Jump in time: The maritime bridge to the East

A look at the Suez Canal, one of the most important engineering projects of the 19th century.

December 1, 2016 12:36
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last year, the Egyptian government completed its 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.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised a huge government structure that would bring in $13 billion annually and create a million new jobs.

The New Suez Canal, with a huge investment price tag of $8b., 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 a 72 km. long central section of the canal. Beyond the economic benefits expected (still far from being realized), 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. Opened on November 16, 1869, it significantly shortened trade routes from Europe to India and the Far East, and had wide-ranging economic and political influences. Some in the oil tankers market have even 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.

IN THE mid-19th century the European powers encountered a problem.

Their empires expanded all over the world and so did their maritime trade of goods to the mother country. 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 Africa – a route that greatly increases the length of the journey and raises the cost of goods. Britain suffered the most because of its rule over India and Hong Kong.

But it was France that found a way to practically solve the problem by suggesting digging a canal through the isthmus connecting Asia to Africa, thus enabling ships to cross from the Mediterranean Sea to continue directly to the Red Sea and from there to the Indian Ocean.

The idea itself was not new. Ancient Egypt dug trenches from the Nile to the Red Sea, and to lakes that today can be found in the canal route. But practical measures for such construction between the two seas were developed only 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 an overland route through Egypt was opened to transfer mail and passengers from Europe to India and back.

During the same period, French researcher Louis Linant de Bellefonds outlined the first plans for the Suez Canal.

Others followed him, until 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 was recruited to perfect Bellefonds’s original plans, until December 1858, when they formally established the Suez Canal Company and began construction on April 25 the following year.

EVENTUALLY, ON August 15, 1869, the connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was completed – 164 km. (today 193.3 km.; some docking areas have been added to the canal after the Israeli withdrawal in the 1970s), from the northern city of Port Said, to Suez on the Red Sea coast. On November 16 the same year, high-level representatives from around the world, especially from Europe, attended a festive inauguration ceremony. The next day a three-day flotilla set off consisting of 68 vessels from around the world, led by French Empress Eugénie 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 involved many challenges, including cutting the rocky ground near the Red Sea and the removal of 74 million cubic meters of sand and earth along most of the route.

The canal 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. It was later deepened and expanded.

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 20,000 annually, a total volume of 400 million tons – 10% 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, developer of the Suez Canal. The process also 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 will only worsen the trend.

In 1875 the same British government that was originally opposed to the project bought 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 major powers of the world at the time signed the Convention of Constantinople, which 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 from crossing the canal.

De Lesseps himself tried to repeat his 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 killed thousands of workers. The project was finally completed in 1914 by the US government, but that’s a story for another article.

This article was written under the auspices of the Davidson Institute of Science Education.

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