The Suez Canal at 150: How the 'water-based superhighway' put Egypt at the heart of global trade

As the Suez Canal marks its 150th anniversary, we explore the famed waterway's history and discover what it really means to Egyptians today

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In August 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi revelled in an opening ceremony to inaugurate the Suez Canal expansion. It had cost $8.2 billion (Dh30.1bn) to widen and deepen the canal's main water corridor, also adding a new parallel 34-kilometre channel.

Sisi, who had personally ordered the works only one year earlier, sported military fatigues and sunglasses as he stood aboard the presidential yacht, El Mahrousa – built for the Khedive of Egypt for the 1869 opening of the canal – as it made its way across the waterway that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. For the president, the expansion was the start of a new era and the extension of a glorious past.

150 years ago: the day the Suez opened

This month marks 150 years since the original Suez Canal was inaugurated. At 164km long and eight metres deep, the new water-based superhighway was launched to great fanfare. The opening's guest of honour was Empress Eugenie of France, who vied with the structure for attention from the assembled crowds.

Egypt. The Suez Canal. It connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. Inauguration ceremony of the Suez Canal at Port-Said on November 17, 1869 under Isma'il Pasha (1830-1895). Engraving by Desandre. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A portrait of the inauguration ceremony of the Suez Canal at Port-Said on November 17, 1869, under Isma'il Pasha. Getty Images.

French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps was the waterway's mastermind. Despite being untrained in the field of civil engineering, he looked to succeed where Napoleon Bonaparte had failed, as the French leader's dreams of connecting the two oceans flatlined when his surveyors incorrectly concluded there was a 10m difference in water level between each sea.

It's one of the world's most vital waterways, but for Egypt it's been a kind of black box

But in his years as a diplomat, De Lesseps befriended Said Pasha – the overweight son of the Egyptian viceroy at the time, Mohammed Ali Pasha. The food-loving Said agreed to accommodate the Frenchman's grand plans. Incredibly, the relationship between the two men had been forged years earlier when De Lesseps had fed the young Said secret bowls of macaroni as Mohammed Ali attempted to control his son's diet, according to Zachary Karabell's book, Parting the Desert – The Creation of the Suez Canal.

After its completion, the canal would remove the need for ships, sailing from Europe to Asia, to traverse the longer route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. It put Egypt at the heart of global trade or, as Catholic priest Marie-Bernard Bauer – Eugenie’s confessor – described it, where “the splendid Orient and the marvellous Occident salute each other”.

UNSPECIFIED - NOVEMBER 09:  Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) in workshop of Emmanuel Fremiet, statue will be erected in Port Said on november 17, 1899  (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) in the workshop of Emmanuel Fremiet. Getty Images.

But, it would also later become the scene of a 20th-century tug-of-war between Britain and Egypt – and assume the mantle of national institution.

Building the Suez under 'atrocious' conditions

The canal came to life under harsh circumstances, however. When work began in 1859, 2.8 million cubic metres of sand and rock that lay between the two seas needed to be shifted. De Lesseps required manual labourers who would put their lives on the line to realise his ambitions. Pasha obliged, and tens of thousands of peasant labourers were supplied to meet his high expectations.

"The Egyptian labourers were very much unskilled and given the dirty work to do," explains Anthony Gorman, a senior lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh. "The Egyptian peasantry – or fellahin – were required to shovel without the shovels, using baskets and hands. The conditions would have been atrocious."

Indeed, the mortality rate during the canal’s construction was high. As the fellahin perished from disease and misadventure around the soggy marshes, thousands would never return home.

circa 1865:  Workers operating dredging equipment during the construction of the Suez Canal at Port Said.  (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Circa 1865: Workers operating dredging equipment during the construction of the Suez Canal at Port Said. Getty Images.

Ottoman-Greek dredging and hydraulic engineers made up much of the skilled workforce. When construction ceased, the finished canal was an imposing sight, despite being four years behind schedule and costing more than double the original estimate.

On November 17, 1869, however, Ismail Pasha – who became Egypt's ruler after Said's death six years earlier – put on a spectacular opening show. Egypt, nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, played host to Turkish noblemen who rubbed shoulders with merchants from Syria and others from further afield as they crowded around the harbour of Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal, to witness history being made.

An ensuing battle over the Suez

But competing imperial interests led Britain, in particular, to ratchet up its control over the canal, from when it bought shares in the waterway in 1875 up until its occupation of Egypt in 1882. While the channel buttressed the UK's position as a world power, it was also the island nation's undoing some seven decades later.

When the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser boldly nationalised the structure in 1956, Britain undertook a military bid to reclaim it, but the US refused to back the incursion, and the invading force – which also included France and Israel – retreated.

The British military ruse, which saw Israel invade Egypt across the Sinai peninsula – and Britain and France intervene to “protect” the canal – unravelled fast as US president Dwight Eisenhower pulled the plug on American backing, horrified by what he deemed an unnecessary western assault. This failure soon led to the humiliating resignation of British prime minister Anthony Eden, and handed Nasser – and Egypt – a propaganda victory that stunned the established global order.

“The nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company and managing to survive the aggression of [the invading force] was a turning point for Nasser,” says Nael Shama, a political analyst in Cairo.

“It elevated his popularity inside Egypt and the wider Arab world and ushered in a decade of Egyptian dominance of regional politics that only ended with Egypt’s defeat to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.”

That war marked the beginning of the end of Nasser’s untouchable status as the Middle East’s pan-Arabist hero, after armies from Egypt, Syria and Jordan proved no match for the Jewish state, which made massive territorial gains, capturing the likes of the West Bank, and cemented its lasting military dominance in the region. The Suez Canal remained closed until 1975 – and reopened to international trade only once hostilities between the Egyptian-led Arab forces and Israel had ended.

The Suez Canal today: Egypt's 'black box'

Today, the canal remains a busy thoroughfare and hosts about eight per cent of global seaborne trade annually. In the 2017-2018 financial year, Egypt reaped some $5.5bn of revenue from the waterway. But what does the canal mean to modern-day Egyptians?

A cargo ship crosses a new waterway at the Suez Canal during its opening ceremony on August 6, 2015, in the port city of Ismailiya. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a lavish ceremony to unveil a "new" Suez Canal, seeking to boost the country's economy and international standing by expanding the vital waterway.  AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP)
A cargo ship crosses a new waterway at the Suez Canal during its opening ceremony on August 6, 2015, in the port city of Ismailiya. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a lavish ceremony to unveil the 'new' Suez Canal. AFP.

"It's one of the world's most vital waterways, but for Egypt it's been a kind of black box," says Mohamed Elshahed, 38, an architect living in Cairo. "It's a very militarised space … so it's not really a part of Egyptian life."

Elshahed recognises the "impressive" feat of engineering and design behind the canal's construction, but says the harsh conditions under which it was built give it a "dark aspect".

"The narratives around the canal are dominated by two main voices," says Elshahed, the author of a soon-to-be published book, Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide. "One is a European colonial voice that speaks about its great engineering achievement, and the other is the hyper-nationalist [Egyptian] voice. Both leave no place for those who work in the canal zone now, who worked on it before and those who live along it."

SUEZ, EGYPT - AUGUST 06:  President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi walks during the opening ceremony of the new Suez Canal expansion including a new 35km (22 mile) channel on August 6, 2015 in Suez, Egypt. The new channel of the Suez Canal was finished in a year at a cost of 8 billion USD and is designed to increase the speed and capacity of ships.  The new branch is being celebrated as a major nationalist project. (Photo by David Degner/Getty Images).
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pictured during the opening ceremony of the new Suez Canal expansion. Getty Images.

While Sisi promoted the canal's new development as a national triumph, questions have been raised over its true economic potential. Until the 150-year-old channel can match or surpass the financial projections promised by the canal's expansion, it remains an overwhelmingly political venture for many Egyptians.

To Shama, it was more about Sisi legitimising his presidency "to prove that, in contrast to his predecessor, he's a man who is capable of accomplishing tasks as big as deepening and expanding the canal".

As foreign vessels continue to churn the waters of this man-made shipping route, we can frame its enduring legacy using the words of one foreign observer, who, as per Karabell’s book, wrote in the aftermath of the waterway’s construction: “The canal is an established fact. It will disappear no more.”