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Monday, April 24, 2006

Suez Canal Groundbreaking, April 25, 1859

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Today in 1859, ground was broken for the Suez Canal. The Canal links the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez in the Red Sea. When it was completed in 1869, the Canal made it possible for ships to travel from Europe to Asia without circumnavigating the continent of Africa, savings thousands of miles and weeks of travel time.

Canals were not new to Egypt. As early as the 13th century BC, a canal existed which linked the Nile River to the Red Sea. This canal fell into disrepair and was re-excavated several times over the next two thousand years before being put out of commission permanently in the eighth century AD. Ten centuries passed before another canal was attempted in the area.

Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a survey of the Sinai Peninsula in late 18th century as a pre-requisite to building a canal there. The French survey team returned to France and announced, mistakenly, that the Red Sea level was higher than that of the Med, meaning that a canal could not be built without the use of locks. Another 60 years would pass before another Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, obtained permission from the viceroy of Egypt to form a company charged with the construction of a canal. Lesseps believed, correctly, that the waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas were of the same height.

As with the pyramids thousands of years before, forced labor was initially used in the digging of the Canal. It is estimated that 125,000 Egyptians died during the 11-year project from malnutrition and disease. The forced labor policy was ended when the Egyptian viceroy gave into British anti-slavery forces. Today, this seems odd because, early in the American Civil War, the British were on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, which was pro-slavery. This, while at the same time chiding the Egyptians for doing the same thing.

The Suez Canal opened on November 17, 1869. It is actually two canals, each terminating at the Great Bitter Lake and running to its respective sea. When completed, it began to have an immediate effect on world trade and African colonization. In 1875, the United Kingdom bought the Egyptian share of the Suez Canal Company for ₤400,000 and in 1888, assumed the role of protector for the canal and all the ship traffic that used it.

After nearly 70 years of French and British control, Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Canal in 1956, triggering the Suez War in which Great Britain, France and Israel all invaded Egypt. After the Canal was repaired and reopened in 1957, a United Nations force was created to maintain a neutral zone around the area. The Canal was closed again in 1967 during the Six Day War and did not reopen until June, 1975.

Today, a multinational observer force monitors the Sinai Peninsula and the Canal. This force is not under UN command, but is allowed per agreements among nations in the area and the United States, which supplies most of the force’s troops.

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