At least as early as 1300 B.C. the Egyptians built a navigational canal linking the Red Sea with the Nile River, and indirectly with the Mediterranean Sea. It was used off and on for more than 2,000 years before being permanently abandoned in the eighth century A.D. After 1500, Europeans revived the idea of an Egyptian canal as a means of eliminating the long voyage around Africa. Nothing was done, however, until the early 19th century when surveys were made.

A French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, while serving in Egypt during the 1830's, became interested in building a sea-level canal across the isthmus. In 1854 he obtained an exclusive concession for the project from the pasha (governor) of Egypt. The concession specified that the waterway be open to ships of all nations and that it be turned over to the Egyptian government 99 years after completion. Lesseps organized the Suez Canal Company and raised money by selling stock. More than half the shares were purchased by private investors in France, the rest by the pasha.

The Suez CanalThe Suez Canal shortens sea voyages
Construction and Improvements

Construction of the canal began in 1859. It took 10 years to complete, at a cost of about 100 million dollars. Initially, most of the work was done by hand by thousands of laborers, but later large dredges and other machinery were used. To provide drinking water for the workers the freshwater Ismailia Canal was dug from the Nile River to Lake Timsah, with branches extending north and south along the construction zone. In November, 1869, the Suez Canal was opened to traffic. It was 26 feet (8 m) deep and had a minimum width of 72 feet (22 m). The first of many programs to widen, deepen, and improve the canal was begun in 1876.

Control of the Canal

Shortly after its opening, the Suez Canal proved its economic and strategic value. Great Britain, which at first opposed the canal for various reasons, quickly recognized it as a vital link with India and, in 1875, purchased the Egyptian shares in the canal company, becoming the largest single stockholder. During the next decade the British further consolidated their position by gaining political and military control of Egypt.

The international status of the canal was recognized in 1888 by the Convention of Constantinople, an agreement signed by the major European powers and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The convention guaranteed free passage to ships of all nations in peace and in war and prohibited acts of hostility in canal waters. Though the British signed, they did not fully accept the terms of the agreement until 1904. During World War I Britain, by its naval dominance in the Mediterranean, effectively closed the canal to enemy shipping, without violating the convention. The Turks, allies of Germany, made several attempts to seize the waterway but were easily turned back.

Though Egypt was granted political independence in 1922, British troops remained in the country until the 1930's. In 1936, Britain, under growing pressure from Egyptian nationalists, agreed to withdraw but retained the right to fortify the canal zone indefinitely.

After World War II, with the creation of Israel, the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and the Arab-Israeli wars, the Suez Canal was frequently a focal point of tension in the Middle East. In 1950 Egypt, which controlled the entrances to the canal, began denying passage to Israeli ships and Israel-bound cargo. There were also several clashes between British and Egyptian forces in the canal zone until Britain, in 1954, agreed to gradually withdraw from the area.

In July, 1956, a month after the last British troops were removed, Nasser nationalized the canal, taking over ownership from the Suez Canal Company 12 years before the original concession was to expire. Nasser's move, prompted in part by the need for funds to build the Aswan High Dam, caused an international crisis. In October Israel invaded Egypt, and British and French troops, in an attempt to retake the canal, occupied Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez. The canal was closed, with Egyptian ships scuttled in the channel. The United Nations quickly arranged a cease-fire, and all foreign forces withdrew.

Egypt reopened the canal in April, 1957, after a United Nations team cleared the channel. During the next decade the Egyptian government carried out major improvements and paid some 65 million dollars to stockholders of the Suez Canal Company in compensation for nationalization.

The canal was again closed by Egypt when Israel occupied the Sinai during the Six-Day War in 1967. It remained closed with wrecked and trapped ships until June, 1975, when, exactly eight years after closing, the waterway was reopened to international traffic.