For me, the Suez Canal evokes images of my childhood; visions of my – long-gone – Victorian relatives. There was Auntie Beatrice.
Her amazing old Victorian villa – that we only explored fully, following her death and the clearance of the house in the 1980s. It was a time capsule. Tall bay windows and high ceilings. Polished wood trimmings. Antique furniture. Stashed away old stamps, newspapers, an old postcard of Port Said’s domed landmark, the Suez Canal HQ.
And then there was Uncle Sid: a war veteran (from the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899-1902 and the First World War of 1914-18; my brother has the campaign medals), who I remember from the early 1970s. Along with Granny Stevens, offering us chocolate and candies from an ancient Cadbury’s tin, stored away in bedside cupboard.
They, and many family members that I never met, all passed thru here on route from the Motherland of Great Britain to the new, fledgling far-away dominion of New Zealand.
This is how I learned about the Suez Canal: that classic short cut to Asia, and – back in the day – countless British colonies.
A brief history – taken directly from my Lonely Planet guidebook to Egypt.
The Suez Canal represents the culmination of centuries of effort to enhance trade and expand the empires of Egypt by connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. Construction of the first recorded canal was begun by Pharaoh Nekau II between 610 and 595 BC. The canal stretched from the Nile Delta town of Bubastis, near present-day Zagazig, to the Red Sea via the Bitter Lakes. After reputedly causing the death of more than 100,000 workers, construction of the canal was quickly abandoned.
The project was completed about a century later under Darius, one of Egypt’s Persian rulers. The canal was improved by the Romans under Trajan but over the next several centuries it was either neglected or dredged for limited use depending on the available resources. The canal was again briefly restored in AD 649 by Amr ibn al-As, the Arab conqueror of Egypt.
Following the French invasion in 1798, the importance of some sort of sea route south to Asia was again recognised. For the first time, digging a canal directly from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, across the comparatively narrow Isthmus of Suez, was considered. The idea was abandoned, however, when Napoleon’s engineers mistakenly calculated that there was a 10m difference between the two sea levels.
British reports detected that mistake several years later but it was Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French consul to Egypt, who pursued the Suez Canal idea through to its conclusion. In 1854, de Lesseps presented his proposal to the Egyptian khedive Said Pasha, who authorised him to excavate the canal; work began in 1859.
A decade later the canal was completed amid much fanfare and celebration. When two small fleets, one originating in Port Said and the other in Suez, met at the new town of Ismailia on 16 November 1869, the Suez Canal was declared open and Africa was officially severed from Asia.
Ownership of the canal remained in French and British hands for the next 86 years until, in the wake of Egyptian independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez in 1956. The two European powers, in conjunction with Israel, invaded Egypt in an attempt to retake the waterway by force. In what came to be known as the ‘Suez Crisis’, they were forced to retreat in the face of widespread international condemnation.
Today, the Suez Canal remains one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes and toll revenues represent one of the largest contributors to the Egyptian state coffers with more than 50 ships passing through the Suez each day.
Travels in Egypt – 2013
For more about the Suez Canal @ wikipedia
→ see Panama Canal images