The History of the Suez Canal

This article explores a key “artery” of world trade: the Suez Canal. Read on for key facts about this waterway's fascinating history.

The History of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway that facilitates approximately 12 percent of global trade. The canal is a vital part of the international economy and therefore often referred to as one of global trade’s most important arteries. Such an integral waterway comes with a very rich history explained throughout this article.

This article begins with the basic information one needs to understand the complex history of the Suez Canal. This article will explore where the canal is located, who built it, how it was built and how its construction was funded. It then delves into the richer history of the canal’s importance as a trade route and the story behind its creation. Read on for essential facts about Egypt’s trade artery.

Where is the Suez Canal?

Ultimately, the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. The man-made waterway runs across the Isthmus of Suez and spans across the northeastern region of Egypt.

The canal’s prime location for trade makes it one of the most economically important waterways in the world.

Who built the Suez Canal?

The history of the Suez Canal begins long ago in 1850 BCE when a channel was first constructed along a valley east of the Nile delta, this channel was known as the Canal of the Pharaohs. The river was extended several times after its inception by the Ptolemies, the Romans, and the early Arabs to simplify trade to the Red Sea. In 775 CE, however, the canal was filled in by the ‘Abbāsid caliphs as a war defense system.

From the 15th century to the 18th, various rulers considered building a canal to further facilitate trade through modern-day Egypt. As colonialism spread across the world, the idea of a connection for ships from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean became more attractive than ever before.

None of these theorizations came to fruition until the French occupied Egypt in 1798. During this time, Napoleon ordered surveys across the isthmus to evaluate the potential canal. However, due to various mismeasurements and adverse weather conditions, the first canal only began construction in 1859. This first iteration of the canal took 10 years to build. In the August of 1869, the waterway was opened officially for ships to pass through. A large ceremony was held that following November and trade in this region changed forever.

How was the Canal built?

The initial building of the Suez Canal was less than pleasant. Peasants were drafted and forced to dig with picks and baskets. As technology improved with time, dredgers and steam-powered shovels were employed to relieve some of this manual labor.

Surveyors mapped out the canal’s route according to the land material to make construction as simple as possible. Thus, most of the canal was built through sand or alluvium rather than rock.

Who funded the construction of the canal and how much did it cost?

The Egyptian joint-stock company incorporated The Suez Canal Company in 1858. Despite being headquartered in Paris, The Suez Canal Company's first board of directors was made up of representatives from 14 countries.

Due to financial troubles, the Egyptian representatives were forced to sell their shares and were unrepresented on the board until 1949. At this point, Egyptian representatives were reinstated to the board occupying seven percent of gross profits following various trade agreements.

Alongside these renewed agreements, Egyptians were further promised increased jobs, technical maintenance roles as well as the provision of infrastructures such as hospitals and schools.

Since 1956, however, the Canal has been under complete control of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) and was nationalized by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

How big is the Suez Canal?

When the canal was first built it was 164 kilometers long and 8 meters deep. After multiple expansions and with the help of technological improvements, the Suez Canal now spans 193.30 kilometers and reaches depths of 24 meters at its deepest point. At its widest points, the canal is 205 meters wide. The northern access channel is 22 kilometers while the southern access channel spans approximately 9 kilometers.

How big can the ships passing through the Suez Canal be?

The Suezmax is the name for the maximum size of ship that is permitted to pass through the canal. Other canals use a similar taxonomy including the Panamax for the Panama Canal. The Suezmax is 275 meters or 900 feet long with a capacity of 120,000 to 200,000 Deadweight tonnage (dwt). For context, a ship this size is capable of carrying roughly 800,000 to 1,000,000 barrels.

Politics of the Canal: the good, the bad and the ugly

The canal was built to facilitate international trade more easily across key regions and between important economic players. With this exceptional opportunity, of course, came great political tension because of the potential financial gain the canal would bring.

To fight this strife, the Convention of Constantinople was signed in 1888 (by all major powers at the time with the exception of Great Britain). This agreement called for the canal to remain open to ships of all nations included in the agreement in times of peace and war. However, these rules were neglected at various points throughout history.

For instance, in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spanish warships were denied passage. In the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Russian navy ships were also denied access to the canal. Finally, throughout the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy from 1935 to 1936, Italian vessels were additionally blocked from using the canal as a strategic thoroughfare.

Throughout World War I and World War II, the canal was open to all but because of the Allied force’s superior naval capacity, it denied use by any ships shipping goods to Germany and Germany’s allies.

Thus, though the initial objective of the Suez Canal was to unite nations through trade and commerce, geopolitics have caused tensions throughout its history.

The Suez Crisis

One cannot discuss the history of the Suez Canal without addressing the Suez Crisis of 1956 to 1957. October 29th 1956 marks the beginning of the crisis when Israeli armed forces pushed forward through Sinai towards the Suez Canal with the assistance of its allies in this pursuit: the British and the French. The countries invaded Egypt following Nasser’s announcement of the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. In a post-World War II world, the Suez Canal was a key asset for Britain as well as for France and Israel. Thus, Nasser’s plans caused severe geopolitical tensions.

The three nations planned for Israel to invade Egypt and then for the French and British to come in as peacekeepers. However, the crisis worsened and eventually, the United States and the Soviet Union got involved as world powers also with great stakes in the Canal.

Once these nations became involved, the conflicts ceased, and the canal remains open today under the agreements discussed above.

How is the modern-day Suez Canal used?

The Suez Canal became a hot topic in March 2021 when a ship became stuck and blocked international trade for one week. The ship was a 250-meter-long Affinity V tanker that found itself lodged into one of the canal’s banks due to strong winds that sent it sideways. Because of this particular ship’s massive size, it covered almost the entire width of that section of the canal.

This episode demonstrated the importance of the canal in terms of its facilitation of trade. This ship’s week-long blockage led to a massive supply chain crisis internationally.

Currently, around 12 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal. This 12 percent of global trade represents 30 percent of all international trade through container ships. Over one trillion USD worth of commodities travels through the Suez annually. Thus, the Suez Canal is a vital thoroughfare for world trade.

Why is the Suez Canal important?

The Suez Canal is considered one of the most important waterways in the world because it facilitates international trade. Its location and size mean it connects some essential regions creating an opportune trade route for large vessels with exceptional carrying capacity.

Interesting facts about the Suez Canal

  • The first canal which was built beginning in 1859 took 4 years longer to build than had been anticipated due largely to climatic difficulties, a cholera epidemic, and labor troubles.
  • The Suez Crisis is known in Egypt as the “tripartite aggression”.
  • The British Prime Minister at the time of the Suez Crisis was Sir Anthony Eden who resigned just after the crisis ended.
  • The Suez Canal toll fees begin at $400,000 and can reach up to $700,000 per vessel. These high costs are largely due to the fact that the canal cuts down the time of various journeys that would need to be taken if it weren’t for the canal. This time cut is approximately 10 days for ships traveling from Asia to Europe.
  • During the pandemic, the Suez Canal traffic decreased significantly as world trade fell drastically and as ships no longer needed to travel as quickly