Suez Canal... A Historical Evolution

Historians have concluded that the Egyptian Pharaoh Senausert III was the first to think of connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. However, the Suez Canal’s actual history starts with the First Concession; and the other concessions that followed all the way to the digging which started on April 25th, 1859 in the city of “Al-Farama” (now Port Said) where 20 thousand Egyptians participated in the groundbreaking event under the harshest of conditions. Since its inauguration on the 17th of November 1869, the Canal has witnessed many historical turning points and great developments; most notably the nationalization which restored order and put everything in place as well as its closure after the 1967 war followed by its reopening in June of 1975. The following are highlights of the most important events:

1. Suez Canal: idea and early beginnings

It is a well-established historical fact that the first one to come up with the idea of connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, via the Nile and its branches, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Senausert III of the Twelfth Dynasty. That was to promote trade and facilitate communication between the East and the West as the ships came from the Mediterranean, sailed through the Nile until Zagazig and then to the Red Sea via the Bitter Lakes that were connected to it at the time. Today, remnants of that canal can be found in Geneva; a place near the city of Suez ([1]) .

Re-digging the Canal (610 B.C.):

In 610 B.C., the Canal was left for sand deposition and a dam formed, thus, isolating the Bitter Lakes; which suffered from the absence of maintenance for a very long time, form the Red Sea. Necho II (also known as Nekós) did everything in his power to re-dig the Canal, but only managed to connect the Bitter Lakes to the Nile failing to connect them to the Red Sea. In 510 B.C., Darius I gave a lot of attention to the Canal. He reconnected the Bitter Lakes and the Nile, but, like his predecessor, failed to connect them to the Red Sea except via small canals not suitable for navigation except during the flood season of the Nile. In 285 B.C., Ptolemy II managed to overcome all the challenges that faced his predecessors as he restored navigation to the entire Canal after successfully digging the part between the Red Sea and the Bitter Lakes to replace the small unnavigable canals. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan (circa 98 A.D.), there was a need for the Canal for trade purposes so he re-dug it. It started in Cairo; at the bay mouth, and ended in El-Abbasa where it connects to the old Nile branch in Zagazig. The Byzantines (circa 400 A.D.) neglected the Canal completely until it became unnavigable due to sand deposition. In 641 A.D., Amr Ibn El-A’as reopened the Canal for navigation and named it the Amir El-Mo’menin Canal. At the time, he thought of directly connecting the two seas, but the Caliph Omar Ibn El-Khattab stopped him from executing this due to his belief that water from the Red Sea would flood all of Egypt. By 760 A.D., the Abbasid Caliph, Abu Jafar El-Mansur, ordered the Canal be filled with sand so as not to be used in the transport of supplies to the people of Mecca and Medina who rebelled against his rule. That is how navigation between the two seas stopped for approximately eleven centuries during which land routes were used to transport Egyptian trade. In 1820, Mohammad Ali Pasha ordered part of the Canal be fixed for irrigation purposes of the lands between El-Abbasa and El-Qassasin ([2]).

2. Suez Canal: 1854 Concession to the 1869 Inauguration Ceremony

The Suez Canal’s actual history starts with the First Concession; and the other concessions that followed all the way to the groundbreaking then the completion of the digging on August 18th, 1869, and the inauguration ceremony on November 17th, 1869.

The First Concession ([3]) :

The first concession, which granted Ferdinand de Lesseps the right to establish a company responsible for digging the Suez Canal, was issued on November 30th, 1854. Its first article stipulated that de Lesseps shall establish the company and supervise all its work, and the second article stipulated that the company’s president shall be appointed by the Egyptian government. The third article specified that the duration of the concession shall be ninety nine years starting the inauguration of the Canal, and the fifth article stated that the Egyptian government shall receive 15% of the Company’s annual net profit. This concession also stipulated that the transit fee shall be mutually agreed upon by the Khedive and the Company, and that all countries shall be treated equally and without discrimination. In addition to that, it stated that after the duration of the concession has ended, the Egyptian government shall take over the waterway and all the affiliated buildings.

The Second Concession:

The second concession was issued on January 5th, 1856 and comprised 23 articles clarifying the provisions of the first one. Articles 14 and 15 clearly stress the neutrality of the Canal; as Article 14 stipulates that “the great maritime canal from Suez to Tina and the ports belonging to it shall be open forever, as neutral passages, to every merchant vessel.” ".

The Establishment of the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez ([4]) :

The Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez was established on December 5th, 1858, with a capital of 200 million Francs (8 million Egyptian Pounds) divided between 400,000 shares at a price of 500 Francs each. Egypt’s portion was initially 92136 shares, and the shares reserved for Britain, the United States, Austria and Russia totaled at 85506, but were not bought as they refused to take part in the public offering. As a result, Egypt took a loan for 28 million Francs (1120000 Egyptian Pounds) at a very high interest to buy those shares after the insistence of de Lesseps and out of a genuine desire that this project succeeds. At that point, the total number of shares owned by Egypt reached 177642 with a value of approximately 89 million Francs (3560000 Egyptian Pounds) which was roughly half the Company’s capital.

The Groundbreaking and the Digging Process:

The digging started on April 25th, 1859 despite objections from Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Water flowed into Lake Timsah on November 18th, 1862, and the lake was then a depression surrounded by sand dunes midway between Port Said and Suez. Water of the two seas met on August 18th, 1869 putting an end to 10 years of toil and creating an invaluable artery for world navigation. 74 million m3 of soil was dug out, and the execution cost reached 433 million Francs (17320000 Egyptian Pounds); which was double the cost calculated initially.

The Legendary Inauguration Ceremony (November 17th, 1869) ([5]) :

The water of the two seas met on August 18th, 1869, and the Suez Canal was born; “the artery of prosperity for Egypt and the world”. That Canal was described by the late renowned geographer, Dr. Gamal Hemdan, as “the pulse of Egypt”. Six thousand guests attended the Canal’s legendary inauguration ceremony on November 17th, 1869; most importantly Empress Eugenie of France – wife of Emperor Napoleon the Third – as well as the Emperor of Austria, the King of Hungary, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the brother of the King of the Netherlands, the British Ambassador in Istanbul, Emir Abdelkader El-Djazairi, Prince Tawfiq – Crown Prince of Egypt -, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Prince Toson – son of the late Said Pasha -, Nubar Pasha, and many others. A procession of ships entered the canal that day (November 17th, 1869), headed by the L'Aigle; carrying the most important figures attending the inauguration ceremony on board, and followed by 77 ships; 50 of which were warships. The inauguration extravaganza cost Khedive Ismail approximately one and a half million Egyptian Pounds.

3. The Years following the Inauguration until the Constantinople Convention:

On 15th of February 1875, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bought 176602 shares from Khedive Ismail for a sum of 3,976,580 Pound Sterling. Those sold shares represented 44% of the total number of shares which entitled Egypt to 31% of the total profits of the Company.

The Egyptian government also waived its right to 15% of the Company’s annual net profit to the Crédit Foncier de France for a sum of 22 million Francs. At that point, the Company was financially controlled by France; owning 56% of the Shares, and Britain which owned the remaining 44%.

During the period between May and September of 1882, the British have successfully managed to occupy Egypt after the Urabi Revolt, seized the Company’s facilities and stopped traffic through it for a period of time.

A statement by Lord Grandfield on January 3, 1883 issued to the major powers declaring that the British government was willing to withdraw its army from Egypt at the nearest opportunity, when the conditions of the country would allow. He proposed organizing the Suez Canal’s position by means of an agreement made between the major powers.

Then, on March 30th, 1885, an international committee met in Paris to draft a document which ensures the freedom of navigation in the Canal at all times and for all countries, but, they failed to reach an agreement on it.

The Constantinople Convention (October 29th, 1888):

An agreement was made between France, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and Turkey to draw a final system that ensures freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal ([6]).

In relation to the matter of Egypt's honoring the Constantinople Convention, it has sent a letter on July 17th, 1957 to the International Court of Justice, informing it that Egypt has recognized the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction in accordance with the provisions of Article 36 of the statute of the Court for all disputes relating to transit through the Suez Canal.

4. Nationalization of the Canal... Rights Restored:

President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared in his historic speech in Alexandria on July 6th, 1956, the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The first article of the decree stipulates that “The Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal (Egyptian joint-stock company) is hereby nationalized. All its assets, rights and obligations are transferred to the Nation and all the organizations and committees that now operate its management are hereby dissolved. Stockholders and holders of founders shares shall be compensated for the ordinary or founders shares they own in accordance with the value of the shares shown in the closing quotations of the Paris Stock Exchange on the day preceding the effective date of the present law. The payment of said indemnity shall be effected after the Nation has taken delivery of all the assets and properties of the nationalized company.”

Indeed, Egypt has fulfilled all its duties on January 1st, 1963, as it has paid all the compensations that were intended to be paid to the stakeholders for what they owned of establishment quotas and shares for the estimated worth at the closing rate of Paris Bourse on the previous day of the nationalization. The compensation reached L.E 28300000 the value of 800000 shares which totally paid in foreign currency and before one year of maturity ([7]).

However, the nationalization decree came as a direct response to the major countries and World Bank's stances concerning financing the High Dam ([8]), but the decree in fact revealed the Egyptian rights and it was closely related to the Egyptian sovereignty over the entire national territory after the July 23rd Revolution.

Egypt had refuted all the sources that questioning the nationalization decree. This was in the famous speech that Dr. Mahmoud Fawzi, Egypt's Foreign Minister delivered before the General Assembly of the United Nations on October 8, 1956. He said that "Every independent state has the right to nationalize anybody subject to its sovereignty the General Assembly confirmed in its resolution no 12626 on December 23, 1952 that each state has the right to use its resources for the welfare of its people by virtue of its the sovereignty and the principles of the UN charter. So, Egypt's action of nationalization of the Suez Canal Company is just an enforcement of this resolution.

He added that the Canal authority is an Egyptian authority that was given its privileges of construction by the Egyptian government for 99 years. Article no. 16 of the agreement between the Egyptian government and the Canal authority signed on February 22nd, 1866, provided that the International Navigation Authority of Suez Canal is an Egyptian joint stock company subject to the laws of the country. The British government acknowledges this fact and defended it before the mixed court on April 12, 1939. He also declared that Egypt adhered to its right of sovereignty over its land and its respect for the 1888 agreement and its readiness for negotiation in order to reach a solution for the canal dilemma in a peaceful means ([9]).

After the resolution of nationalization of the Canal, Egypt was exposed to a colonial force attack and started to stifle the Egyptian economy by the withdrawal of the foreign pilots and technicians working at the canal in order to hinder the work so as to embarrass the Egyptian government as the Egyptians would not be able to manage the canal ([10]).

But the Egyptian’s spirit of challenge helped to undergo the crisis. The Egyptian pilots with the aid of pilots from some of the friendly countries managed to conduct navigation after two days from the withdrawal of the foreign pilots. On September 16, 36 ships transited the canal, on September 17, 35 ships transited, on September 18, 32 ships transited and on September 19, 34 ships transited ([11]) .

On September 18, 1956, the SIS arranged a visit for 50 foreign correspondents to Ismailia to visit the Canal Zone to see by themselves the accuracy of navigation. On September 19, 1956, the main headlines of Al-Ahram newspaper referred to the foreign correspondents who were impressed by the navigation in the canal, while the convoys of ships crossed peacefully ([12]). Many of the foreign newspapers and magazines wrote about the success of Egyptian administration in managing the navigation in the canal, among which was the American magazine “Times”, that published on October 1st 1956, an article entitled “Under the New Administration” which was written after 8 weeks of the nationalization of the canal and after one week of the withdrawal of 2/3 of the pilots. It seemed that Nasser fulfilled what he was always proud of, as 2432 ships crossed the canal peacefully and secure, of which 301 ships crossed after the collective withdrawal of the foreign pilots ([13]) .

Many events followed and ended by the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt which lasted from October 31st to December 22nd 1956, causing the closing of the canal.

Even if the Tripartite Aggression caused the Canal to shut; however, whole of Egypt and the canal fought a battle against the occupation and contributed to the liberation and end of the colonies in the whole world and that was the victory of 23 December 1956, known as the glorious Suez War ([14]).

The victorious spirits continued to resume navigation in the Canal on March 29th, 1957, after clearing the waterway of the sunk ships.

5. Projects of the Canal after the Tripartite Aggression:

On March 29, 1957, after the canal was reopened, the canal company began the 1st phase of “Nasser project” in order to increase the waterway from 1250m2 to 1800m2, and to increase the ship draft from 35 feet to 37 feet. In 1958 the fleet of dredges reached the canal which included the sucker dredgers “15 September” and “26 July”.

a. The Execution of the 1st phase of “Nasser project”:

In 1961, the development process was going fast and the 1st phase ended on April 30th 1961, while the second phase ended on September 1st 1961. In December 1961, the cornerstone was laid down for the arsenal of the Suez Canal Authority.

b. The Giant Carriers Transit:

On March 13th, 1962, the biggest tanker in the world “Manhattan” transited the canal. It is an American tanker with a maximum load of 106500 Tons, a length of 286.7 m, a width of 40.2m, and a maximum draft of 15.05m while its height is equal to that of a 10-floor building.

Since the nationalization of the canal the following giant tankers had transited the canal:

     ·  On May 8, 1966 the English tanker “British Admiral” transited with a maximum load of 111274 Tons.

     ·  On July 17 1966, the English tanker “British Argosy” transited with a maximum load of 112786 Tons.

     ·  On July 27, 1966, the Swedish Tanker “Sea Spirit” transited with a maximum load of 119400 tons.

     ·  On November 6th 1966, the Swedish tanker “Sea Spray” transited with a maximum load of 116250 tons.

c. Transit of Giant Ships:

On October 8th, 1962, the SCA celebrated the transit of the “100 thousandth” vessel through the Canal since its nationalization on July 26th, 1956 by late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. This vessel was the Norwegian oil tanker “Borg Hess” which was built in Stavanger port in Norway in 1955 at a length of 194 m., a width of 26 m., a draft of 14 m., and a total capacity of about 20990 tons.

On April 14th, 1964, the new dredger “Khufu”, which was built in Scotland, joined the SCA dredgers fleet and it was very similar to dredgers like “July 26th”, “September 15th” and “Thutmose”, except that it was larger and of a much higher power at 8500 horsepower. It was capable of dredging through rocky soil up to a depth of 21 m., suction and discharge of the soil through pipelines up to 3.5 km long, at a cost of L.E. 1.5 million.

The Transit of “Birghaven”:

On October 27th, 1966, the Norwegian oil tanker “Birghaven” transited the Canal. Its maximum capacity was 153511 tons, its length was 278.9 m., and its width was 44.2 m. It was the largest ship to transit at the time since the Canal’s inauguration, and it was permitted to transit after a number of successful trials were carried out using a scale model at the SCA Research Center in Ismailia.

6- The Re-opening of the Suez Canal (June 5th, 1975):

Navigation through the Canal stopped after the Israeli aggression that started on June 5th, 1967 till late President Anwar El-Sadat announced its re-opening. He said in that historical speech before the People’s Assembly (March 29th, 1975) “I do not want the peoples of the world to imagine that the Egyptian people want to punish them for a fault that they didn’t commit, they all supported us and we want our Canal as they want it a path towards prosperity. We open the Canal while being able to protect it the same way we protected the Canal cities that we are rebuilding. The time when distance stood in the way of aggression is long gone.”

On June 5th, 1975, the Canal was re-opened for international navigation and Sadat said in his historic speech “The son of this good land who dug the Canal with sweat and tears, the Canal that connects continents and civilizations, crossed it with the spirits of loyal martyrs to spread peace and security over its banks. He is now reopening it for navigation just as he dug it for the first time as a branch for peace and an artery for prosperity and cooperation among peoples of the world.”

President Sadat then boarded the destroyer “6th of October” to recommence transit through the Suez Canal in a convoy led by two minesweepers followed by the destroyer “6th of October”, the yacht “Freedom”, the 6th fleet command ship “Little Rock”, two Egyptian ships “Syria” and “Aida”, two military launches, and the tugboat “Mared”. The convoy ended in three navy ships and the Qatari ship “Ghazal”. When the convoy arrived at Ismailia, President Sadat unveiled the memorial plaque at the entrance of Al-Irshad building.([15]).

On October 31st, 1976, the giant Liberian oil tanker “Asoscandia” transited the Suez Canal. Its maximum capacity was 254 thousand tons, its length was 348.5 m., its width was 51.9 m., and its draft was 65.6 feet. It transited in ballast at a draft of 28 feet, and it was the largest ship to transit at the time since its inauguration in 1869.

On February 22nd, 1979, “Al-Timsah” bypass was dug starting at km76.6 to km 81.7 (Canal marking), at a length of 5.1 km. It was inaugurated in 1980, thus, achieving duality in the waterway in 68 km out of the total length of 179 km, starting at Port Said all the way to Port Tawfiq in Suez.

On March 19, 1980, Egypt celebrated the connection of Port-Saïd bypass with the Mediterranean, starting from km17 to meet the old waterway of the canal in Port-Saïd at k95, and extending to km195 till to reach a total length of 36.5km. This caused the outgoing and incoming of the vessels to the canal without hindering the movement in Port-Saïd harbor.

7-Expanding and deepening the waterway::

When the canal was opened for navigation on November 17 1969, it was 164Km long, 52m wide at the water level and 75m deep. The draft of the ship permitted to cross was not more than 22.5 feet and the navigation was permitted only during the day for 18 years until the canal authority permitted navigation at night on March 1st 1887.

During the period between opening the Suez canal and its nationalization in 1956, the authority implemented many programs to develop and improve the Suez canal, which resulted in increasing the depth of the canal to 13.5m and its width from 22m to 42m, and also it increased the water sector from 304m2 to 1250m2, and the permitted draft from 2.4 feet to 35 feet. The total costs of this improvement reached LE 20 million and 500 thousand.

According to the development of ship building industry, and building bigger ships in its loads, the need for developing the Suez canal emerged, and this was with the support of the world authority of the Suez canal till the draft of the ships reached 35 feet and the area of the water sector reached 1200m2, before the nationalization of the Suez canal on July 20 1956.

The development of the canal continued till May 1952, where the draft of the ship increased to 38 feet, and the area of the water sector to 1800m. The canal administration in June 1966 declared an ambitious plan to develop the canal in two phases to reach so as to the draft of the ship reaches from 48 to 58 feet respectively.

As a result of the war of June 1967 the development stopped, and the canal was reopened for world navigation in June 1975 after cleaning the canal from the remnants of the war and picking up the sinking ships between the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Suez canal remained with its same depth and water sector that was before its closure.

The Egyptian administration of the canal continued the development of the canal till the load of the ship permitted reached 210 thousand tons, and the draft of the ship reached 191.80km in 2001. Also, in this project the curved paths in the canal were redesigned and the radius of every path reached 5000 m at least, also a new bypass was excavated that started from km17 south of Port Said at the north till the Mediterranean east of the city of Port Fouad.

Thus the ships that are going north can reach the sea without going in the harbor of Port Said. The draft of the ship permitted to transit the canal reached 6 feet in 2010, to have all the containerships, till a load of 17000 containers besides the transit of all the ships from all over the world.


ــ State Information Service official website.

(1)Georg Halim Kirlus, Suez Canal and universal maritime Canal (Cairo: Dar Al-Fakr Alarabi, 1964) P.64…

(2) Ibid, P.68

(3) Review the text of the first concession decree of this book.

(4) George Kirlus, previous reference P.69

(5) Mohamed El-Shafei, Mohamed Youssef, Suez Canal: The Epic of a People .. History of a Nation (Cairo: The General

Authority for Cultural Palaces, 2006) pp. 85-93.

(6) The full text of the convention within supplements of this book.

(7) Greorge Halim Kirlus, previous reference. P 105

(8) USA emphsized in a statement issued on 19 July, 1956 that its contribution in the construction of the High Dam is not practical matter not only through arguments and poor excuses, but also doubted Egypt's capabilities to accomplish this project. US Secretary of State at that time, John Foster Dulles on 20 July, 1956 in response to the Ambassador of Egypt when he said that US government is no longer willing to contribute to finance the High Dam due to the weakness of Egypt's economy that can not afford such a project Review the details in : -Fathi Risk, Suez Canal: Location and Date (Cairo Dar Al-Nasr of the Islamic print, 1983) p.138.

(9) For more details review:

- Mohamed Youness,”Suez canal”: Past, Present and Future from page 275 (Cairo: Abu Al Magd publishing house, 2006).

(10) In September 14, the foreign guides withdrew. Review George Halim Kerles previous reference from page 92.

(11) Mohamed Youness, Previous reference from page 254.

(12) The same reference page 255.

(13) The previous reference page 259.

(14) Dr. Gamal Himdan “Suez Canal, the pulse of Egypt “(Cairo, Alam El Kotob Publicatin House, 1975) page26-27.

(15) Egypt’s contemporary memory.