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SUEZ CANAL: Joining of the Waters

Jeffrey Syken

On May 10, 1869, on a lonely plateau called Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory, the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) and the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) were joined with a ceremony celebrating the driving of the last spike. Begun in 1862 when the nation was tearing itself apart in a bloody Civil War, the symbolic joining of east and west via a Transcontinental Railroad would not only help heal the wounds of war, but also be considered one of the great civil engineering achievements of the 19th Century. Just a few months later, on November 17, 1869, another great civil engineering achievement of the era was celebrated half-a-world away, at Port Said, Egypt. There, the nobility of Europe gathered in a great regatta to celebrate the opening-to-traffic of the Suez Canal, which joined the waters of the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, negating the need for ships to travel ‘round the Cape of Good Hope, effectively transforming world commerce.

Although he’s given most of the credit as the main promoter and protagonist of a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, Ferdinand de Lesseps was not the originator of the idea nor was he an engineer. The idea for a canal joining the Nile with the Red Sea was neither novel nor unprecedented. In fact it was on the drawing boards of several Egyptian Pharaohs, but it took the Persian King Darius to actually complete it. Alas, it would be filled-in in later years (to prevent grain shipments to the Arabian Peninsula) but the idea of a canal from sea-to-sea across the Isthmus lived on. Napoleon I looked into it when he conquered Egypt at the end of the 18th Century, however, his engineers informed him that the difference in elevation of the two seas would make the project impractical, so it was shelved. Perhaps it was fortunate that Napoleon’s engineers were mistaken in their surveys since the Red Sea was notorious as a graveyard for sailing ships, given its erratic winds and deadly reefs and shoals.

Fast-forward to the mid-1850s, when steam was replacing sail as the main means of propulsion for world shipping. At the same time, De Lesseps, a French diplomat, revived the idea of an Isthmanian canal and called on his friendship with the Viceroy of Egypt, established when the Viceroy was a boy and De Lesseps served as French Consul in Egypt, to obtain the concessions necessary to dig the canal and maintain control of it for 99 years. Begun in 1859, the canal was completed a decade later and the world took note of the achievement. Even so, the canal remains a work-in-progress, with never-ending dredging to keep the sands of the Sahara from filling it in. Also, with the ever-increasing size of ships, the canal has had to adapt itself to accommodate the new super-sized ships. The upheavals of the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Israeli-Arab wars (1967 and 1973) demonstrated to the world the fragility and importance of the canal to world commerce. For Egypt, it’s not only a major source of income for the nation it serves, then and now, but an entrée onto the world stage.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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