Stretching over 120 miles connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt stands a 75-mile-wide Suez Canal just at the boundary between the continents of Africa and Asia. The Suez Canal is the world’s busiest trade route with over 10% of global trade passing through the canal and giving rise to the biggest overseas trade system. The canal provides the shortest direct sea link between Asia and Europe which saves ships from long distances, that is why it is also recognized as the most significant maritime shortcut ever built.
But how did the canal conceived and how did it impact the world since its inception?
The site of the Suez Canal has been a subject of interest to the rulers of Egypt and France, as far back as the second millennium BCE. In the early days, traders had to traverse the narrow Isthmus separating the Red Sea and the Nile, journeying caravans of the stressful desert to trade goods from Mediterranean basic to Asia and vice versa. But a water passage between the Indian Ocean on the Mediterranean Sea could bypass this journey as the traders would not need to go all the way around Africa to reach the European countries.
In the 16th century, several rulers came forward to shape this dream project by building a canal on the route. But due to little technology, infrastructure geniuses, political strife, and fortune obstructed their plans. In 1798, more rulers came forward to support the ideas and they pitched their plans to the Egyptian rulers; however, none passed the plan. It was during the Ottoman Empire, and they resisted the construction. Things changed when Sa’id Pasha came into power in 1954. He approved the plan from the manipulative French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and purchased 44% of the Suez Canal Company. They signed a treaty in 1854 which gave Ferdinand authority to establish the Suez Canal and collect funds by selling its shares to different capitalists across the nations.
This contract promised a workforce for thousands of Egyptians who were forced into hard labor. The project started in 1862 with over 20,000 laborers recruited every month for the hard work. They were assigned to dig the canal without proper access to food and water in harsh deserts. Soon, many laborers died out of cholera, and diseases escalated among the workers. Estimates suggest that thousands of people died due to diseases during the construction of the canal.
Seeing the growing pandemic in the region, in 1964, the new Egyptian ruler Isma’il Pasha implemented new regulations that restricted forced labor. Only those who willingly chose to be on the project were eligible to work in the deserts. Many foreign workers from all the Europe and the Middle East labored throughout the channel. But this massive workforce required basic amenities such as clean food, water, and access to medical aid. Thus, to address the issue several cities were built near the canal flourishing the economy with brothels, restaurants, and clinics. The main three multi-ethnic cities were Port Sa’id, Ismailia, and Port Tewfiq.
In 1866, after working for so many years the streams of the two seas- the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea finally began merging. This canal was 164 kilometers long connecting Asia with the rest of the world. The Suez Canal accelerated global trade like never before with goods being supplied to as far as Japan and Korea. It also facilitated marine species migration which in turn changed the local cuisine and the ecosystem.
Despite its obvious advantage in cutting journey times, initially, the canal experienced problems with ships running aground. In 1870, many ships were grounded due to the narrowness of the canal, and thus it needed urgent improvement. In 1876, just 7 years later its inauguration, the canal was retouched to widen and deepen the channel. By this time, the low economic condition of Egypt forced Isma’il Pasha to sell Egypt’s share of the canal to Britain. With this, a new world was born where Britain was holding power over the huge economy of Egypt. They invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882, taking full control.
Not just in Egypt, the Suez Canal also led to the growing power of Britain in India which soon led to nationwide surrender. This way the Suez Canal changed the world with around 30% of global container shipping volumes passing through it each day.