source: Shutterstock

Ships passing through the desert

Now imagine this: ten years of work, in 40 degree heat (as measure in the shade!) in the summer. But where is there ever shade in the desert? European supervisors –probably got to sit in shaded areas wearing their pith helmets and oversee tens of thousands of Egyptian workers, most of them peasants that were forcibly recruited, baking in the sun, dying of intestinal and respiratory diseases, dehydration and hunger. According to some estimates, nearly 120 thousand workers died during the construction, many from the cholera epidemic in 1865, but this number seems excessive. More conservative estimates speak of only a few thousand victims, but there is no dispute that it was a killing field. Poor wages were definitely not worth the risk, but with families to support most had no choice anyway.

The workers were managed very badly, but the huge desert operation slowly progressed. At any given moment thousands of laborers dug many tons of sand at each section of the canal. In total, approximately 1.5 million workers excavated the canal for ten years with just spades and shovels, up until Sa’id Pasha stopped the forced labor. After this, work was completed in a more efficient manner using mechanical excavators and steam shovels operated by European workers. While in the background the major powers began to stir, especially Britain who did everything in its power to sabotage the canal because it would ensure the free movement of ships to the East without its supervision. Bedouins were even sent on behalf of the United Kingdom to incite a rebellion of the workers against the French supervisors.

Eventually, on August 15th 1869 the connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was completed - 164 kilometers (today 193 kilometers and 300 meters, some docking areas have been added to the canal after the Israeli withdrawal in the 70s) of the canal from the northern city of Port Sa’id, to Suez on the Red Sea coast. On November 16th the same year, high-level representatives from around the world attended a festive inauguration ceremony, especially from Europe. The next day a three-day flotilla set off consisting of 68 vessels from around the world, led by the French Empress Eugé nie de Montijo, wife of Emperor Napoleon III. The path to the East was open. The work was finally completed two years later.

The engineering excavation included many challenges, including cutting the rocky ground near the Red Sea and the removal of 74 million cubic meters of sand and dirt along most of the route. The canal track itself is not straight, but rather a connector between several lakes in the desert: Lake Manzala, Lake Timsah, Great Bitter Lake and Small Bitter Lake. It also required the excavation of a canal of fresh water from the Nile to Ismailia to provide drinking water for employees. When first built the canal was quite shallow, especially at low-tide, and nearly 3,000 vessels banked on the rocks by the year 1884. Later on, a lot more work was done to deepen and expand it.

The engine of colonialism

The impact of the canal on the world was dramatic - it became very easy to trade worldwide and accelerated the process of colonization in Africa. The volume of ships navigating the canal before its expansion, while passing in convoys in only one direction at a time, amounted to 80 vessels a day, or 20 thousand per year, a total volume of 400 million tons – ten percent of the world's shipping traffic.

The effect was not limited to humans. The opening of the channel allowed movement of species from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, a process known as “Lessepsian migration”, named after de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal. The process had a dramatic impact on marine ecology in the Mediterranean, and manifested in, among other things, giant jellyfish called “nomad jellyfish” arriving on our shores in the summer, after migrating from the Red Sea. The fear is that the new canal just dug will only worsen the trend.

In 1875 the same British government that was originally opposed to the project, bought the shares from the Egyptian company to become France’s partner in owning the traffic route. This step also served as a pretext for the entry of British forces into Egypt, seven years later.

In 1888 the Convention of Constantinople stated that the channel would serve equally to all countries also at times of war. The decision was violated in 1954 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned Israeli vessels crossing the canal.

Ferdinand de Lesseps himself tried to repeat his bloody success from Egypt by digging the Panama Canal in the 1880s. His plan to construct the canal at sea level failed miserably as a result of financial difficulties, accompanied by epidemics of malaria and yellow fever that (again) killed thousands of workers. The project was finally completed in 1914 by the US government, but that's a story for another article.