The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez and dividing Africa and Asia. The canal is a route of trade between Europe and Asia.
In 1858, Ferdinand de Lesseps formed the Suez Canal Company to build the canal. Construction of the canal lasted from 1859 to 1869. The canal officially opened on 17 November 1869. It offers vessels a direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. And it also reduces the journey distance from the Arabian Sea to London by approximately 8,900 kilometres (5,500 mi), or ten days at 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph) to 8 days at 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph). The canal extends from the northern terminus of Port Said to the southern terminus of Port Tewfik at the city of Suez. Its length is 193.30 km (120.11 mi), including its northern and south access channels. In 2020, more than 18,500 vessels traversed the canal (an average of 51.5 per day).
The original canal featured a single-lane waterway with passing locations in the Ballah Bypass and the Great Bitter Lake. According to Alois Negrelli’s plans, it contained no lock systems, with seawater flowing freely through it. The water in the canal north of the Bitter Lakes flows north in winter and south in summer. South of the lakes, the current changes with the tide at Suez.
Navies with coastlines and bases on the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea (Egypt and Israel) have a particular interest in the Suez Canal. While the canal was the property of the Egyptian government, European shareholders, primarily British and French, owned the concessionary company which operated it until July 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it—an event which led to the Suez Crisis of October–November 1956. The canal is operated and maintained by Egypt’s state-owned Suez Canal Authority (SCA). Under the Convention of Constantinople, it may be used “in time of war as in the time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.”Nevertheless, the canal has played an important military strategic role as a naval short-cut and choke point. After Egypt closed the Suez canal at the beginning of the Six-Day War on 5 June 1967, the canal remained closed for precisely eight years, reopening on 5 June 1975.
The Egyptian government launched construction in 2014 to expand and widen the Ballah Bypass by 35 km (22 mi) to speed up the canal’s transit time. The expansion intended to nearly double the capacity of the Suez Canal, from 49 to 97 ships per day. At the cost of £E59.4 billion (US$9bn), this project was funded with interest-bearing investment certificates issued exclusively to Egyptian entities and individuals. As the expansion was dubbed, the “New Suez Canal” was opened in a ceremony on 6 August 2015.
The Suez Canal Authority officially opened the new side channel in 2016. This side channel, located at the northern side of the east extension of the Suez Canal, serves the East Terminal for berthing and unberthing vessels from the terminal. As the East Container Terminal is located on the platform of the Canal itself, before constructing the new side channel, it was impossible to berth or unberth vessels at the terminal while a convoy was running.
Ancient west-east canals were built to facilitate travel from the Nile River to the Red Sea. One smaller canal is believed to have been constructed under the auspices of Senusret II or Ramesses II. Another canal, probably incorporating a portion of the first, was built under the reign of Necho II. Still, the only fully functional canal was engineered and completed by emperor Darius I.
Second millennium BC
James Henry Breasted attributes the earliest known attempt to construct a canal up through the first cataract to the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt but its completion to Senusret III of the Twelfth dynasty of Egypt.
The legendary Sesostris (likely either Pharaoh Senusret II or Senusret III of the Twelfth dynasty of Egypt) may have constructed the 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. (It is said that in ancient times the Red Sea reached northward to the Bitter Lakes and Lake Timsah.)
In his Meteorology, Aristotle wrote:
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.
Strabo wrote that Sesostris started to build a canal, and Pliny the Elder wrote:
- 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 made a trench 100 feet (30 m) wide, 30 feet deep and about 35 miles long, as far as the Bitter Lakes.
In the 20th century, the northward extension of the later Darius I canal was discovered, extending from Lake Timsah to the Ballah Lakes. This was dated to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt by extrapolating the dates of ancient sites along its course.
The reliefs of the Punt expedition under Hatshepsut, BC 1470, depict seagoing vessels carrying the expeditionary force returning from Punt. This suggests that a navigable link existed between the Red Sea and the Nile. Recent excavations in Wadi Gawasis may indicate that Egypt’s maritime trade started from the Red Sea and did not require a canal. Evidence seems to indicate its existence by the 13th century BC during the time of Ramesses II.