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Suez Canal

a 101-mile-long manmade waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea (via the Gulf of Suez)

The Suez Canal begins at Port Said on the Mediterranean and ends at Suez on the Gulf. It averages 984 feet in width and can accomodate ships with a draft of up to 66 feet. Although the main channel is not wide enough to allow two ships to pass side by side, there are several "passing bays" where ships heading in one direction can wait for others going the other direction to pass. To prevent erosion of the canal's sandy banks, ships must travel at a low speed through the canal; it takes 11-16 hours to travel from one end to the other, depending on how often the ship must "pull over." There are no locks on the canal, as the Mediterranean and Red seas have nearly equivalent levels.

Approximately 8% of the world's shipping traffic passes through the Suez Canal, with an average of 50 ships making the passage each day. The canal is operated and maintained by the Suez Canal Authority, an agency of the Egyptian government. Its official website is

satellite view of the Suez Canal

aircraft carrier sailing through the Suez Canal


There is evidence that a canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas via the Nile River and its tributaries was built during the reign of Pharoah Senausret III (1887-1849 B.C.E.), but it appears to have been abandoned sometime after the pharoah's death. The first known canal to directly link the two seas was built during the reign of Necho II (619-595 B.C.E.). Following roughly the same course as today's canal, Necho's canal was abandoned, reopened, extended, abandoned again, etc. until finally abandoned for good in the mid-700's A.D.

Modern efforts to build a canal across the Suez began in 1799 with Napoleon Bonaparte, who believed that control of a shortcut between Europe and the Orient would give him decided trading advantages over Great Britain. Plans for such a project were drawn up, but a miscalculation in measurement showed that sea levels between the Red and Mediterranean seas were too different for a canal to be feasible and Napoleon abandoned his plans.

France renewed its desire to build a canal across the Suez in the mid-1800's, after it had been determined that the earlier sea level measurements were incorrect, but Egypt was reluctant to allow such a project. Diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps was finally able to convince viceroy Said Pasha of the merits and benefits of a canal, and in 1858 a consortium of French and Egyptian interests known as the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was given the right to begin construction. Under terms arranged with the Egyptian government, the company would be the exclusive operator of the canal for 99 years, at which time it would be handed over to Egypt. Construction officially began on April 25, 1859, and the canal opened on November 17, 1869. The final cost of construction was about $100 million, about twice the original estimate.

Debt forced Egypt to share its shares in the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company to Great Britain in 1875, while France retained its majority interest, and the 1888 Convention of Constantinople made the canal available to ships from any nation. In 1956, Egypt seized control of the canal so it could collect passage fees to help finance construction of the Aswan High Dam. Egypt's action touched off the Suez Canal Crisis, during which Israel, Britain, and France invaded the Suez and Egypt intentionally sank 40 ships in the canal to block passage. A UN truce reopened the canal in 1957, but it was closed by conflicts several more times due to conflicts between Egypt and Israel. The canal came under formal control of the Egyptian government in 1962, when Egypt made its final payment to the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company.

See Also

Napoleon Bonaparte

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The Robinson Library >> Canals and Inland Navigation

This page was last updated on October 01, 2018.