Middle East Resources

The Suez Canal: Its History and Importance for World Trade

Bassam Michael Madany

29 March 2021

On Tuesday, the 23rd of March 2021, the Japanese-owned Ever Given cargo ship, got stranded sideways in the Suez Canal. That caused a traffic jam of cargo ships waiting to make it through, on both sides of the waterway. The Suez Canal Authority did it utmost to refloat the giant container ship. On Monday, the 29th of March, its herculean efforts were successful. The container ship that had blocked the Canal for six days, has been freed and was moving north.

Engineers worked hard throughout Monday and managed to dislodge the Ever Given, thanks to the high tide making their job easier. Tugboats helped pull the vessel out from the side of the canal where it had been stuck, before straightening its heading. It will be towed to anchor at the Great Bitter Lake in the Canal, to allow an inspection of its seaworthiness. What a happy ending to a drama that had kept the world on edge for almost one long week! 

The following is the story of the Suez Canal that I have gleaned from several online sources.    

“The Suez Canal is a waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. It enables a direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia,  allowing for passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean without having to go around Africa. The Canal stretches 120 miles (192 kilometers) from Port Said on the Mediterranean to the city of Suez on the northern shores of the Gulf of Suez

“Early in the 19th century, the Ottomans appointed Muhammad Ali Pasha, as Governor of Egypt. His son, Ibrahim Pasha was tasked with suppressing the Wahhabi Revolt in Arabia that was interfering with the yearly Pilgrimage to Mecca. His campaign and subsequent activities in the Ottoman Empire, gave rise to a de facto dynasty of Muhammad Ali’s descendants.

“By the 1850s, Khedive Said Pasha (khedive is the title Ottomans gave to Egypt’s governors) granted French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps permission to construct a canal. It was accomplished by the Suez Canal Company and was given a 99-year lease over the waterway and surrounding. area. In the 1830s, a work of French explorer and engineer Linant de Bellefonds had performed a survey of the Isthmus of Suez which confirmed that the Mediterranean and Red seas were at the same level of altitude. Thus, making construction of a canal significantly easier.

“Lesseps created the International Commission for the Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez. The commission was made up of 13 experts, including Alois Negrelli, a leading civil engineer. Negrelli built upon the work of Bellefonds and his original survey of the region. Construction began, at Port Said  in early 1859. The work took 10 years, and an estimated 1.5 million people worked on the project. By that time, Egypt was effectually  ruled by Britain and France. Khedive Ismail Pasha formally opened the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869.

“The Canal had a profound impact on world trade. In 1888, the Convention of Constantinople decreed that the Suez Canal would operate as a neutral zone, under the protection of the British, who had by then assumed control of the surrounding region, including Egypt and the Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 reaffirmed Britain’s control over the canal.

“In the aftermath of the Second World War, following years of negotiation, the British withdrew their troops from the Suez Canal in 1956, handing control over to the Egyptian government, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser nationalized the canal in July 1956. As a result of that action, Britain, France, and Israel attacked the Canal area leading to the Suez Crisis of October 1956. Eventually, a United Nations peacekeeping force began to protect the canal and ensure access to all nations.

“In mid-May 1967, President Nasser ordered the U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai Peninsula. It was a great gamble since the Egyptian Army had already been weakened due to its involvement in the 1956 Civil War in Yemen. Early on Monday morning, the 6th of June, Israeli Air Force had raided all the Egyptian airports, destroying most of the Egyptian Air Force. Israel followed by launching simultaneous attacks on the Egyptians in the Sinai, on the Jordanians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and on the Syrians in the Golan Heights. By Saturday, the war was over, inflicting on the three Arab armies a crushing defeat. 

“As a result, the Israeli Forces stood at the east of the Suez Canal, while the Egyptian Forces controlled the western part. Navigation through the Canal stopped. At the Arab League conference held in Khartoum, Sudan on 29 August, a decision was reached and became famous for "The Three No's," No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. 

“It took eight years, the War of Attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, plus an intensive dredging operation, before the Suez Canal was opened on 5 June 1975.  During those years, the canal became the home ‘to the Yellow Fleet: a convoy of merchant ships trapped by the closing of the canal in 1967.They remained at anchor, blown over with desert sand until June 1975, when only two ships were able to leave under their own power.  An average of 50 ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods per year. In 2014, the Egyptian government widened sections of the Canal from 61 meters (200 ft)  to 312 meters (1023 ft.) As a result, the canal could accommodate ships to pass both directions simultaneously.”

A Historic Celebration 1871

Khedive Ismail Pasha commissioned Giuseppe Verdi in 1869, to write an opera to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Aida tells the story of forbidden love between the Egyptian leader Radames and the beautiful Nubian princess Aida. The plot is based on a true story found in Papyrus and re-written by French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette. The performance took place at the Khedive Opera House in 1871.

A Tragic Finale

On the morning of 28 October 1971, the Khedivial Royal Opera House was on fire. The 100-year-old, rococo-style architectural gem in downtown Cairo burned to ashes. Ballet costumes, theater sets, musical instruments and velvet curtains were all gone.

A Joyous Rebirth: The Cairo Opera House

The Cairo Opera House was inaugurated on 10 October 1988. It stands on the Gezira Island surrounded by other cultural centers: 

Verdi: Aïda - San Francisco Opera (starring Luciano Pavarotti) 
How the (closure of the) Suez Canal changed the world | The Gamming