If there is anything that contributed more to the enormous increase of sea-born international trade, in the nineteenth century onwards, it was the construction of the megaproject of the Suez Canal in Egypt. This historic engineering feat has revolutionized world shipping traffic patterns, particularly between the Atlantic and the Pacific, synchronizing the application of steam vessels over long distances and providing an alternative, speedier route to the Far East. Today, it is one of the world’s busiest water corridors and the strategic link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Prior to its construction the East trade riches were transported on the backs of camels from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean or through the Cape of Good Hope.
Napoleon, with his conquering spirit, had conceived the possibilities of reviving the old remains of an ancient canal to be a waterway for military purposes to afford easy communication for his ships between the Mediterranean and the Read Sea, whereby he could transfer large bodies of troops to India and drive out the English. His engineer’s report, however, was rendered superficial or incomplete for lack of proper instruments.
It was another Frenchman, Mr. Ferdinand de Lesseps that achieved this grand conception for international trade, in 1854 through his old friendship with Viceroy of Egypt, Mohamed Said, son of Mohamed Aly, and the support of Napoleon III. After fierce British opposition, no time was lost to create the harbor of Port Said to secure a safe entry at the northern end of the canal. Port Said has risen rapidly in importance to be one of the world’s chief ports and coaling stations for vessels.
Soon after, the city of Port Said became one of the most cosmopolitan meeting places in the world through which the eastern and western trade passed and cultures intermingled. It was built entirely in modern constructions with regular grid of streets and principle squares. The city quickly possessed several banks, a number of large modern hotels and some cafés. Commerce dominated the town and the principal buildings were mostly devoted to commerce and Tourism to those traveling to India or Australia.
In 1858 “La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez“ (Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal) was formed with authority to cut a canal and to operate it for 99 years, after which ownership would return to the Egyptian government. The company was originally a private Egyptian concern, its stock owned chiefly by French and Egyptian interests.
Completion of the 160- kilometer long waterway, however, took ten years of excruciating digging and poorly compensated labor by Egyptian workers, who were drafted at the rate of 20,000 every ten months the majority of which were peasants.
On November 17, 1869 the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached and waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea and the canal was opened for international navigation.
At the southern entrance of the Canal, there was another harbor and town of Suez, to which its name has been given, which has grown with the construction of the Canal to house modern commercial and other buildings and large docks. Connected by railway to Cairo and Port Said, the city housed the Customs Office Government and French Hospitals and foreign churches. However, many caravans of pilgrims from Mecca passed through Suez. Suez has always been a historical place. Tradition tells us that it was from Suez that Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea to the Springs of Moses in Sinai, however, this is an unconfirmed story.
Between Port Said in the north and Suez in the south lies the town of Ismailia on lake Timsah which was founded in 1963 by Ferdinand de Lesseps as a base camp. Ismailia was named after Khedive Ismail, who built an elaborate Palace for the Gala opening of the Suez Canal, which no longer exists. Like Port Said and Suez, Ismailia was laid out in contemporary 19th c. style with broad avenues and squares lined with trees, parks and gardens. The city still has a large number of buildings dating back to British and French involvement in the Canal. The Europeans brought their way of life with them when setting up in Suez, Ismailia and Port Said.
The completion of the Suez Canal was a cause for considerable celebration. In Port Said, the extravaganza began with fireworks and a ball attended by six thousand people. They included many heads of state, including the Empress Eugenie, the Emperor of Austria, the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Prussia and the Prince of the Netherlands. The Viceroy brought five hundred cooks and a thousand servants from Trieste, Genoa, Leghorn, and Marseilles. Two convoys of ships entered the canal from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia. Parties continued for weeks, and the celebration also marked the opening of Ismail’s old Opera House in Cairo , which is now gone. Nothing that money could buy or fancy was omitted to mark a great historic event.
The original Gezirah Palace (now the Cairo Marriott Hotel) was constructed the Nile on orders from Khedive Ismail. He asked the architects of that time to make it resemble another palace in France, Versailles, where Empress Eugénie used to stay. The purpose for that palace was to host the French Empress Eugénie who was invited along with her husband the French Emperor Napoleon III. The occasion of that invitation was the opening of the Suez Canal, which was a huge project at that time. It is now one of Cairo’s finest hotels, run by the Marriott Hotel.
However, because of external debts, the British government, realizing the political importance of the Suez Canal, purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests, namely those of Said Pasha, in 1875, for some 400,000 pounds sterling. Yet France continued to have a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888 (The Convention of Constantinople), the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war. Nevertheless, Britain considered the canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests. Therefore, the provisions of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed Britain to maintain a defensive force along the Suez Canal Zone. However, Egyptian nationalists demanded repeatedly that Britain evacuate the Suez Canal Zone, and in 1954 the two countries signed a seven-year agreement that superseded the 1936 treaty and provided for the gradual withdrawal of all British troops from the zone.
The canal remained under the control of two powers until Nasser nationalized it on the 26th of July 1956; it has since been operated by the Suez Canal Authority.
The canal was closed to navigation twice in the contemporary period. The first closure was brief, coming after the tripartite British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, an invasion primarily motivated by the nationalization of the waterway. The canal was reopened in 1957. The second closure occurred after the June 1967 War with Israel and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement accord.
In August 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt would build a new channel as part of a larger project to expand port and shipping facilities around the canal in an effort to establish Egypt as a major trade hub. The aim is to attract more ships and generate more income, and Egypt has plans to develop 29,000 square miles around the canal for years.
Construction was launched for the expansion of the New Suez Canal – which runs along the 145 old one – and six new tunnels were estimated to cost around 60 billion Egyptian pounds (US$8.4 billion) to boost its economy. The expansion is expected to double the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day. 30 billion Egyptian pounds will be for digging the new canal and the other 30 billion will be for the 6 new tunnels. Funding was arranged by issuing interest-bearing investment certificates exclusively to Egyptian entities and individuals, and the target amount was collected over only six working days. The financing strategy relied on interest-bearing investment certificates that do not confer any ownership rights to investors.
On August 6, 2015, the New Suez Canal was officially opened in a grand celebration with International Heads of State and VIPs in attendance. Like the party in 1869, Egypt brought 35 French fireworks experts to illuminate the skies over the canal. The day has been declared an official holiday throughout Egypt for Egyptians to celebrate.