The Suez Canal, April 5th 2011


Just the Facts

Opened November 17, 1869
Length 118 miles or 163 Kilometres
Distance saved 7450 miles
Average Transit 15 hours
Average Ships per day 50
Maximum ships per day 80
Average Toll US 205,600
First Ship Imperial Yacht “Agile”
Max draft 53 feet
Planned draft – 2010 72 feet
Max beam 210 feet
Narrowest point 196.8 feet
Southern Entrance Port Suez
Northern entrance Port Said
Construction Time 11 years
Locks None
Today Work continues during day light hours
Average workers needed per day 30,000
Total number of workers needed (on going construction, vessel help, dredging etc.) 1,500,000


IMGP9364The Suez Canal, west of the Sinai Peninsula is a maritime canal in Egypt between Suez on the Red Sea and Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea.  The canal allows two way north/south water transport from Europe to Asia without circumnavigate Africa.  Before the construction of the canal, some transport was conducted by offloading ships and carrying the goods over land between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  The Canal comprises two parts, north and south of the Great Bitter Lake, linking the IMGP9370Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea.  The canal has no locks because there is no sea level difference and no hills to climb.  It allows the passage of ships of up to 150,000 tons displacement, with cargo.  It permits ships of up to 50 draft (15 metres) draft to pass, and improvements are planned to increase this to 23 metres in 2010 to allow super tanker passage.  Presently super tankers can offload part of the cargo onto a canal owned board and reload at the other end of the canal.  Some 25,000 ships pass through the canal each year, about 14% of world shipping. 


IMGP9387Ships waiting to enter the Suez Canal line up as far as you can see on the horizon.  As we are a cruise ship we are sent to the front of the line and the sight behind us is impressive.  The traffic represents a hodgepodge of ship designs and an endless variety of international flags.  We are all held overnight as transit starts early in the morning at first light. 


The distinguished French diplomat and engineer Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps say his dream to completion when he produced the plans for the Suez Canal.  He was a distinguished diplomat and served as French Consul in Tunis, Cairo, Rotterdam, Malaga and Barcelona.  He retired fro the French government in 1849.


IMGP9397Throughout his career, his first love and devotion was Egypt, where he had made many influential friends.  He had long dreamed of building the waterway and presented his plan through “proper” channels, and was flatly refused.  In 1854 Egyptian viceroy Abbas Pasha died and Mohammed Said, a close friend of Lesseps, succeeded him.  Unfounded rumours circulated about the “impossible project” and one survey even proved that a 9 metre difference between the levels of the two bodies of water would result in a waterfall.IMGP9466










Despite the opposition, Lesseps managed to get his friend excited and he knew it could not fail.  A little more than a decade later, the Universal Company for the Maritime Suez Canal was formed 1858 with a mandate to excavate a canal and operate it for a period of 99 years, after which ownership would revert to Egypt.  Said gave his blessing and even invested in the company.  Ismail Pasha, who succeeded Said, was anxious to see the waterway completed.  Timing was perfect.  The American Civil War had resulted in a worldwide cotton shortage and Ismail wanted to take advantage of the situation by exporting as much Egyptian cotton as possible.  He was extravagant and incurred huge debt in the construction and events surrounding the opening ceremonies.  The burden gave Britain practical control over the nation for the next century. 

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The company was originally a private concern with a few French and Egyptian investors, but in 1875 the British government purchased the Egyptian stake.  Excavation began April 25 1859 and the canal opened to traffic on November 17 1869.  The final cost was approximately $100 million but three times that sum was later spent on repairs and improvements.


IMGP9602IMGP9378The Suez continued to figure prominently in Egyptian-Israeli conflict during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It closed during the 6 day war of 1967 when several vessels were sunk to block shipping lanes.  It did not reopen until June 1975 when an international forced was allowed to clear the obstacles.  During our transit security forces are very much in evidence along with being “buzzed” several times by security helicopters.  IMGP9535


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