Amongst the many bright ideas formulated by the rulers of ancient Egypt, an artificial waterway to join the Nile to the Red Sea seems, at first sight, one of the better ones. First excavated around 1300 B.C., no one knows how much it was used, but over the following few centuries it was repeatedly re-excavated and modified by various rulers until being totally abandoned around 800 A.D., by which time the European traders had found a more reliable route to the east.
This idea of a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea re-surfaced from time to time over the following 1000 years but no action was taken until a retired French consul, Count Ferdinand de Lessops, being privy to studies undertaken by Napoleon and realising both the worth and personal financial recompense of such a scheme, endeavoured to persuade the Egyptian viceroy Abbas Pasha to accept his proposals to re-create such a canal.
Unfortunately, his idea was turned down flat and the Count returned to France and switched his attentions to agriculture.
A few years later, Count Ferdinand read that Abbas Pasha had died and Mohammed Said had taken over the position of viceroy. The Count wasted no time and set off for Cairo to congratulate his old friend Mohamed, hoping to persuade him to take on the canal project. However, all was not plain sailing for the Count since, although he had the backing of the new viceroy, a team of engineers from England, France and Germany had some bad news. They announced that unfortunately there was a difference of 10 metres between the two sea levels and any attempt at joining them would result in a permanent waterfall. There followed much debate and controversy over the scheme, eventually settling upon a direct route joining the Lake of Menzaleh at Port Said with the Great Lakes, from there onto Lake Timseh at Ismailia, through the Bitter Lakes and thus eventually to the Red Sea at Suez and Port Tawfiq. To finance and control the project, an independent company known as La Companie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez was formed which had the authority to cut the canal and operate it for 99 years, after which time ownership would revert to the Egyptian government. It took roughly 10 years, 20,000 workers labouring under slave-like conditions and $100 million to complete the project not counting bribes. Despite the ridicule cast upon the idea by the British whilst it was in the planning stage, they happily purchased the majority of shares in the company once it was finished, the remainder of the shares being owned by the French.
In 1888, an international convention was signed under which terms the canal was open to the vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and in war. As major shareholders, the British were held responsible for maintaining this position and moved their military forces into the narrow zone either side of the canal. So far so good, the Suez Canal was now up, running, linking east to west and for the following 60 years everything went well .. but then nothing lasts forever.
Due to the overriding human factors of politics and greed, the following 20 years found the Suez Canal in a downward spiral. After the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine, the Egyptian government decided to prohibit the transit of any vessels to or from Israel. Egyptian nationalists then demanded that Britain leave the Suez Canal Zone, which they had been protecting since 1888. By the beginning of 1956, all British troops had left and Egypt took over the old British installations in their new defensive role.
Now it really started getting messy. At the same time, President Nasser was lobbying around the world for funds for a development program for Egypt. He began by raising funds through the World Bank, United Nations and the Western Democratic nations but soon sought the help of Communist countries too. After an arms deal with Czechoslovakia went through, the US became rather upset and withdrew their offer of financial support. Shortly afterwards, the Egyptian government seized the Suez Canal under a decree of nationalisation issued by President Nasser stating that the proceeds would be used to finance the Aswan High Dam. The British and French stockholders who owned the Suez Canal Company were understandably more than upset by this move, and united with Israel in a tripartite collusion to take back "their" canal. Three months after the British troops had left the Canal Zone, Israel invaded Egypt. The British and French rather tardily attempted to follow this with diplomacy but were unsuccessful. They sent in their troops for the purpose of ensuring free passage through the canal but the Egyptian military forces retaliated by sinking 40 ships in the canal and blocking any chance of passage, free or otherwise. By the end of 1956, the United Nations had stepped in and ensured a treaty whereby all foreign military forces had to withdraw from the area. Within a year, the UN had removed the sunken vessels and the canal was re-opened. The Egyptian government agreed to pay compensation in instalments amounting to over $80 million to the nationalised Suez Canal Company, finally completing its obligations in 1963.
This is still not the end of the story. In 1967, during the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Egyptians, the Suez Canal formed part of the boundary between Egypt and the Israeli occupied Sinai Peninsula and was closed once more. 6 years later, Egyptian troops crossed the canal and attacked Israeli forces on the east bank. The Israelis immediately crossed over to the west bank and encircled the Egyptian Third Army. After much diplomatic wrangling, the two warring factions signed an agreement, which returned the Sinai to Egypt, and thus control of the Suez Canal was once more in Egyptian hands. With the assistance of the US Navy, the canal was cleared of wrecks and mines and opened once more in 1975.
The Suez Canal, 195 km long, 60 metres wide at its narrowest point and able to accommodate ships with 16 metres draft and as large as 150,000 tons was up and running once more. However, the rest of the world remembered just how unreliable the Suez Canal had been and had already built larger tankers to be utilised on other sea routes. With the accompanying increase in fees demanded by the new nationalised company and the limitation on size of ships able to use it, the canal was, and still is, in danger of becoming about as useful a relic as the Pyramids.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Statue of Liberty that adorns New York harbour was originally commissioned to stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal at Port Said, representing Egypt carrying the light of Asia. Inspired by the massive statues of Abu Simbel, the French sculptor Bartholdi spent 2 years in preparation of his masterpiece before being told that the project was too expensive. A cheaper alternative in the form of a sculpture of Count Ferdinand de Lessops was erected in its place. In the long term, the Statue of Liberty has faired slightly better since Lessops statue was ripped from its pedestal upon the announcement of the nationalisation of the canal in 1956.
As President Sadat said to his aides during his inaugural speach: "Bollocks to the Brits, we can totally fuck up even the best ideas."