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Suez Canal
Port Said, eastern Mediterranean Sea, to Suez, Gulf of Suez, Egypt
associated engineer
Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps
Linant de Bellefonds
date  25th April 1859 - 17th November 1869, 5th August 2014 - 6th August 201
era  Victorian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  Tb941963
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 linked the Mediterranean and Red seas, considerably shortening the journey for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. They no longer had to sail right round Africa via Cape Horn. The sea-level canal is one of the world’s busiest waterways and requires regular dredging. Recently, a second lane was added to the central section, enabling two-way shipping.
The idea of a waterway through the isthmus of land on the east side of Egypt was not new. From the time of the Pharaohs, various attempts had been made to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea by linking branches of the River Nile and the natural lakes on the route with manmade stretches of canal. However, none seem to have formed an unbroken chain between the two seas.
At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte found traces of the ancient canals and considered building a new one. Limited surveys and inadequate data seemed to indicate the Red Sea was some 10m or 11m higher than the Mediterranean. Constructing a canal linking them would require a number of substantial locks, which would be expensive, otherwise it was feared the Red Sea might run dry. The plan was abandoned.
In 1830, British soldier Francis Rawdon Chesney (1789-1872) surveyed the area and investigated the feasibility of a ship canal between the two seas. He found little difference in the levels of the seas and reported that "there are no serious natural difficulties" in constructing a canal, further noting, "the great kingdoms of Europe … would all benefit by the measure".
On 27th November 1846, the Société d'études du Canal de Suez was formed to examine the canal proposal more seriously. The multi-national society functioned as a semi-official commission, facilitated by Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds (1799-1883), Egypt's chief public works engineer 1831-69.
In 1847, experts from the society went to Egypt to survey the site. The group included French civil engineer and topographer Paul Adrien Bourdaloue (1798-1868), Austrian railway engineer Alois de Negrelli (1799-1858) and British railway pioneer Robert Stephenson (1803-59). Like Chesney, they found little difference in the altitudes of the two seas — up to about 770mm, depending on the tide.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805-94), a French diplomat, had become fascinated with the proposals and determined to bring the idea to fruition. The idea was controversial in Britain, where politicians favoured a rail link from Alexandria via Cairo to Suez (completed 1858), and saw the canal as a commercial rival. Even Stephenson declared the canal scheme impractical.
On 15th November 1854, de Lesseps met with Egypt's ruler and his personal friend, Mohammed Said Pasha (1822-63), to discuss the canal project. Said Pasha saw its economic potential, signing land concessions on 30th November 1854 and 5th January 1856. De Lesseps’ future company would be allowed to operate the canal for 99 years, after which it would revert to Egyptian ownership. Moreover, the canal would be a neutral waterway, open to ships from all nations in return for a toll fee.
De Lesseps surveyed the area with fellow Frenchmen Linant de Bellefonds and Dieudonné Eugéne Mougel (1808-90). Under the terms of the concessions, he also formed the Commission Internationale pour le percement de l'isthme des Suez to report on his surveys and analyse the best route.
The commission comprised a group of distinguished international engineers, including its chairman the chief engineer of the Dutch Waterstaat Frederick Willem Conrad (1800-69), with de Negrelli, and British engineers James Meadows Rendel (1799-1856), Charles Manby (1804-84) and John Robinson McClean (1813-73), among others. Its findings, presented in December 1856, contained many of de Negrelli’s ideas, describing the canal project in detail with accompanying plan and profile drawings.
On 15th December 1858, the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez, or Suez Canal Company, was inaugurated. More than half of the 400,000 shares issued (500 francs each) were purchased by French nationals and a large proportion by Said Pasha but none were bought by Britons.
On 25th April 1859, de Lesseps turned the first sod on the Mediterranean shore, launching a decade-long venture that would be beset with political manoeuvring. De Bellefonds was the chief engineer for the canal, which follows a 164km line of natural topographical depressions, some below mean sea level. In all, 98km passes through lakes and 66km through land.
The north terminus is at Port Said, near Pelusium, where a duty free sea port was constructed in 1855-9 as part of the wider development. Its harbour is bounded by two breakwaters of concrete blocks, each more than 1.6km long.
From Port Said, the canal cuts through Lake Manzala for about 47km. The next 32km pass through flood plains and the low hill (18m high) at El Guisr, to the new town of Ismailia and then Lake Timsah. A cut of 20km through the rise at Serapeum (11m) brings the canal to the north shore of the Bitter Lakes, which form a basin 36km long and up to 10km wide. From the south end of the lakes, the canal runs a further 29km south to the Gulf of Suez, an inlet of the Red Sea.
The company also constructed a smaller canal for fresh water alongside the ship canal, as a separate contract. Water from the River Nile was abstracted from the barrage near Cairo and conveyed to Ismailia and Suez, from where it was piped and pumped as required.
During the first two years of the ship canal project (1859-61), most of the work concerned surveying, erecting storehouses and workshops, and purchasing equipment and materials. By 1862, however, the Port Said breakwaters were under construction and the canal channel well underway.
In July 1862, Said Pasha was in England, and commissioned eminent engineer John Hawkshaw (1811-91, knighted 1873) to visit the works and report his opinion on the canal’s viability. Hawkshaw went to Egypt in October 1862, and delivered his verdict the following year.
Meanwhile, excavation had progressed sufficiently to open a waterway for small vessels from the Mediterranean to Lake Timsah. On 18th November 1862, the canal’s water was let into the lake, which had previously often been dry. Work continued, with large dredging machines and a rock breaker aiding excavation of the cutting at Serapeum.
On 3rd February 1863, Hawkshaw presented his report. He assessed the engineering issues accurately and impartially, irrespective of political influences. He wrote that: "there are no works on the Canal presenting on their face any unusual difficulty of execution, and there are no contingencies, that I can conceive likely to arise, that would introduce difficulties insurmountable by engineering skill" and "as regards the maintenance of the Canal, I am of opinion that no obstacles would be met with that would prevent the work, when completed, being maintained with ease and efficiency ..."
The report buoyed public opinion but the project was again in jeopardy on 18th January 1863, when Said Pasha died and his nephew Ismail Pasha (1830-95) took over as ruler of Egypt. Ismail Pasha was not happy about the French company’s pre-eminence nor the forced labour it was using. The use of forced labour was prohibited and the project almost abandoned for two years.
The matter was referred to Emperor Napoleon III of France for arbitration. In July 1864, his decision awarded the Suez Canal Company indemnities for the loss of forced labour and the work on the fresh water canal, totalling 84 million francs. A firman (decree) dated 12th March 1866, belatedly recognised the company for piercing the isthmus and approved all the prior arrangements and agreements.
In early 1869, the Port Said breakwaters were completed and later the same year the Suez breakwater to the east side of the south canal terminus was finished. On 19th March 1869, the sluices were opened to admit water to the Bitter Lakes reservoir.
The canal is generally only wide enough for a single lane of ships travelling in one direction. Passing bays at the banks are provided at 8-10km intervals. Originally the canal trough was 22m wide at the bottom with water 7.9m deep. For 36km, the side slopes were 2 in 1 with horizontal benching, giving a surface width of 60m. For the remaining 128km, the side slopes were flatter and the benching wider, so the surface width was 100m. The excavation work totalled some 75 million cu m.
The formal inauguration took place on 17th November 1869, and though the structure had been completed, the canal had not then gained its full water depth. The opening ceremony was carried out by Ismail Pasha, with many members of European royalty present. The French imperial yacht L’Aigle carried the Empress Eugénie and de Lesseps south through the canal at the head of a multi-national flotilla. They anchored overnight at the Bitter Lakes, completing the voyage to Suez on 18th November 1869.
The canal cost more than twice the original scheme estimate of 200 million francs. The balance sheet dated 31st December 1869 states the total project cost as 453,645,000 francs. The canal company had to raise some 100 million francs from issues of bonds to cover the expenditure.
De Lesseps received several prestigious honours for his work, and won Britain’s praise for the project. In November 1869, Napoleon III elevated him to the rank of Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. On 11th July 1870, Queen Victoria created him an honorary Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India.
Though the canal was well used — 443,000 tonnes of net shipping in 1870 and 773,000 tonnes in 1871 — traffic fell short of the expected one million tonnes. Trade was affected adversely by the Franco-German War (1870-1), and expenses exceeded receipts. In 1871, the 500-franc shares that had been issued were worth only 175 francs. The canal’s fortunes improved in 1872, with more than one million tonnes of net shipping and a net profit of 2 million francs.
In April 1874, Ismail Pasha was facing mounting Egyptian debts and expressed a wish to sell or mortgage his 176,602 original shares in the canal. Britain was keen to acquire them, finally ratifying the purchase on 27th November 1875. By 1879, the Suez Canal was fulfilling its shareholders’ expectations and around 3 million tonnes of net shipping passed through it. In 1880, the original shares were worth 1,327 francs each. The following year, total net shipping reached 5.84 million tonnes.
On 11th May 1880, de Lesseps was elected an honorary member of Britain's Institution of Civil Engineers. On 23rd April 1884, he was inducted as a member of the French Academy of Sciences. Meanwhile, the canal’s increasing volume of traffic necessitated deepening and widening works to accommodate additional vessels. In 1886, owing to congestion, the average transit time was 36 hours.
On 29th October 1888, the international Constantinople Convention for the canal was signed. Article 1 states: "The Suez Canal shall always be open, in time of war as well as in time of peace, to every vessel, commercial and military, without distinction of its flag. In consequence, the high contracting parties agree not to disturb in any manner whatsoever the free use of the canal either in times of peace or in times of war. The canal shall never be subject to blockade".
By 1890, the canal's water depth had been increased to 8.5m. From Port Said to the Bitter Lakes its base width had been increased to 44m, and from the Bitter Lakes to Suez the base was widened to 65m. The average transit time was reduced to 24 hours and almost 10 million tonnes of total net shipping used it.
Such was its popularity that in 1912, the company’s share price reached a peak of more than 6,000 francs. In the same year, the canal carried 20.57 million tonnes of total net shipping.
From 5th November 1914, until its independence on 22nd February 1922, Egypt was a British protectorate with troops stationed at various locations including along the canal. In 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty (ratified 22nd December 1936) allowed Britain to maintain defensive forces in the Suez Canal zone only.
By 1939, transit time through the canal had reduced to 13 hours. In 1947, a scheduled convoy system was adopted, enabling one northbound and two southbound journeys per day. From 1950 onwards, tolls have been charged for tonnage and cargo only. Passengers travel free.
Following a revolution in 1952, Egypt came under military control and became a republic on 18th June 1953. Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein (1918-70) assumed effective control of the country in 1954, the same year in which Egypt and Britain signed an agreement to withdraw British troops from the Suez Canal zone within seven years.
In June 1956, Nasser became Egypt’s president and the last British troops left the zone. Shortly afterwards, on 26th July 1956, Nasser nationalised the canal, ostensibly to finance construction of the Aswan High Dam. He also barred the canal to Israeli vessels.
The ensuing political furore led to closure of the waterway and the Suez Crisis (29th October to 7th November 1956), in which forces from Israel, France and Britain attacked Egypt with the aim of re-establishing the canal’s status as open to all nations. With censure from the USA and possible nuclear retaliation threats from the Soviet Union, France and Britain withdrew from the conflict, with the canal now under Egyptian control. Israel withdrew its troops from the Sinai Peninsula in March 1957, and by 24th April 1957, the canal was again open.
In 1962, Egypt acquired all the original shareholdings. By this time, the canal had been extended to 175km. A series of widening and deepening works had enlarged it to a minimum width of 54.6m at a depth of 10m, with a navigable channel 12.2m deep at low tide. The passing bays were extended and new ones built, and bypasses constructed at Ballah and the Bitter Lakes. To facilitate convoys, the tanker anchorages at Lake Timsah were deepened and new berths installed at Port Said.
Five years later, during the Six Day War (5-10th June 1967) between Egypt and Israel, the canal was closed again. Egypt blocked its entrances with mines and scuttled ships. A fleet of 15 international vessels were marooned at anchor in the Great Bitter Lake and would remain there for a further eight years, growing gradually more unseaworthy.
On 5th June 1975, the canal re-opened and vessels carrying non-military goods to and from Israel were allowed passage. In 1979, Israeli vessels were permitted unrestricted use of the canal.
Enlargement works continued, with canal channel side slopes maintained at 4 in 1 in the north and 3 in 1 in the south. By 1980, canal was 189.8km long, its base width was 107m, depth 19.5m and surface width 263m. By the mid-1980s, the net annual shipping was about 355.6 million tonnes.
In 2001, the cross-section measured 123m wide at the base, 22.5m deep and 303m wide at the surface. By 2010, the dimensions were 121m, 24m and 313m respectively. The total length had increased to 193.3km through the redesign of the bends to accommodate larger vessels.
Southbound convoys anchored in bypasses on the west side of the canal at Port Said, Ballah, Lake Timsah and the north end of the Great Bitter Lake to allow northbound convoys uninterrupted passage. A radar network traffic management system tracked every vessel throughout its voyage. Transit times were between 11 hours (northbound) and 18 hours (southbound). By 2014, net annual shipping was about 963 million tonnes, or around 7 percent of global sea-borne trade. The duty revenues raised from shipping contribute vital funds to the Egyptian economy.
In 2014-5, the Suez Canal was upgraded in an ambitious scheme that increased its capacity significantly to allow simultaneous two-way shipping and improved access for oil tankers. Southbound convoys should now transit in a maximum of 11 hours.
A new 35km navigable channel 24m deep, with a surface width of 317m, was constructed on the east side of the original waterway between the bypasses at Ballah and the Great Bitter Lake. These bypasses, 37km long in total, were dredged to 24m deep. The main channel was also deepened to accommodate larger ships.
A total of 258.8 million cu m of dredging was carried out during the project. It was completed on 16th July 2015 and cost some $8.5 billion. Its aim is to double the daily number of ships using the canal by 2023. One year after commencement, on 6th August 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (b.1954) officially opened the new works, described by some as "Egypt’s gift to the world".
Contractor (2014-15): Boskalis, Van Oord and NMDC consortium, Abu Dhabi
Contractor (2014-15): Jan de Nul, Belgium
Research: ECPK
"Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s" ed J.F. Ade Ajayi, UNESCO, Paris, January 1989
"The Suez Canal: Its Past, Present and Future" by Lt. Col. Sir Arnold Wilson, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, London, 1939
"Obituary. Ferdinand de Lesseps, 1805-1894", Proceedings of the ICE, Vol.119, pp.371-389, London, 1895
"Discussion. The Suez Canal (including plates)", Proceedings of the ICE, Vol.26, pp.449-476, London, 1867
reference sources   BDCE2

Suez Canal