Suez Canal History: Vital Role in Global Trade and Economy Expansion

Suez Canal History: Since maritime transportation serves everyone on the planet, it is essential to our everyday lives. Shipping is still essential to the expansion of economies, despite the benefits of aviation.

Global trade relies on freight transportation to move tons and tons of goods across oceans and seas every day. The shipping industry handles nearly 90% of all global trade and operates over 50,000 merchant ships.

Many human interventions in maritime transportation have improved international seaborne trade. With the construction of man-made canals around the world, international shipping has changed.

The Panama Canal, the Volga-Don Canal, the Corinth Canal, the Grand Canal, the Suez Canal, and the Grand Canal are the main artificial canals that allow for efficient marine transportation. These canals offer alternate routes for transportation over significant seawater networks across the globe.

The Suez Canal is located where?

The Suez Canal, an artificial sea-level channel that spans 193.30 km (120 miles) and is situated in Egypt, links the northern Red Sea branch, the Gulf of Suez, with the Mediterranean Sea.

In November 1869, it opened and has since become one of the busiest maritime lanes in the world. The canal that separates Asia from the African continent provides the quickest sea route between Europe and the regions bordering the Indian and Western Pacific oceans.

Traveling from Europe via the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, via the Suez Canal saves approximately 7,000 kilometers when compared to traveling via the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. Additionally, the canal links Port Tewfik in the southern metropolis of Suez with Port Said in northeastern Egypt.

The Suez Canal Authority owned and operated the waterway after the Suez Canal Company built it between 1859 and 1869.

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The building of a second 35-kilometer shipping lane alongside the main waterway and the deepening of certain sections of the canal marked the culmination of Egypt’s major Suez Canal expansion in 2015.

Extending the canal would allow larger ships to pass through and would enable two-way trade in some parts of the channel. A 400-meter-long container ship with 21,400 containers entered the Suez Canal in December 2017.

The canal, which handles around 8% of all seaborne traffic worldwide each year, is crucial to Egypt’s economic expansion. Reuters reports that the Suez Canal brought in $5.3 billion in revenue in 2017.

The Suez Canal wasn’t officially finished until 1869, but there has long been a connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea through Egypt’s Nile River.

The notion to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea first surfaced during the reign of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt, approximately 40 centuries ago, and that is when the Suez Canal got its start.

The idea of building a canal that links these oceans and the Nile River persisted until Senausret III, the Egyptian pharaoh, built the first canal in the region, which connected both bodies of water via the Nile River (1887–1849 BC). After they built it, they frequently abandoned the canal for many years.

Concurrently, the canal was reopened for traffic on multiple occasions under the reigns of a number of kings, including Amro Ibn Elass (640 AD), Emperor Trajan (117 AD), Persian King Darius (522 BC), Sity I (1310 BC), and Necho II (610 BC).

During these times, workers constructed new channels and may have enlarged the canal.

Napoleon Bonaparte made the first modern attempt to construct a canal during his Egypt expedition in the late 1700s. He believed that establishing a French-controlled canal on the Suez Isthmus would create trading difficulties for the British, as they would need to settle French debts or transport goods across land or around the southern region of Africa.

In 1799, work on Napoleon’s canal idea got underway. Nevertheless, a measuring error indicated that the sea levels in the Red and Mediterranean Seas were too dissimilar to make a canal practicable, and work on the project was promptly halted.

As the new Europe grew, industry and maritime trade expanded, and businesspeople started considering the construction of canals. This would reduce the time needed to circumnavigate Africa or to transship goods or people via Suez Peninsula by creating a direct link between the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

Ferdinand de Lesseps persuaded Said Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, to support a canal construction project in the region in the 1800s.

The Universal Suez Ship Canal Company founded in 1858 was granted the authority to build and operate the canal for 99 years.

 The canal would come under the authority of the Egyptian government after that.

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Suez Canal
(Credit: The History channel)

Building of the Suez Canal

On April 25, 1859, work on building the Suez Canal officially got underway. An estimated 2,613 million cubic feet of soil would need to be moved to build the canal, of which 600 million would need to be moved on land and the remaining 2,013 million by dredging. In addition, the project’s initial estimated total cost was 200 million francs.

The idea to construct a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, however, drew opposition from British citizens who saw the project as a political ploy to undermine their nation’s hegemony in maritime trade.

Britain persisted in opposing the project until the Egyptian government auctioned off its interests in 1875 due to financial difficulties, at which point the Empire purchased a 44% interest in the canal.

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Initially, forced laborers worked on the canal’s construction. In 1863, Pasha outlawed forced labor, and he forced thousands to use picks and shovels to build the canal.

Suez Canal Company had to use coal and steam-powered shovels and dredgers to build the canal. With the help of this machinery, the Mediterranean Sea began flowing into the Red Sea on November 17, 1869.

There was originally a 200 to 300 foot wide top, a 72 foot wide bottom, and a 25 foot depth. The project’s overall cost at completion exceeded the initial estimate by over twofold.

The Political Crisis and the Suez Canal

Suez Canal traffic initially fell short of expectations, but it had a huge impact on global trade once completed. Concurrently, the financial difficulties associated with the building of the canal made it possible for the British government to purchase Egyptian interests’ shares in 1875 and take a majority position in the Suez Canal Company.

A faster route to Britain’s colonies and Persian Gulf oilfields made the canal vital to the economy.

When Egypt declared bankruptcy in 1875, Britain tightened its hold on the country, allowing European banks to seize financial dominance.

Resentment among the Egyptians began when the French and British maintained their rule over the nation. Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 as a result of this.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 kept Egypt essentially autonomous, but it gave Britain full control over the Suez Canal. Britain declared Egypt a protectorate during World War I and dispatched soldiers to guard the canal; this protectorate continued until 1922, when Britain granted Egypt a semblance of independence.

British troops withdrew from Egypt in 1956 after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty established Egypt as a sovereign state.

When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt at the time, nationalized the Suez Canal and blocked the Straits of Tiran in July 1956, there was a significant political upheaval associated with it, which became known as the Suez Crisis.

The UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt as a result of the decision. Egypt was only able to reopen the canal for commercial traffic after the UN intervened.

The canal closed in 1967 during Israel and Egypt’s Six-Day War due to the political upheaval.

Due to the canal’s closure, 15 ships became stranded at Great Bitter Lake. Egypt imprisoned these ships until 1975, when it reopened the canal following peace negotiations with Israel.

Through the canal, ships can bypass the hazardous journey to the southernmost point of Africa. Every day, 97 ships will pass through the world’s longest lockless canal, generating revenue of $13.226 billion by 2023.

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