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Suez Canal

1881 drawing of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal (Arabic, Qanā al-Suways), west of the Sinai Peninsula, is a 163-km (118-mile) maritime canal in Egypt between Port Said (Būr Sa'īd) on the Mediterranean Sea and Suez (al-Suways) on the Red Sea.

The canal allows two-way north-south water transport from Europe to Asia without circumnavigating Africa. Before the construction of the canal, some transport was conducted by offloading ships and carrying the goods overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

The canal comprises two parts, north and south of the Great Bitter Lake, linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea.

Table of contents


As early as the 20th or 19th century B.C.E., a west-east canal was dug, joining the Nile River with the Red Sea, by an Egyptian pharaoh (or pharaohs) of the 12th Dynasty. It later fell into disrepair, and reexcavation was undertaken about 600 B.C.E. by Pharaoh Necho and was continued about 500 B.C.E. by King Darius the Great, the Persian conqueror of Egypt. Darius commemorated his achievement on a pink granite stela that he set up on the Nile bank near Kabret, 130 kilometers from Suez. The Darius Inscriptions reads: "Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended." [1]

The canal was again restored by Ptolemy II about 250 B.C.E. Over the next thousand years it was successively modified, destroyed and rebuilt, until finally being put out of commission in the eighth century C.E. by Caliph al-Mansur.

Another thousand years and more elapsed before the next attempt was made to dig a canal. At the end of the 18th century Napoleon Bonaparte, while in Egypt, contemplated the construction of a canal to join the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His project was abandoned, however, after a French survey erroneously concluded that the waters of the Red Sea were higher than those of the Mediterranean, making a lockless canal impossible.

In 1854 and 1856 Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained from Said Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, whom de Lesseps had as a French diplomat come to know in the 1830s, concessions authorizing the creation of a company for the purpose of constructing a maritime canal open to ships of all nations. By way of a lease of the relevant land, the company was to operate the canal for 99 years from its opening to navigation. The Suez Canal Company (Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez) came into being on December 15, 1858.

The excavation operations through the desert took nearly eleven years. Numerous technical, political and financial problems had to be overcome. The final cost was more than double the original estimate. The canal opened to traffic on November 17, 1869.

The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. It played an important role in increasing European penetration and colonization of Africa. External debts forced Said Pasha's successor, Isma'il Pasha, to sell his country's share in the canal to the United Kingdom in 1875. The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British, after British troops had moved in to protect it in 1882. Under the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, the United Kingdom insisted on retaining control over the canal. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty, and by 1954 Great Britain had agreed to pull out.

After the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam, president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, which caused Britain, France and Israel to invade in the week-long Suez War. As a result of damage and sunken ships, the canal was closed until April, 1957, when it had been cleared with UN assistance. A United Nations force (UNEF) was established to maintain the neutrality of the canal and the Sinai Peninsula.

After the Six Day War in 1967, the canal was closed until June 5, 1975. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War the canal was the scene of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-controlled Sinai, and later was crossed westward by the Israeli army. A UN peacekeeping force has been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since 1974.

Suez Canal, seen from Earth orbit, courtesy NASA.

Present day

The canal has no locks because there is no sea-level difference and no hills to climb. The canal allows the passage of ships of up to some 150,000 tons displacement, with cargo. It permits ships of up to 15 m (50 feet) draft to pass (effectively a cargo ship of 150,000 tons), and improvements are planned to increase this to 22 m (72 feet) by 2010 to allow supertanker passage. Presently supertankers can offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned boat and reload at the other end of the canal. There is one shipping lane with several passing areas.

Some 25,000 ships can pass through the canal each year, bearing about 14% of world shipping. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours.

Since 1980 there has been a road tunnel under the canal, and since 1999 a powerline crosses the Suez Canal.

Connections between the shores

For north to south:

  • In El Qantara there is a high-level fixed road bridge.
  • In 2001 the El Ferdan railway bridge 20 km north of Ismailia was completed: the longest swing span bridge in the world, with a span of 340m (1100 ft). The previous bridge was destroyed in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • South of the Great Bitter Lake is the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel, built in 1983. Because of leakage problems, in the period 1992–1995 a new water-tight tunnel was built inside the old one.

See also

External links

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Suez Canal

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