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Suez Crisis - Definition, Summary and Timeline

Suez Crisis - Definition, Summary and Timeline

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The Suez Crisis began on October 29, 1956, when Israeli armed forces pushed into Egypt toward the Suez Canal after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) nationalized the canal, a valuable waterway that controlled two-thirds of the oil used by Europe. The Israelis were soon joined by French and British forces, which nearly brought the Soviet Union into the conflict and damaged their relationships with the United States. In the end, Egypt emerged victorious, and the British, French and Israeli governments withdrew their troops in late 1956 and early 1957. The event was a pivotal event among Cold War superpowers.

Where Is the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal was built in Egypt under the supervision of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. The man-made waterway opened in 1869 after ten years of construction and separates most of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula. At 120 miles long, it connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean by way of the Red Sea, allowing goods to be shipped from Europe to Asia and back more directly. Its value to international trade made it a nearly instant source of conflict among Egypt’s neighbors—and Cold War superpowers vying for dominance.

The catalyst for the joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt was the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in July 1956. The situation had been brewing for some time. Two years earlier, in the wake of World War II, the Egyptian military had begun pressuring the British to end their military presence (which had been granted in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty) in the canal zone. Nasser’s armed forces also engaged in sporadic battles with Israeli soldiers along the border between the two countries, and the Egyptian leader did nothing to conceal his antipathy toward the Zionist nation.

Supported by Soviet arms and money, and furious with the United States for reneging on a promise to provide funds for construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River, Nasser ordered the Suez Canal seized and nationalized, arguing tolls from the ships passing through the canal would pay for the Dam. The British were angered by the move and sought the support of the French (who believed that Nasser was supporting rebels in the French colony of Algeria) and neighboring Israel in an armed assault to retake the canal.

Suez Crisis: 1956-57

The Israelis struck first on October 29, 1956. Two days later, British and French military forces joined them. Originally, forces from the three countries were set to strike at once, but the British and French troops were delayed.

Behind schedule but ultimately successful, the British and French troops landed at Port Said and Port Fuad and took control of the area around the Suez Canal. However, their hesitation had given the Soviet Union—also confronted with a growing crisis in Hungary—time to respond. The Soviets, eager to exploit Arab nationalism and gain a foothold in the Middle East, supplied arms from Czechoslovakia to the Egyptian government beginning in 1955, and eventually helped Egypt construct the Aswan Dam on the Nile River after the United States refused to support the project. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) railed against the invasion and threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe if the Israeli-French-British force did not withdraw.

Why Did the U.S. Intervene in the Suez Crisis?

The response of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was measured. It warned the Soviets that reckless talk of nuclear conflict would only make matters worse, and cautioned Khrushchev to refrain from direct intervention in the conflict. However, Eisenhower (1890-1969) also issued stern warnings to the French, British and Israelis to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. Eisenhower was upset with the British, in particular, for not keeping the United States informed about their intentions. The United States threatened all three nations with economic sanctions if they persisted in their attack. The threats did their work. The British and French forces withdrew by December; Israel finally bowed to U.S. pressure in March 1957, relinquishing control over the canal to Egypt.

The Suez Crisis marked the first use of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was an armed group dispatched to the area to supervise the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of the three occupying forces.

Aftermath of The Suez Crisis

In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Britain and France, once the seat of empires, found their influence as world powers weakened as the United States and Soviet Union took a more powerful role in world affairs. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned two months after withdrawing British troops

The crisis made Nasser a powerful hero in the growing Arab and Egyptian nationalist movements. Israel, while it did not gain the right to utilize the canal, was once again granted rights to ship goods along the Straits of Tiran.

Ten years later, Egypt shut down the canal following the Six-Day War (June 1967). For almost a decade, the Suez Canal became the front line between the Israeli and Egyptian armies.

In 1975 as a gesture of peace, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the Suez Canal. Today, about 300 million tons of goods pass through the canal each year.

READ MORE: 9 Fascinating Facts About the Suez Canal


The first canal in the region is thought to have been dug about 1850 bce , when an irrigation channel navigable at flood period was constructed into the Wadi Tumelat (Al-Ṭumaylāt), a dry river valley east of the Nile delta. Known as the Canal of the Pharaohs, that channel was extended by the Ptolemies via the Bitter Lakes as far as the Red Sea. From the region of Lake Timsah a northward arm appears to have reached a former branch of the Nile. Extended under the Romans (who called it Trajan’s Canal), neglected by the Byzantines, and reopened by the early Arabs, that canal was deliberately filled in by the ʿAbbāsid caliphs for military reasons in 775 ce . Throughout, the reason for those changes appears to have been to facilitate trade from the delta lands to the Red Sea rather than to provide a passage to the Mediterranean.

Venetians in the 15th century and the French in the 17th and 18th centuries speculated upon the possibility of making a canal through the isthmus. A canal there would make it possible for ships of their nations to sail directly from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and so dispute the monopoly of the East Indian trade that had been won first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch, and finally by the English, all of whom used the route around the Cape of Good Hope. Those schemes came to nothing.

It was not until the French occupation of Egypt (1798–1801) that the first survey was made across the isthmus. Napoleon personally investigated the remains of the ancient canal. J.M. Le Père, his chief lines-of-communication engineer, erroneously calculated that the level of the Red Sea was 10 metres (33 feet) above that of the Mediterranean and, therefore, that locks would be needed. Considering the adverse conditions under which the French surveyors worked and the prevailing belief in the disparity of levels of the two seas, the error was excusable, and Le Père’s conclusion was uncritically accepted by a succession of subsequent authors of canal projects. Studies for a canal were made again in 1834 and in 1846. In 1854 Ferdinand de Lesseps received an Act of Concession from the viceroy (khedive) of Egypt, Saʿīd Pasha, to construct a canal, and in 1856 a second act conferred on the Suez Canal Company (Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez) the right to operate a maritime canal for 99 years after completion of the work. Construction began in 1859 and took 10 years instead of the 6 that had been envisaged climatic difficulties, a cholera epidemic in 1865, and early labour troubles all slowed down operations. An initial project was the cutting of a small canal (the Al-Ismāʾīliyyah) from the delta along the Wadi Tumelat, with a southern branch (now called the Al-Suways al-Ḥulwah Canal the two canals combined were formerly called the Sweet Water Canal) to Suez and a northern one ( Al-ʿAbbāsiyyah Canal) to Port Said. This supplied drinking water in an otherwise arid area and was completed in 1863.

At first, digging was done by hand with picks and baskets, peasants being drafted as forced labour. Later, dredgers and steam shovels operated by European labourers took over, and, as dredging proved cheaper than dry excavation, the terrain was artificially flooded and dredged wherever possible. Other than in the few areas where rock strata were met, the entire canal was driven through sand or alluvium. In August 1869 the waterway was completed, and it was officially opened with an elaborate ceremony on November 17.

The Suez Crisis, 1956

On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, the joint British-French enterprise which had owned and operated the Suez Canal since its construction in 1869. Nasser’s announcement came about following months of mounting political tensions between Egypt, Britain, and France. Although Nasser offered full economic compensation for the Company, the British and French Governments, long suspicious of Nasser’s opposition to the continuation of their political influence in the region, were outraged by the nationalization. The Egyptian leader, in turn, resented what he saw as European efforts to perpetuate their colonial domination.

The Eisenhower administration, worried by the prospect of the outbreak of hostilities between its NATO allies and an emergent, influential Middle Eastern power (and the possible intervention of the Soviet Union in such a conflict), attempted to broker a diplomatic settlement of the British-French-Egyptian dispute. On September 9, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed the creation of a Suez Canal Users’ Association (SCUA), an international consortium of 18 of the world’s leading maritime nations, to operate the Canal. Although SCUA would have given Britain, France, and Egypt an equal stake in the Canal, this, and various other U.S. and international mediation efforts failed to win the full support of any of the contending powers.

In discussions with the United States between August and October, the British Government repeatedly hinted that it might resort to force in dealing with Nasser. At the same time, the British and French held secret military consultations with Israel, who regarded Nasser as a threat to its security, resulting in the creation of a joint plan to invade Egypt and overthrow its President. In keeping with these plans, Israeli forces attacked across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956, advancing to within 10 miles of the Suez Canal. Under the pretext of protecting the Canal from the two belligerents, Britain and France landed troops of their own a few days later.

Suez Crisis

Image: University of Texas Libraries, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection: Egypt Maps. Image: University of Texas Libraries, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection: Egypt Maps. Image: Library of Congress/Prints and Photographs Division/LC-B2-3280-11.

The Suez Canal directly links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It was built by Egyptian workers under the French and British-owned Suez Canal Company, and opened in 1869. The company was seized and nationalized by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on 26 July 1956. The move worried Western governments, as the canal was a vital route for oil travelling to Britain. If Egypt blocked the flow of oil, Nasser could badly damage the British economy.

The Egyptian seizure came during the Cold War, further ratcheting up the tensions. Egypt’s stated reason for the nationalization of the canal was to use the shipping tolls to finance construction of the Aswan Dam — which promised to control flooding on the Nile, and provide hydroelectricity as well as other means of industrializing the country. Nasser continued to operate the canal as usual, but Britain, France and their regional ally Israel began plotting a military response. Nasser, meanwhile, obtained military arms from the Soviet Union.

Bombing the Canal

Image: Daniel Csu00f6rfu00f6ly/Wikicommons.

When diplomacy failed to produce a solution, France, Britain and Israel secretly plotted to attack, without informing the US, Canada and other NATO allies. Israeli forces advanced on 29 October to within 42 kilometers of the canal. Britain and France ordered both Israel and Egypt to withdraw from the Canal Zone (a move pre-planned with Israel). Nasser did not retreat. On 31 October, Britain and France began bombing the Canal Zone.

The US, not wanting a war, had urged Britain to seek peace. British aggression in Egypt caused the biggest rift between these important allies in the 20th century.

Canada Becomes Peacemaker

Image: United Nations/Library and Archives Canada/C-018532.

Publicly, the Canadian government’s role was that of conciliator. Privately, however, Ottawa strongly objected to the military action out of concern that it was dividing the Commonwealth, damaging relations with the US, and risking a wider war.

Pearson was Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs (foreign minister) and headed Canada’s delegation to the UN. He had played an important role in the creation of the state of Israel in 1947. He spent the summer and fall of 1956 working toward a diplomatic solution to the Suez Crisis. When that failed, and the bombing began, Pearson changed tactics.

Working with colleagues at the UN, he developed the idea for the UN’s first, large-scale peacekeeping force. At that time, UN military observers were already being used to monitor cease-fire agreements in Kashmir and Palestine, but a more robust and armoured peacekeeping force had not been tried before.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, in the midst of the Suez Crisis, Pearson made his case for a “peace and police force,” saying: “Peace is far more than ceasing to fire.”

On 4 November, 57 UN states voted in favour of the idea and 19 abstained no country voted against the peacekeeping mission. The following day, however, British and French paratroops ignored the vote and landed in the Canal Zone.

The US continued to pressure British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden to find a peaceful resolution. A cease-fire was arranged, beginning on 6 November, and UN peacekeepers later entered the canal area. Pearson’s solution allowed Britain, France and Israel to withdraw their forces without giving the appearance of having been defeated. A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) under the command of Canadian General E.L.M. Burns, and including a Canadian supply and logistics contingent, was in place by late November.

Image: Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada /PA-122737.

Pearson Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his initiative in Egypt. In his acceptance speech, he highlighted Canada's important role in the breakthrough.

“I realise also that I share this honour with many friends and colleagues who have worked with me for the promotion of peace and good understanding between peoples. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given to participate in that work as a representative of my country, Canada, whose people have, I think, shown their devotion to peace.”

Some in Canada and Britain objected to Ottawa's perceived lack of support for Britain. In the 1957 Canadian election, Pearson’s Liberals, under the leadership of Prime Minister Louis St–Laurent, faced accusations that they had betrayed Britain — still regarded by many Canadians as the Mother Country. Pearson defended his position as the best way to stop the fighting before it spread. The hostile view of some Canadians towards their country's role in the Suez Crisis is thought to have played a part in the Liberal government's defeat in the national election.

Pearson, however, would go on to become prime minister six years later in 1963. And his role in creating the UN’s first modern peacekeeping force pointed the way to the future UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions would become the proud centrepiece of Canada's military and diplomatic activities around the world for decades to come.

The Suez Canal: A Man-Made Marvel Connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea

Maritime transportation has a vital role to play in our daily life as it benefits every single person across the world. Despite the fact that the developments in the aviation industry have made the movement of people and goods faster, the shipping industry remains critical to the growth of economies.

As a backbone of international trade, freight transportation enables the movement of tonnes and thousands of goods- from toys to trucks- every day through the vast and unending oceans and seas.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, the shipping industry, with more than over 50,000 merchant ships offering service internationally, carries out almost 90 per cent of world trade.

However, it’s not only the various natural bodies that enable the international seaborne trade, but a number of human interventions in marine transportation also strengthened the movement of people and goods worldwide.

The man-made canals in different parts of the world have transformed the international shipping by shortening the shipping routes and reducing operating costs.

Currently, the major man-made canals across the world, such as the Panama Canal, Volga-Don Canal, the Corinth Canal, the Grand Canal and the Suez Canal, provide alternative transportation routes across major seawater networks across the world, facilitating efficient marine transportation.

Credits: AashayBaindur /

Where is Suez Canal?

The 193.30 km (120 miles)-long Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway located in Egypt and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea.

Officially opened in November 1869, the Suez Canal is one of the most heavily used shipping routes in the world, witnessing the passage of thousands of vessels every year.

The canal, which separates Asia from the African continent, offers a shortest maritime route between Europe and the regions that share a border with the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.

The journey from Europe through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, transiting through the Suez Canal, cuts around 7,000 kilometres off the journey compared to the one carries out through the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. The canal also connects the Port Said in northeast Egypt with Port Tewfik at the city of Suez in the south.

The construction of the Suez Canal was carried out between 1859 and 1869 by the Suez Canal Company, and the Suez Canal Authority owns and maintains the waterway.

In 2015, Egypt completed a major expansion of the Suez Canal that saw the deepening of the parts of the canal and the construction of a second 35km-long shipping lane along part of the main waterway.

The expansion allowed the canal to accommodate two-way traffic along part of the route and also the transiting of larger vessels. In December 2017, the world’s largest container ship, the 400-meter long OOCL Hong Kong, passed through the Suez Canal carrying 21,400 containers.

Witnessing around 8 percent of global sea-borne trade annually, the canal plays a significant role in the growth of Egypt’s economy. According to Reuters, the Suez Canal generated revenue of $5.3 billion in 2017.

Though the Suez Canal wasn’t formally completed until 1869, there is a long history of notice in connecting both the Nile River in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

The history of the Suez Canal dates back to around 40 centuries as the idea of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea emerged during the period of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

The concept of a canal that connects these seas and the Nile River lasted until the construction of the first canal in the area, linking both the seas through Nile River under the reign of Senausret III, Pharao of Egypt (1887-1849 BC). However, the canal was often abandoned during many years following the construction.

At the same time, the canal was also reopened several times for navigation under the reign of various rulers including Sity I (1310 BC), Necho II (610 BC), Persian King Darius (522 BC), Emperor Trajan (117 AD) and Amro Ibn Elass (640 AD), among others.

The historic documents suggest that the canal was extended, and several other attempts to build new canals were also carried out during these periods.

The first modern effort to build a canal came in the late 1700s, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt expedition. He believed that building a French-controlled canal on the Isthmus of Suez would cause trade problems for the British as they would either have to pay dues to France or continue sending goods over land or around the southern part of Africa.

Studies for Napoleon’s canal plan began in 1799, but a mistake in measurement showed the sea levels between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas as being too different for a canal to be feasible and construction was immediately stopped.

With the rise of new Europe and the development of industry and seaborne trade, entrepreneurs began to think of building canals. One such plan aimed at connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean directly, thus saving time either to sail around Africa or transhipping freight or passengers across the Suez Peninsula.

The next attempt to build a canal in the area occurred in the mid-1800s when a French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support the building of a canal.

In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company (La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez)was formed and given the right to begin construction of the canal and operate it for 99 years, after which time, the Egyptian government would take over control of the canal.

Image for representation purpose only. Image Credits: My Channel/YouTube

How Ships Transit Suez Canal?

Construction of the Suez Canal

The construction of the Suez Canal officially began on April 25, 1859. It was estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth- 600 million on land and 2,013 million through dredging- would have to be moved for building the canal. Furthermore, the total original cost of the project was estimated at 200 million francs.

The decision to build a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, however, invited criticism from Briton, which considered the project as a political scheme set up to weaken the country’s dominance in seaborne trade.

Britain continued to oppose the project until the Empire bought a 44 per cent stake in the canal after the Egyptian government auctioned off its shares in 1875 due to financial problems.

Initially, the construction of the canal was carried out by forced labourers. It is said that thousands of people were forcefully assigned to dig the canal using picks and shovels until Pasha banned the use of forced labour in 1863.

This compelled the Suez Canal Company to bring custom-made steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers to build the canal.

With the help of this machinery, the project received the boost it required and allowed the waters of the Mediterranean flow into the Red Sea through the canal on November 17, 1869.

When it opened for the navigation, the Suez Canal was 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface, 72 feet wide at the bottom and 25 feet deep. At the time of completion, the total cost of the project was more than twice the original estimates.

The Suez Canal and Political Crises

After completion of the project, the Suez Canal had a significant impact on world trade despite the traffic through the waterway was below expectations in the initial years.

Meanwhile, the financial problems linked with the construction of the canal allowed the British government to buy the stakes owned by Egyptian interests in 1875 to become the major shareholder in the Suez Canal Company.

The canal was vital to the British economy as it provided a shorter sea route to its colonies and the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.

Britain strengthened its control over Egypt in 1875 when the latter went bankrupt, allowing the banks in Europe to take control of the country financially.

As the French and British continued their control over the country, it started resentment among the Egyptians. This caused Brittan to invade Egypt in 1882.

Though Egypt remained virtually independent due to the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, Britain took complete control of the Suez Canal. During the First World War, Britain announced Egypt a protectorate and sent forces to protect the canal, and this lasted till 1922 when Britain provided nominal independence to Egypt.

Though the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty declared Egypt as a sovereign state in 1936, Britain only agreed to withdraw its troops from Egypt in 1956.

The major political unrest linked to the Suez Canal, known as the Suez Crisis, started in July 1956, when the then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and closed the Straits of Tiran.

The decision resulted in the invasion of Egypt by the UK, France, and Israel. It was only after the intervention of the United Nations, the three forces withdrew from Egypt, allowing the country to reopen the canal for commercial shipping.

The political unrest, however, continued for a long time to come and the canal was shut down by the Egyptian authorities in 1967 during the Six-day War between Israel and Egypt.

The closing of the canal also led to the stranding of 15 shipping vessels in the middle of the canal, at the Great Bitter Lake. These vessels, known as Yellow Fleet, remained trapped there till 1975 after Egypt reopened the Suez Canal after peace talks with Israel.

Since then, the canal remains a significant transport link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing the international ships to avoid the difficult voyage around the southern tip of Africa.

The world longest canal without a lock, according to the Suez Canal Authority, expects to raise the daily average of travelling vessels to 97 ships ad revenue of $ 13.226 billion by the year 2023.

Suez Canal Map

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The Suez Crisis

In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced the country was nationalizing the canal to help finance the Aswan High Dam after the United States and the United Kingdom withdrew support from funding.

On October 29 of that same year, Israel invaded Egypt and two days later Britain and France followed on grounds that passage through the canal was to be free. In retaliation, Egypt blocked the canal by intentionally sinking 40 ships.

The Soviet Union offers to back Egypt militarily, and eventually, the Suez Crisis is ended with a United Nations-negotiated cease fire.

Suez Crisis - Definition, Summary and Timeline - HISTORY

  • 1700s - Abraham settles in the land of Israel (Canaan).
  • 1500 - Joseph is sold into slavery. His family join him in Egypt.
  • 1400s - The Hebrews are enslaved by the Egyptians.

  • 30 - Jesus Christ is crucified.
  • 70 - The Romans destroy the Second Temple and much of Jerusalem.
  • 73 - The last of the Jewish rebels are defeated at Masada.
  • 132 - The Jewish people revolt against Roman rule. Hundreds of thousands of Jews are killed.

Brief Overview of the History of Israel

The land which is today the country of Israel has been sacred to the Jewish people for thousands of years. Today the land is also sacred to other religions such as Christianity. In 2000 BC, the Jewish Patriarch Abraham was promised the land of Israel by God. Abraham's descendents became the Jewish people. The Kingdom of Israel emerged around 1000 BC and was ruled by great kings such as King David and Solomon.

Over the next 1000 plus years various empires would take control of the land. These included the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Empires.

In the 7th century the land was taken over by the Muslims. Later, the land would change hands a few times until the Ottoman Empire took control in 1517. The Ottoman Empire ruled until the 1900s.

During the rule of the Arabs and the Ottoman Empire, the Jewish nation had dispersed throughout the world. Many millions lived in European countries. During World War II, Nazi Germany had hoped to exterminate the Jewish people through the Holocaust. Millions of Jewish people were executed and killed in concentration camps.

After the end of World War II the United Nations divided up Israel between Arab and Jewish states. The Arabs rejected this division. On May 14, 1948 the Jewish people in the area proclaimed independence, naming their country Israel. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon immediately attacked and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began. After a year of fighting a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders were established.

Hostilities continued between the Arabs and the Israelis in a series of wars including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Today the tensions and hostility still exists between the two.

Physical features

The Isthmus of Suez, the sole land bridge between the continents of Africa and Asia, is of relatively recent geologic origin. Both continents once formed a single large continental mass, but during the Paleogene and Neogene periods (about 66 to 2.6 million years ago) the great fault structures of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba developed, with the opening and subsequent drowning of the Red Sea trough as far as the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. In the succeeding Quaternary Period (about the past 2.6 million years), there was considerable oscillation of sea level, leading finally to the emergence of a low-lying isthmus that broadened northward to a low-lying open coastal plain. There the Nile delta once extended farther east—as a result of periods of abundant rainfall coincident with the Pleistocene Epoch (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago)—and two river arms, or distributaries, formerly crossed the northern isthmus, one branch reaching the Mediterranean Sea at the narrowest point of the isthmus and the other entering the sea some 14.5 km (9 miles) east of present Port Said.


Ancient west–east canals were built to facilitate travel from the Nile River to the Red Sea. [12] [13] [14] One smaller canal is believed to have been constructed under the auspices of Senusret II [15] or Ramesses II. [12] [13] [14] Another canal, probably incorporating a portion of the first, [12] [13] was constructed under the reign of Necho II, but the only fully functional canal was engineered and completed by Darius I. [12] [13] [14]

Second millennium BC Edit

The legendary Sesostris (likely either Pharaoh Senusret II or Senusret III of the Twelfth dynasty of Egypt [15] [16] ) may have started work on an ancient canal, the Canal of the Pharaohs, joining the Nile with the Red Sea (BC1897–1839), when an irrigation channel was constructed around BC1848 that was navigable during the flood season, leading into a dry river valley east of the Nile River Delta named Wadi Tumilat. [17] (It is said that in ancient times the Red Sea reached northward to the Bitter Lakes [12] [13] and Lake Timsah. [18] [19] )

One of their kings tried to make a canal to it (for it would have been of no little advantage to them for the whole region to have become navigable Sesostris is said to have been the first of the ancient kings to try), but he found that the sea was higher than the land. So he first, and Darius afterwards, stopped making the canal, lest the sea should mix with the river water and spoil it. [20]

Strabo wrote that Sesostris started to build a canal, and Pliny the Elder wrote:

165. Next comes the Tyro tribe and, the harbour of the Daneoi, from which Sesostris, king of Egypt, intended to carry a ship-canal to where the Nile flows into what is known as the Delta this is a distance of over 60 miles. Later the Persian king Darius had the same idea, and yet again Ptolemy II, who made a trench 100 feet wide, 30 feet deep and about 35 miles long, as far as the Bitter Lakes. [21]

In the 20th century the northward extension of the later Darius I canal was discovered, extending from Lake Timsah to the Ballah Lakes. [22] This was dated to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt by extrapolating the dates of ancient sites along its course. [22]

The reliefs of the Punt expedition under Hatshepsut, 1470 BCE, depict seagoing vessels carrying the expeditionary force returning from Punt. This suggests that a navigable link existed between the Red Sea and the Nile. [23] Recent excavations in Wadi Gawasis may indicate that Egypt's maritime trade started from the Red Sea and did not require a canal. [ citation needed ] Evidence seems to indicate its existence by the 13th century BCE during the time of Ramesses II. [12] [24] [25] [26]

Canals dug by Necho, Darius I and Ptolemy Edit

Remnants of an ancient west–east canal through the ancient Egyptian cities of Bubastis, Pi-Ramesses, and Pithom were discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte and his engineers and cartographers in 1799. [13] [27] [28] [29] [30]

According to the Histories of the Greek historian Herodotus, [31] about 600 BCE, Necho II undertook to dig a west–east canal through the Wadi Tumilat between Bubastis and Heroopolis, [13] and perhaps continued it to the Heroopolite Gulf and the Red Sea. [12] Regardless, Necho is reported as having never completed his project. [12] [13]

Herodotus was told that 120,000 men perished in this undertaking, but this figure is doubtless exaggerated. [32] According to Pliny the Elder, Necho's extension to the canal was about 57 English miles, [13] equal to the total distance between Bubastis and the Great Bitter Lake, allowing for winding through valleys. [13] The length that Herodotus tells, of over 1000 stadia (i.e., over 114 miles (183 km)), must be understood to include the entire distance between the Nile and the Red Sea [13] at that time.

With Necho's death, work was discontinued. Herodotus tells that the reason the project was abandoned was because of a warning received from an oracle that others would benefit from its successful completion. [13] [33] Necho's war with Nebuchadnezzar II most probably prevented the canal's continuation.

Necho's project was completed by Darius I of Persia, who ruled over Ancient Egypt after it had been conquered by his predecessor Cambyses II. [34] It may be that by Darius's time a natural [13] waterway passage which had existed [12] between the Heroopolite Gulf and the Red Sea [35] in the vicinity of the Egyptian town of Shaluf [13] (alt. Chalouf [36] or Shaloof [19] ), located just south of the Great Bitter Lake, [13] [19] had become so blocked [12] with silt [13] that Darius needed to clear it out so as to allow navigation [13] once again. According to Herodotus, Darius's canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and required four days to traverse. Darius commemorated his achievement with a number of granite stelae that he set up on the Nile bank, including one near Kabret, and a further one a few miles north of Suez. Darius the Great's Suez Inscriptions read: [37]

Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.

The canal left the Nile at Bubastis. An inscription [38] on a pillar at Pithom records that in 270 or 269 BCE, it was again reopened, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In Arsinoe, [13] Ptolemy constructed a navigable lock, with sluices, at the Heroopolite Gulf of the Red Sea, [35] which allowed the passage of vessels but prevented salt water from the Red Sea from mingling with the fresh water in the canal. [39]

In the second half of the 19th century, French cartographers discovered the remnants of an ancient north–south canal past the east side of Lake Timsah and ending near the north end of the Great Bitter Lake. [40] This proved to be the canal made by Darius I, as his stele commemorating its construction was found at the site. (This ancient, second canal may have followed a course along the shoreline of the Red Sea when it once extended north to Lake Timsah. [19] [40] )

Receding Red Sea and the dwindling Nile Edit

The Red Sea is believed by some historians to have gradually receded over the centuries, its coastline slowly moving southward away from Lake Timsah [18] [19] and the Great Bitter Lake. [12] [13] Coupled with persistent accumulations of Nile silt, maintenance and repair of Ptolemy's canal became increasingly cumbersome over each passing century.

Two hundred years after the construction of Ptolemy's canal, Cleopatra seems to have had no west–east waterway passage, [12] [13] because the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which fed Ptolemy's west–east canal, had by that time dwindled, being choked with silt. [12] [13]

Old Cairo to the Red Sea Edit

By the 8th century, a navigable canal existed between Old Cairo and the Red Sea, [12] [13] but accounts vary as to who ordered its construction – either Trajan or 'Amr ibn al-'As, or Umar. [12] [13] This canal was reportedly linked to the River Nile at Old Cairo [13] and ended near modern Suez. [12] [41] A geography treatise De Mensura Orbis Terrae written by the Irish monk Dicuil (born late 8th century) reports a conversation with another monk, Fidelis, who had sailed on the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the first half of the 8th century [42]

The Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur is said to have ordered this canal closed in 767 to prevent supplies from reaching Arabian detractors. [12] [13]

Repair by al-Ḥākim Edit

Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah is claimed to have repaired the Cairo to Red Sea passageway, but only briefly, circa 1000 CE, as it soon "became choked with sand". [13] However, parts of this canal still continued to fill in during the Nile's annual inundations. [12] [13]

Conception by Venice Edit

The successful 1488 navigation of southern Africa by Bartolomeu Dias opened a direct maritime trading route to India and the Spice Islands, and forever changed the balance of Mediterranean trade. One of the most prominent losers in the new order, as former middlemen, was the former spice trading center of Venice.

Venetian leaders, driven to desperation, contemplated digging a waterway between the Red Sea and the Nile – anticipating the Suez Canal by almost 400 years – to bring the luxury trade flooding to their doors again. But this remained a dream.

Despite entering negotiations with Egypt's ruling Mamelukes, the Venetian plan to build the canal was quickly put to rest by the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, led by Sultan Selim I. [43]

Ottoman attempts Edit

During the 16th century, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Sokollu Pasha attempted to construct a canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This was motivated by a desire to connect Constantinople to the pilgrimage and trade routes of the Indian Ocean, as well as by strategic concerns—as the European presence in the Indian Ocean was growing, Ottoman mercantile and strategic interests were increasingly challenged, and the Sublime Porte was increasingly pressed to assert its position. A navigable canal would allow the Ottoman Navy to connect its Red Sea, Black Sea, and Mediterranean fleets. However, this project was deemed too expensive, and was never completed. [44] [45]

Napoleon's discovery of an ancient canal Edit

During the French campaign in Egypt and Syria in late 1798, Napoleon expressed interest in finding the remnants of an ancient waterway passage. This culminated in a cadre of archaeologists, scientists, cartographers and engineers scouring northern Egypt. [46] [47] Their findings, recorded in the Description de l'Égypte, include detailed maps that depict the discovery of an ancient canal extending northward from the Red Sea and then westward toward the Nile. [46] [48]

Later, Napoleon, who became the French Emperor in 1804, contemplated the construction of a north–south canal to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. But the plan was abandoned because it incorrectly concluded that the waterway would require locks to operate, the construction of which would be costly and time-consuming. The belief in the need for locks was based on the erroneous assumption that the Red Sea was 8.5 m (28 ft) higher than the Mediterranean. This estimate was the result of using fragmentary survey measurements taken in wartime during Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition. [49]

As late as 1861, the unnavigable ancient route discovered by Napoleon from Bubastis to the Red Sea still channeled water in spots as far east as Kassassin. [13]

Interim period Edit

Despite the construction challenges that could have been the result of the alleged difference in sea levels, the idea of finding a shorter route to the east remained alive. In 1830, General Francis Chesney submitted a report to the British government that stated that there was no difference in elevation and that the Suez Canal was feasible, but his report received no further attention. Lieutenant Waghorn established his "Overland Route", which transported post and passengers to India via Egypt. [50] [51]

Linant de Bellefonds, a French explorer of Egypt, became chief engineer of Egypt's Public Works. In addition to his normal duties, he surveyed the Isthmus of Suez and made plans for the Suez Canal. French Saint-Simonianists showed an interest in the canal and in 1833, Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin tried to draw Muhammad Ali's attention to the canal but was unsuccessful. Alois Negrelli, the Italian-Austrian railroad pioneer, became interested in the idea in 1836.

In 1846, Prosper Enfantin's Société d'Études du Canal de Suez invited a number of experts, among them Robert Stephenson, Negrelli and Paul-Adrien Bourdaloue to study the feasibility of the Suez Canal (with the assistance of Linant de Bellefonds). Bourdaloue's survey of the isthmus was the first generally accepted evidence that there was no practical difference in altitude between the two seas. Britain, however, feared that a canal open to everyone might interfere with its India trade and therefore preferred a connection by train from Alexandria via Cairo to Suez, which Stephenson eventually built.

Construction by the Suez Canal Company Edit

Preparations (1854–1858) Edit

In 1854 and 1856, Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained a concession from Sa'id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, to create a company to construct a canal open to ships of all nations. The company was to operate the canal for 99 years from its opening. De Lesseps had used his friendly relationship with Sa'id, which he had developed while he was a French diplomat in the 1830s. As stipulated in the concessions, de Lesseps convened the International Commission for the piercing of the isthmus of Suez (Commission Internationale pour le percement de l'isthme de Suez) consisting of 13 experts from seven countries, among them John Robinson McClean, later President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, and again Negrelli, to examine the plans developed by Linant de Bellefonds, and to advise on the feasibility of and the best route for the canal. After surveys and analyses in Egypt and discussions in Paris on various aspects of the canal, where many of Negrelli's ideas prevailed, the commission produced a unanimous report in December 1856 containing a detailed description of the canal complete with plans and profiles. [52] The Suez Canal Company (Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez) came into being on 15 December 1858.

The British government had opposed the project from the outset to its completion. The British, who controlled both the Cape route and the Overland route to India and the Far East, favored the status quo, given that a canal might disrupt their commercial and maritime supremacy. Lord Palmerston, the project's most unwavering foe, confessed in the mid-1850s the real motive behind his opposition: that Britain's commercial and maritime relations would be overthrown by the opening of a new route, open to all nations, and thus deprive his country of its present exclusive advantages. [53] As one of the diplomatic moves against the project when it nevertheless went ahead, it disapproved of the use of "slave labour" for construction of the canal. Involuntary labour on the project ceased, and the viceroy condemned the corvée, halting the project. [54]

Initially international opinion was skeptical and Suez Canal Company shares did not sell well overseas. Britain, Austria, and Russia did not buy a significant number of shares. However, with assistance from the Cattaui banking family, and their relationship with James de Rothschild of the French House of Rothschild bonds and shares were successfully promoted in France and other parts of Europe. [55] All French shares were quickly sold in France. A contemporary British skeptic claimed "One thing is sure. our local merchant community doesn't pay practical attention at all to this grand work, and it is legitimate to doubt that the canal's receipts. could ever be sufficient to recover its maintenance fee. It will never become a large ship's accessible way in any case." [56]

Construction (1859–1869) Edit

Work started on the shore of the future Port Said on 25 April 1859.

The excavation took some 10 years, with forced labour (corvée) being employed until 1864 to dig out the canal. [57] Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given period, that more than 1.5 million people from various countries were employed, [49] [58] and that tens of thousands of labourers died, many of them from cholera and similar epidemics.

Estimates of the number of deaths vary widely with Gamal Abdel Nasser famously citing 120,000 deaths upon nationalization of the canal in a 26 July 1956 speech and the company's chief medical officer reporting no higher than 2.49 deaths per thousand in 1866. [50] Doubling these estimates with a generous assumption of 50,000 working staff per year over 11 years would put a conservative estimate at fewer than 3,000 deaths. More closely relying on the limited reported data of the time, the number would be fewer than 1,000. [50]

Inauguration (17 November 1869) Edit

The canal opened under French control in November 1869. The opening ceremonies began at Port Said on the evening of 15 November, with illuminations, fireworks, and a banquet on the yacht of the Khedive Isma'il Pasha of Egypt and Sudan. The royal guests arrived the following morning: the Emperor Franz Joseph I, the French Empress Eugenie in the Imperial yacht L'Aigle, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and Prince Louis of Hesse. [59] Other international guests included the American natural historian H. W. Harkness. [60] In the afternoon there were blessings of the canal with both Muslim and Christian ceremonies, a temporary mosque and church having been built side by side on the beach. In the evening there were more illuminations and fireworks. [59]

On the morning of 17 November, a procession of ships entered the canal, headed by the L'Aigle. Among the ships following was HMS Newport, captained by George Nares, which would survey the canal on behalf of the Admiralty a few months later. [61] The Newport was involved in an incident that demonstrated some of the problems with the canal. There were suggestions that the depth of parts of the canal at the time of the inauguration were not as great as promised, and that the deepest part of the channel was not always clear, leading to a risk of grounding. [59] [62] [63] The first day of the passage ended at Lake Timsah, 76 kilometres (41 nmi) south of Port Said. The French ship Péluse anchored close to the entrance, then swung around and grounded, the ship and its hawser blocking the way into the lake. The following ships had to anchor in the canal itself until the Péluse was hauled clear the next morning, making it difficult for them to join that night's celebration in Ismailia. Except for the Newport: Nares sent out a boat to carry out soundings, and was able to manoeuver around the Péluse to enter the lake and anchor there for the night. [64] [65]

Ismailia was the scene of more celebrations the following day, including a military "march past", illuminations and fireworks, and a ball at the Governor's Palace. The convoy set off again on the morning of 19 November, for the remainder of the trip to Suez. [59] After Suez, many of the participants headed for Cairo, and then to the Pyramids, where a new road had been built for the occasion. [49]

An Anchor Line ship, the S.S. Dido, became the first to pass through the Canal from South to North. [66] [67]

Initial difficulties (1869–1871) Edit

Although numerous technical, political, and financial problems had been overcome, the final cost was more than double the original estimate.

The Khedive, in particular, was able to overcome initial reservations held by both British and French creditors by enlisting the help of the Sursock family, whose deep connections proved invaluable in securing much international support for the project. [68] [69]

After the opening, the Suez Canal Company was in financial difficulties. The remaining works were completed only in 1871, and traffic was below expectations in the first two years. De Lesseps therefore tried to increase revenues by interpreting the kind of net ton referred to in the second concession (tonneau de capacité) as meaning a ship's cargo capacity and not only the theoretical net tonnage of the "Moorsom System" introduced in Britain by the Merchant Shipping Act in 1854. The ensuing commercial and diplomatic activities resulted in the International Commission of Constantinople establishing a specific kind of net tonnage and settling the question of tariffs in its protocol of 18 December 1873. [70] This was the origin of the Suez Canal Net Tonnage and the Suez Canal Special Tonnage Certificate, both of which are still in use today.

Growth and reorganisation Edit

The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. Combined with the American transcontinental railroad completed six months earlier, it allowed the world to be circled in record time. It played an important role in increasing European colonization of Africa. The construction of the canal was one of the reasons for the Panic of 1873 in Great Britain, because goods from the Far East had, until then, been carried in sailing vessels around the Cape of Good Hope and stored in British warehouses. An inability to pay his bank debts led Said Pasha's successor, Isma'il Pasha, in 1875 to sell his 44% share in the canal for £4,000,000 ($19.2 million), equivalent to £432 million to £456 million ($540 million to $570 million) in 2019, to the government of the United Kingdom. [71] French shareholders still held the majority. [72] Local unrest caused the British to invade in 1882 and take full control, although nominally Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire. The British representative from 1883 to 1907 was Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, who reorganized and modernized the government and suppressed rebellions and corruption, thereby facilitating increased traffic on the canal. [73]

The European Mediterranean countries in particular benefited economically from the Suez Canal, as they now had much faster connections to Asia and East Africa than the North and West European maritime trading nations such as Great Britain, the Netherlands or Germany. The biggest beneficiary in the Mediterranean was Austria-Hungary, which had participated in the planning and construction of the canal. The largest Austrian maritime trading company, Österreichischer Lloyd, experienced rapid expansion after the canal was completed, as did the port city of Trieste, then an Austrian possession. The company was a partner in the Compagnie Universelle du Canal de Suez, whose vice-president was the Lloyd co-founder Pasquale Revoltella. [74] [75] [76] [77] [78]

The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the British, who had occupied Egypt and Sudan at the request of Khedive Tewfiq to suppress the Urabi Revolt against his rule. The revolt went on from 1879 to 1882. The British defended the strategically important passage against a major Ottoman attack in 1915, during the First World War. [79] Under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the UK retained control over the canal. The canal was again strategically important in the 1939–1945 Second World War, and Italo-German attempts to capture it were repulsed during the North Africa Campaign, during which the canal was closed to Axis shipping. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty and in October 1954 the UK agreed to remove its troops. Withdrawal was completed on 18 July 1956.

Suez Crisis Edit

Because of Egyptian overtures towards the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser responded by nationalizing the canal on 26 July 1956 [80] and transferring it to the Suez Canal Authority, intending to finance the dam project using revenue from the canal. On the same day that the canal was nationalized Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships. [81] This led to the Suez Crisis in which the UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. According to the pre-agreed war plans under the Protocol of Sèvres, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October, forcing Egypt to engage them militarily, and allowing the Anglo-French partnership to declare the resultant fighting a threat to stability in the Middle East and enter the war – officially to separate the two forces but in reality to regain the Canal and bring down the Nasser government. [82] [83] [84]

To save the British from what he thought was a disastrous action and to stop the war from a possible escalation, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson proposed the creation of the first United Nations peacekeeping force to ensure access to the canal for all and an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. On 4 November 1956, a majority at the United Nations voted for Pearson's peacekeeping resolution, which mandated the UN peacekeepers to stay in Sinai unless both Egypt and Israel agreed to their withdrawal. The United States backed this proposal by putting pressure on the British government through the selling of sterling, which would cause it to depreciate. Britain then called a ceasefire, and later agreed to withdraw its troops by the end of the year. Pearson was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As a result of damage and ships sunk under orders from Nasser the canal was closed until April 1957, when it was cleared with UN assistance. [85] A UN force (UNEF) was established to maintain the free navigability of the canal, and peace in the Sinai Peninsula.

Arab–Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 Edit

In May 1967, Nasser ordered the UN peacekeeping forces out of Sinai, including the Suez Canal area. Israel objected to the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The canal had been closed to Israeli shipping since 1949, except for a short period in 1951–1952.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli forces occupied the Sinai peninsula, including the entire east bank of the Suez Canal. Unwilling to allow the Israelis to use the canal, Egypt immediately imposed a blockade which closed the canal to all shipping. Fifteen cargo ships, known as the "Yellow Fleet", were trapped in the canal, and would remain there until 1975.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the canal was the scene of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-occupied Sinai and a counter-crossing by the Israeli army to Egypt. Much wreckage from this conflict remains visible along the canal's edges. [86]

Mine clearing operations (1974–75) Edit

After the Yom Kippur War, the United States initiated Operation Nimbus Moon. The amphibious assault ship USS Inchon (LPH-12) was sent to the Canal, carrying 12 RH-53D minesweeping helicopters of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 12. These partly cleared the canal between May and December 1974. She was relieved by the LST USS Barnstable County (LST1197). The British Royal Navy initiated Operation Rheostat and Task Group 65.2 provided for Operation Rheostat One [87] (six months in 1974), the minehunters HMS Maxton, HMS Bossington, and HMS Wilton, the Fleet Clearance Diving Team (FCDT) [88] and HMS Abdiel, a practice minelayer/MCMV support ship and for Operation Rheostat Two [89] (six months in 1975) the minehunters HMS Hubberston and HMS Sheraton, and HMS Abdiel. When the Canal Clearance Operations were completed, the canal and its lakes were considered 99% clear of mines. The canal was then reopened by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat aboard an Egyptian destroyer, which led the first convoy northbound to Port Said in 1975. [90] At his side stood the Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, delegated to represent his father, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. The cruiser USS Little Rock was the only American naval ship in the convoy. [91]

UN presence Edit

The UNEF mandate expired in 1979. Despite the efforts of the United States, Israel, Egypt, and others to obtain an extension of the UN role in observing the peace between Israel and Egypt, as called for under the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the mandate could not be extended because of the veto by the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council, at the request of Syria. Accordingly, negotiations for a new observer force in the Sinai produced the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), stationed in Sinai in 1981 in coordination with a phased Israeli withdrawal. The MFO remains active under agreements between the United States, Israel, Egypt, and other nations. [92]

Bypass expansion Edit

In the summer of 2014, months after taking office as President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the expansion of the Ballah Bypass from 61 metres (200 ft) wide to 312 metres (1,024 ft) wide for 35 kilometres (22 mi). The project was called the New Suez Canal, as it allows ships to transit the canal in both directions simultaneously. [93] [94] The project cost more than E£59.4 billion (US$9bn) and was completed within one year. Sisi declared the expanded channel open for business in a ceremony on 6 August 2015. [95]

2021 obstruction by Ever Given Edit

At the dawn of the incident, many economists and trade experts commented on the effects of the obstruction if not resolved quickly, citing how important the Suez is to global trade, and the incident is likely to drastically affect the global economy because of the trapped goods scheduled to go through the canal following the incident. Among the products, oil shipments are the most affected in the immediate aftermath, due to a significant amount of them remaining blocked with no way to reach their destination. [100] [101] Referring to the European and American market, a few maritime experts have disputed the prediction of a drastic effect on trade, saying this "really isn’t a substantial transit route for crude" according to Marshall Steeves, energy markets analyst at IHS Markit, and "there are existing stocks" according to Camille Egloff of Boston Consulting Group and alternative sources of supply, noting that traffic has only slowed down and that this might only impact sectors with existing shortages such as the semiconductor industry. [102] [103] International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) estimates that up to $3 billion worth of cargo passes through the Suez Canal every day. [104]

It was said the blockage would have an impact on cargo schedules around the world. Shipping companies were also considering whether to divert their ships along the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The first container ship to do so was Ever Given ' s sister ship, Ever Greet. [105]

The ship was re-floated on 29 March. [106] [107] Within a few hours, cargo traffic resumed, slowly resolving the backlog of around 450 ships. [108] The first ship to successfully pass through the canal after the Ever Given's recovery was the YM Wish, a Hong Kong-based cargo ship. [109]

On 2 April 2021, Usama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority of Egypt, said that the damage caused by the blockage of the canal may reach about $1 billion. Rabie also revealed that after the Suez Canal resumed navigation, as of noon on March 31, 285 cargo ships had passed through the canal smoothly. He said that the remaining 175 freighters waiting to pass through the canal will all pass by April 2. [110]

After the incident, the Egyptian government announced that they will be widening the narrower parts of the canal. [111]

Timeline Edit

  • 1799: Napoleon Bonaparte conquers Egypt and orders a feasibility analysis. This incorrectly reports a supposed 10-metre (33 ft) difference in sea levels and a high cost, so the project is put on hold. [112]
  • 1847: A second survey including Robert Stephenson finds the first analysis incorrect. A direct link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea is possible and not as expensive as previously estimated. [112]
  • 30 November 1854: The former French consul in Cairo, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, obtains the first license for construction. [112]
  • 15 December 1858: de Lesseps establishes the "Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez", with Said Pasha acquiring 22% of the Suez Canal Company the majority is controlled by French private holders.
  • 25 April 1859: construction officially starts. [113]
  • 15 to 17 November 1869: An opening ceremony and celebrations are for Empress Eugénie of France to open the canal. [112][114]
  • 17 November 1869: The canal is opened, operated by the Suez Canal Company, the concessionary company that built the canal.
  • 18 December 1873: The International Commission of Constantinople establishes the Suez Canal Net Ton and the Suez Canal Special Tonnage Certificate (as known today)
  • 25 November 1875: Britain becomes a minority share holder in the company, acquiring 44%, with the remainder being controlled by French business syndicates.
  • 20 May 1882: Britain invades Egypt, with French assistance, and begins its occupation of Egypt.
  • 25 August 1882: Britain occupies Egypt. The canal remains under the control of the privately owned Suez Canal Company.
  • 2 March 1888: The Convention of Constantinople renews the guaranteed right of passage of all ships through the canal during war and peace these rights were already part of the licenses awarded to de Lesseps, but are recognised as international law.
  • 14 November 1936: Following a new treaty, Britain pulls out of Egypt, but establishes the 'Suez Canal Zone' under its control.
  • 13 June 1956: Suez Canal Zone is restored to Egyptian sovereignty, following British withdrawal and years of negotiations.
  • 26 July 1956: Egypt nationalizes the company its Egyptian assets, rights and obligations are transferred to the Suez Canal Authority, which compensates the previous owners at the established pre-nationalization price. Egypt closes the canal to Israeli shipping as part of a broader blockade involving the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba.
  • 31 October 1956 to 24 April 1957: the canal is blocked to shipping following the Suez Crisis, a conflict that leads to an Israeli, French, and British occupation of the canal zone.
  • 22 December 1956: The canal zone is restored to Egyptian control, following French and British withdrawal, and the landing of UNEF troops.
  • 5 June 1967 to 10 June 1975: The canal is blocked by Egypt, following the war with Israel it becomes the front line during the ensuing War of Attrition and the 1973 war, remaining closed to international shipping, until general agreement was near.
  • 2004: The canal is closed for three days when the oil tanker Tropic Brilliance gets stuck. [115]
  • 1 January 2008: New rules of navigation passed by the Suez Canal Authority come into force.
  • 6 August 2015: The new canal extensions are opened.
  • 19 October 2017: OOCL Japan runs aground causing an obstruction which blocked the canal for a few hours. [116][117][115]
  • 23 to 29 March 2021: Ever Given, a Panama-flagged container ship, runs aground and becomes stuck across the southern section of the canal. The blockage prevents movement through the canal, causes nearly $10 billion worth of disruptions in shipping traffic each day, and creates a large traffic jam of ships on both sides. [118][119][120][121]

Suez Canal in February 1934. Air photograph taken by Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer.

USS America (CV-66) , an American aircraft carrier in the Suez Canal

Container ship Hanjin Kaohsiung transiting the Suez Canal

When built, the canal was 164 km (102 mi) long and 8 m (26 ft) deep. After several enlargements, it is 193.30 km (120.11 mi) long, 24 m (79 ft) deep and 205 metres (673 ft) wide. [123] It consists of the northern access channel of 22 km (14 mi), the canal itself of 162.25 km (100.82 mi) and the southern access channel of 9 km (5.6 mi). [124]

The so-called New Suez Canal, functional since 6 August 2015, [125] currently has a new parallel canal in the middle part, with its length over 35 km (22 mi). The current parameters of the Suez Canal, including both individual canals of the parallel section are: depth 23 to 24 metres (75 to 79 ft) and width at least 205 to 225 metres (673 to 738 ft) (that width measured at 11 metres (36 ft) of depth). [126]

Capacity Edit

The canal allows passage of ships up to 20 m (66 ft) draft or 240,000 deadweight tons and up to a height of 68 m (223 ft) above water level and a maximum beam of 77.5 m (254 ft) under certain conditions. [127] [123] The canal can handle more traffic and larger ships than the Panama Canal, as Suezmax dimensions are greater than both Panamax and New Panamax. Some supertankers are too large to traverse the canal. Others can offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned ship to reduce their draft, transit, and reload at the other end of the canal. On April 15, 2021 Egyptian authorities announced that they would widen the southern section of the Suez Canal to improve the efficiency of the canal. The plan mainly covers about 30 kilometers from Suez to the Great Bitter Lake. It will be widened by 40 meters and the maximum depth will be increased from about 20 meters to about 22 meters. [128]

Navigation Edit

Ships approaching the canal from the sea are expected to radio the harbor when they are within fifteen miles of the Fairway Buoy near Port Said. [129] The canal has no locks because of the flat terrain, and the minor sea level difference between each end is inconsequential for shipping. As the canal has no sea surge gates, the ports at the ends would be subject to the sudden impact of tsunamis from the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Coastal Research. [130]

There is one shipping lane with passing areas in Ballah-Bypass near El Qantara and in the Great Bitter Lake. On a typical day, three convoys transit the canal, two southbound and one northbound. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours at a speed of around 8 knots (15 km/h 9 mph). The low speed helps prevent erosion of the banks by ships' wakes.

By 1955, about two-thirds of Europe's oil passed through the canal. Around 8% of world sea trade is carried via the canal. In 2008, 21,415 vessels passed through the canal and the receipts totaled $5.381 billion, [127] with an average cost per ship of $251,000.

New Rules of Navigation came into force on 1 January 2008, passed by the board of directors of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) to organise vessels' transit. The most important amendments include allowing vessels with 62-foot (19 m) draught to pass, increasing the allowed breadth from 32 metres (105 ft) to 40 metres (130 ft) (following improvement operations), and imposing a fine on vessels using pilots from outside the SCA inside the canal boundaries without permission. The amendments allow vessels loaded with dangerous cargo (such as radioactive or flammable materials) to pass if they conform with the latest amendments provided by international conventions.

The SCA has the right to determine the number of tugs required to assist warships traversing the canal, to achieve the highest degree of safety during transit. [131]

Ships moored at El Ballah during transit

Predominant currents in the Mediterranean Sea for June

Operation Edit

Before August 2015, the canal was too narrow for free two-way traffic, so ships would pass in convoys and use bypasses. The bypasses were 78 km (48 mi) out of 193 km (120 mi) (40%). From north to south, they are Port Said bypass (entrances) 36.5 km (23 mi), Ballah bypass & anchorage 9 km (6 mi), Timsah bypass 5 km (3 mi), and the Deversoir bypass (northern end of the Great Bitter Lake) 27.5 km (17 mi). The bypasses were completed in 1980.

Typically, it would take a ship 12 to 16 hours to transit the canal. The canal's 24-hour capacity was about 76 standard ships. [132]

In August 2014, Egypt chose a consortium that includes the Egyptian army and global engineering firm Dar Al-Handasah to develop an international industrial and logistics hub in the Suez Canal area, [133] and began the construction of a new canal section from 60 to 95 km (37 to 59 mi) combined with expansion and deep digging of the other 37 kilometres (23 mi) of the canal. [134] This will allow navigation in both directions simultaneously in the 72-kilometre-long (45 mi) central section of the canal. These extensions were formally opened on 6 August 2015 by President Al-Sisi. [9] [135] [136]

Northbound convoy waits in the Great Bitter Lake as southbound convoy passes, October 2014

Convoy sailing Edit

Since the canal does not cater to unregulated two-way traffic, all ships transit in convoys on regular times, scheduled on a 24-hour basis. Each day, a single northbound convoy starts at 04:00 from Suez. At dual lane sections, the convoy uses the eastern route. [137] [138] [139] Synchronised with this convoy's passage is the southbound convoy. It starts at 03:30 from Port Said and so passes the Northbound convoy in the two-lane section. [ clarification needed ]

Canal crossings Edit

From north to south, the crossings are:

  • The El Nasr pontoon bridge (
  • 31°13′43″N 32°18′15″E  /  31.2285°N 32.3042°E  / 31.2285 32.3042 ), connecting Port Said to Port Fuad. Opened in 2016, 420m length. [140]
  • The Abanoub Gerges pontoon bridge (
  • 30°50′37″N 32°19′00″E  /  30.8436°N 32.3168°E  / 30.8436 32.3168 ), one mile north of the Suez Canal Bridge
  • The Suez Canal Bridge (
  • 30°49′42″N 32°19′03″E  /  30.828248°N 32.317572°E  / 30.828248 32.317572  ( Suez Canal Bridge ) ), also called the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, a high-level road bridge at El Qantara. In Arabic, al qantara means "arch". Opened in 2001, it has a 70-metre (230 ft) clearance over the canal and was built with assistance from the Japanese government and by Kajima. [141] (
  • 30°39′25″N 32°20′02″E  /  30.657°N 32.334°E  / 30.657 32.334  ( El Ferdan Railway Bridge ) ) 20 km (12 mi) north of Ismailia (
  • 30°35′N 32°16′E  /  30.583°N 32.267°E  / 30.583 32.267  ( Ismailia ) ) was completed in 2001 and is the longest swing-span bridge in the world, with a span of 340 m (1100 ft). The previous bridge was destroyed in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli conflict. The current bridge is no longer functional due to the expansion of the Suez Canal, as the parallel shipping lane completed in 2015 just east of the bridge lacks a structure spanning it.
  • The Ahmed el-Mansy pontoon bridge (
  • 30°36′19″N 32°19′31″E  /  30.6054°N 32.3254°E  / 30.6054 32.3254 ), a pair of pontoons bridging both channels
  • The Taha Zaki Abdullah pontoon bridge (
  • 30°28′22″N 32°21′01″E  /  30.4729°N 32.3502°E  / 30.4729 32.3502 ), a pair of pontoons bridging both channels
  • Pipelines taking fresh water under the canal to Sinai, about 57 km (35 mi) north of Suez, at
  • 30°27.3′N 32°21.0′E  /  30.4550°N 32.3500°E  / 30.4550 32.3500  ( Fresh-water pipelines ) . (
  • 30°5′9″N 32°34′32″E  /  30.08583°N 32.57556°E  / 30.08583 32.57556  ( Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel ) ) south of the Great Bitter Lake (
  • 30°20′N 32°23′E  /  30.333°N 32.383°E  / 30.333 32.383  ( Great Bitter Lake ) ) was built in 1983. Because of leakage problems, a new water-tight tunnel [142] was built inside the old one from 1992 to 1995.
  • The Ahmed Omar Shabrawy pontoon bridge (
  • 30°02′43″N 32°34′28″E  /  30.0453°N 32.5744°E  / 30.0453 32.5744 )
  • The Suez Canal overhead powerline crossing (
  • 29°59′46″N 32°34′59″E  /  29.996°N 32.583°E  / 29.996 32.583  ( Suez Canal overhead powerline crossing ) ) was built in 1999.

A railway on the west bank runs parallel to the canal for its entire length.

The five pontoon bridges were opened between 2016 and 2019. [143] They are designed to be movable, and can be completely rotated against the banks of the canal to allow shipping through, or else individual sections can be moved to create a narrower channel.

Six new tunnels for cars and trains are also planned across the canal. [144] Currently the Ahmed Hamdi is the only tunnel connecting Suez to the Sinai.

Economically, after its completion, the Suez Canal benefited primarily the sea trading powers of the Mediterranean countries, which now had much faster connections to the Near and Far East than the North and West European sea trading nations such as Great Britain or Germany. [74] [145] The main Habsburg trading port of Trieste with its direct connections to Central Europe experienced a meteoric rise at that time. [146] [147]

The time saved in the 19th century for an assumed steamship trip to Bombay from Brindisi and Trieste was 37 days, from Genoa 32, from Marseille 31, from Bordeaux, Liverpool, London, Amsterdam and Hamburg 24 days. At that time, it was also necessary to consider whether the goods to be transported could bear the costly canal tariff. This led to a rapid growth of Mediterranean ports with their land routes to Central and Eastern Europe. According to today's information from the shipping companies, the route from Singapore to Rotterdam through the Suez Canal will be shortened by 6,000 kilometres (3,700 mi) and thus by nine days compared to the route around Africa. As a result, liner services between Asia and Europe save 44 percent CO2 (carbon dioxide) thanks to this shorter route. The Suez Canal has a correspondingly important role in the connection between East Africa and the Mediterranean region. [148] [149] [150]

In the 20th century, trade through the Suez Canal came to a standstill several times, due to the two world wars and the Suez Canal crisis. Many trade flows were also shifted away from the Mediterranean ports towards Northern European terminals, such as Hamburg and Rotterdam. Only after the end of the Cold War, the growth in European economic integration, the consideration of CO2 emission and the Chinese Silk Road Initiative, are Mediterranean ports such as Piraeus and Trieste again at the focus of growth and investment. [148] [151] [152] [153] [154]

Before the canal's opening in 1869, goods were sometimes offloaded from ships and carried overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. [155]

Cape Agulhas Edit

The main alternative is around Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, commonly referred to as the Cape of Good Hope route. This was the only sea route before the canal was constructed, and when the canal was closed. It is still the only route for ships that are too large for the canal. In the early 21st century, the Suez Canal has suffered from diminished traffic due to piracy in Somalia, with many shipping companies choosing to take the long route instead. [156] [157] Between 2008 and 2010, it is estimated that the canal lost 10% of traffic due to the threat of piracy, and another 10% due to the financial crisis. An oil tanker going from Saudi Arabia to the United States has 5,000 km (2,700 nmi) farther to go when taking the route south of Africa rather than the canal. [158]

North Sea Route Edit

In recent years, the shrinking Arctic sea ice has made the Northern Sea Route feasible for commercial cargo ships between Europe and East Asia during a six-to-eight-week window in the summer months, shortening the voyage by thousands of miles compared to that through the Suez Canal. According to polar climate researchers, as the extent of the Arctic summer ice pack recedes the route will become passable without the help of icebreakers for a greater period each summer. [159] [160]

The Bremen-based Beluga Group claimed in 2009 to be the first Western company to attempt using the Northern Sea Route without assistance from icebreakers, cutting 7,400 kilometres (4,000 nmi) off the journey between Ulsan, Korea and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. [161]

Cape Horn Edit

Sailing ships, such as the windjammers in the heyday of the Great Grain Race between Australia and Europe during the 1930s, often preferred the Cape Horn route when going to Europe, due to prevalent wind directions, even though it is slightly longer from Sydney to Europe this way than past Cape Agulhas.

Negev desert railway Edit

In February 2012, Israel announced its intention to construct a railway between the Mediterranean and Eilat through the Negev desert to compete with the canal. [162] By 2019, the project had been indefinitely frozen. [163]

Other proposals Edit

In 1963, the United States considered to use 520 nuclear bombs to carve out a 160 miles (260 km) long waterway through Israel's Negev desert. [164]

The opening of the canal created the first salt-water passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Although the Red Sea is about 1.2 m (4 ft) higher than the eastern Mediterranean, [165] the current between the Mediterranean and the middle of the canal at the Bitter Lakes flows north in winter and south in summer. The current south of the Bitter Lakes is tidal, varying with the tide at Suez. [4] The Bitter Lakes, which were hypersaline natural lakes, blocked the migration of Red Sea species into the Mediterranean for many decades, but as the salinity of the lakes gradually equalised with that of the Red Sea the barrier to migration was removed, and plants and animals from the Red Sea have begun to colonise the eastern Mediterranean. [ citation needed ]

The Red Sea is generally saltier and more nutrient-poor than the Atlantic, so the Red Sea species have advantages over Atlantic species in the less salty and nutrient-rich eastern Mediterranean. Accordingly, most Red Sea species invade the Mediterranean biota, and only few do the opposite. This migratory phenomenon is called Lessepsian migration (after Ferdinand de Lesseps) or "Erythrean invasion". Also impacting the eastern Mediterranean, starting in 1968, was the operation of Aswan High Dam across the Nile. While providing for increased human development, the project reduced the inflow of freshwater and ended all natural nutrient-rich silt entering the eastern Mediterranean at the Nile Delta. This provided less natural dilution of Mediterranean salinity and ended the higher levels of natural turbidity, additionally making conditions more like those in the Red Sea. [ citation needed ]

Invasive species originating from the Red Sea and introduced into the Mediterranean by the canal have become a major component of the Mediterranean ecosystem and have serious impacts on the ecology, endangering many local and endemic species. About 300 species from the Red Sea have been identified in the Mediterranean, and there are probably others yet unidentified. The Egyptian government's intent to enlarge the canal raised concerns from marine biologists, who feared that it would enhance the invasion of Red Sea species. [166]

Construction of the canal was preceded by cutting a small fresh-water canal called Sweet Water Canal from the Nile delta along Wadi Tumilat to the future canal, with a southern branch to Suez and a northern branch to Port Said. Completed in 1863, these brought fresh water to a previously arid area, initially for canal construction, and subsequently facilitating growth of agriculture and settlements along the canal. [167]

The Suez Canal Economic Zone, sometimes shortened to the Suez Canal Zone, describes the set of locations neighbouring the canal where customs rates have been reduced to zero in order to attract investment. The zone comprises over 600 km 2 (230 sq mi) within the governorates of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. Projects in the zone are collectively described as the Suez Canal Area Development Project (SCADP). [168] [169]

The plan focuses on development of East Port Said and the port of Ain Sokhna, and hopes to extend to four more ports at West Port Said, El-Adabiya, Arish and El Tor. [170]

The zone incorporates the three "Qualifying Industrial Zones" at Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, a 1996 American initiative to encourage economic ties between Israel and its neighbors. [171]

Watch the video: How the Suez Crisis changed International Relations (May 2022).