The Isthumus of Suez, a neck of land which connects Africa with Asia is at its narrowest part 70 m. in width. On the southern side it is washed by the northern part of the Gulf of Suez ( Bahr Qulzum ), the western of the two arms of the Red Sea, which seperates Africa and Asia. The idea of a Suez Canal is no modern conception. The earliest authenticated attempt to connect the Red Sea with the Nile ( and thereby with the Mediterraneum ) was made by Necho. His plan was to extend towards the south, from Lake Timsah to the Red Sea, an earlier
canal, in existence even during the MiddleKingdom, which diverged from the Nile near Bubastis and flowed through theWadi el Tumilat.
Herodotus informs us that no fewer than 120,000 Egyptians perished during the enterprise, but this great project came to a halt as Pharoah Necho was informed by an oracle that the barbarians ( Persians) alone whould profit by it. The canal was completed a century later by Darius. Its course roughly corresponded to that of the present Fresh Water Canal and was wide enough for two triremes to pass each other without inconvenience, and its length was four days sailing.
Darius commemorated the completion of the great work by various monuments on its banks. Under the Ptolomies the canal system was extended, and locks wereerected at its efflux into the Red Sea.The canal fell into disrepair during the 1st century B.C., and Trajan ( AD 98 - 117 ) seems to have restored it. At all events, a canal, beginning
near Cairo and terminating in the Gulf of Suez, the precise course of which, probably following the earlier channel, is nowhere described, was called the Amnis Trajanus ( Trajans River ).
After the Arabs had conquered Egypt they must have been desirous of connecting the Lower Egyptian part of the Nile as directly as possible with the Red Sea. Amr ibn el-As accordingly restored the ancient canal and used it for the transport of grain from Fustat to Qulzum ( Suez ), whence it was exported by the Red Sea to Arabia. The canal again became unserviceable after the 8th century.At a later period the Venetians frequently thought of constructing a canal through the Isthumus, with a view to recover the trade which they had lost owing to the discovery of the route round the Cape of Good Hope.
Leibniz, too, in his proposal regarding an expedition to Egypt in 1671 to Louis XIV, strongly recommends the construction of such a canal. Sultan Mustafa III ( 1757-73), Ali Bey the enterprising Mameluke prince, and Bonaparte all revived the scheme, and the last on his expedition to Egypt in 1798 even caused preliminary works to be undertaken,but the actual execution of the
project seemed almost as distant as ever. Lepere, Bonaparte's chief road engineer, surveyed the ground, but owing to a serious miscalculation he threw great doubt on the feasibility of the undertaking. While in reality the level of the two seas is nearly the same, Lepere estimated that of the Red Sea to be nearly 33 ft. higher than that of the Mediterranean.
In 1831 Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94) came to Cairo as a young consular student, and there had his attention called to Lepere’s memoire regarding the scheme of connecting the two seas, which led him to consider its great importance in spite of Lepere’s doubts as to its feasibility. In 1838 he made the acquaintance of Lieut. Waghorn, whose zealous advocacy of the establishment of a route between Europe and India via Egypt stimulated his zeal for a similar project. In 1841 and 1847 Linant Bey and Robert Stephenson, Alois von Negrelli, the Austrian, and Bourdaloue, the Frenchman, demonstrated the inaccuracy of Lepere’s calculations. In 1854 De Lesseps, having matured his plan, laid it before Said Pasha, who was the viceroy and determined to carry it out. Difficulties were thrown in the way of the enterprise by the British government during Lord Palmerstons ministry, but on Jan. 5th 1856, permission to begin the work was formally granted by the viceroy. A considerable time, however, elapsed before the necessary capital was raised, and it was not till April 25th 1859, that the work was actually begun. The viceroy undertook to pay many of the current expenses and provided 25,000 workmen, who were to be paid and fed by the company at an inexpensive rate and were to be relieved every three months.
On March 18 th 1869, the water of the Mediterranean was at length allowed to flow into the nearly dry, salt encrusted basins of the Bitter Lakes, the northern part of which lay 26-40 ft. below the level of the Mediterranean, while the southern parts required extensive dredging operations.The opening of the Suez Canal was inaugurated on Nov. 17 th 1869,with magnificent
festivities in the presence of the Empress Eugenie and many European princes. 100,000 Egyptian workmen lost their lives during the undertaking.
Said also gave De Lesseps a number of undertakings about the supply of labour and purchase of shares which were to be financially disastrous for Egypt. The British government pressed the Ottoman Sultan to invalidate the concession obtained by De Lesseps from Said Pasha which entitled the Universal Suez Canal Company to dig the canal and operate it for 99 years (largely because it was under French direction) and a new concession had to be obtained in 1856. Ismail tried to modify the concession when he came to power in 1863, placing more responsibility on the company to provide the labour promised by Said. In the end Egypt paid almost 70 % of the 19 million sterling pounds cost of the canal and received 15 % of its profits.
In 1875, Lord Beaconsfeld, on behalf of the British Government, acquired 176,602 of the Khedives shares for a sum of 4,080,000 pounds sterling and nearly one half of the shares became in British hands. Up to its nationalization in July 1956 by President Gamal Abdel nasser, the canal used to belong to the Suez Canal Co. (Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez), founded in 1854, which possessed also lands, buildings, and other properties, valued in 1929 at nearly 3,000,000 pounds sterling. Its concession should have expired in 1968. It was replaced by the Suez Canal Authority in 1957.