Suez Canal

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Suez Canal

Suez Canal, Arab. Qanat as Suways, waterway of Egypt extending from Port Said to Port Tawfiq (near Suez) and connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and thence with the Red Sea. The canal is somewhat more than 100 mi (160 km) long. Proceeding S from Port Said, it runs in an almost undeviating straight line to Lake Timsah. From there a cutting leads to the Bitter Lakes (now one body of water), and a final cutting then reaches the Gulf of Suez. The canal has no locks and can accommodate all but the largest ships.

The desirability of a water connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was long appreciated in antiquity. A canal was built in the 20th or 19th cent. B.C. to Lake Timsah (then the northern end of the Red Sea). Xerxes I had the canal extended. It was restored several times (notably by Ptolemy II and Trajan) until the 8th cent. A.D., when it was closed and fell into disrepair.

The modern canal was planned by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also supervised construction (1859–69). Great Britain, which had opposed the construction of the canal, became the largest shareholder in 1875 by purchasing the interest of the Egyptian khedive. The Convention of Constantinople signed in 1888 by all major European powers of the time declared the canal neutral and guaranteed free passage to all in time of peace and war. Great Britain was the guarantor of the neutrality of the canal; management was placed in the hands of the Suez Canal Company.

Under the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which made Egypt virtually independent, Britain reserved rights for the protection of the canal, but after World War II, Egypt pressed for evacuation of British troops from the area. Egypt in 1951 repudiated the 1936 treaty, and anti-British rioting and clashes on the border of the zone erupted. In 1954, Britain agreed to withdraw, and in June, 1956, the British completed their evacuation of armed forces from Egypt and the canal zone.

After Great Britain and the United States withdrew their pledges of financial support to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam (see under Aswan), Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser nationalized (July, 1956) the Suez Canal and set up the Egyptian Canal Authority to replace the existing privately owned company. In August, British oil and embassy officials were expelled from the country. Having been denied passage through the canal since 1950 and having suffered repeated border raids from Egypt, Israel, with French and English air support, invaded Egyptian territory on Oct. 29, 1956. Within a few days France and Great Britain sent armed forces to retake the Suez Canal. Intervention by the United Nations brought an armistice in early November, and a UN emergency force replaced the British and French troops. The canal, blocked for more than six months because of damage and sunken ships, was cleared with UN help and reopened in Apr., 1957. Egypt agreed to pay, in six annual installments, approximately $81 million to shareholders of the nationalized Suez Canal Company; final payment was made on Jan. 1, 1963.

Despite UN efforts to guarantee the free passage of vessels through the canal, Egypt prevented Israeli ships from using the waterway. The canal was closed by Egypt during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, after which it formed part of the boundary between Egypt and the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula. Egypt lost considerable revenue as a result of the closing of the canal, but friendly Arab countries agreed to subsidize the Egyptian economy with contributions roughly equaling the former income from the canal. After the Suez Canal was closed, many ships (especially tankers) were built that were too large for the canal, and alternate sea routes were used increasingly in world trade.

In Oct., 1973, Egyptian troops crossed the canal and attacked Israeli forces on the east bank of the canal; Israeli units crossed the canal to the west and eventually encircled the Egyptian Third Army. In early 1974, Egypt and Israel signed an agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. With both banks of the canal again secured, Egypt, with the assistance of the U.S. navy, cleared it of mines and war wreckage, and it was reopened in 1975. Traffic declined in the 1980s, largely because of high fees and water too shallow for oil supertankers. In 1997 officials announced fee reductions and a plan to deepen the channel.

The completion of the New Suez Canal project (2014–15), in which a 22-mi (35-km) second shipping lane was constructed parallel to the central portion of the canal and an additional 23 mi (37 km) of the canal were deepened, now allows for traffic in both directions for most of the canal's length. The project was designed to reduce waiting times for ships traversing the canal and double the potential number of vessels that could traverse the canal during a day. A special commercial and industrial zone was also established alongside the canal to spur economic development.


See D. A. Farnie, East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854–1956 (1969); K. Love, Suez, the Twice-Fought War (1969); A. G. Mezerik, ed., The Suez Canal 1956 Crisis–1967 War (1969); M. H. Heikal, Cutting the Lion's Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes (1987); D. Neff, Warriors at Suez (1987); Z. Karabell, Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (2003).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Suez Canal


a navigable nonsluice waterway in the northeastern Arab Republic of Egypt that connects the Mediterranean and the Red seas and thus provides the shortest maritime route between the ports of the Atlantic and the Indian oceans (it is 8,000–15,000 km shorter, for instance, than the route around southern Africa). The canal zone is considered to be a geographical boundary between Asia and Africa.

The Suez Canal was officially opened to navigation on Nov. 17, 1869. It is approximately 161 km, and its width is 120–150 m across the surface of the water and 45–60 m across the bottom. The depth of the channel is 12.5–13 m. The canal may be entered from Port Said or Port Fuuad on the Mediterranean or from Suez or Port Taufiq on the Red Sea. The average time required for a ship to pass through the canal is 11–12 hours.

The Suez Canal traverses the Isthmus of Suez at its lowest and narrowest point, cutting through Lake al-Manzilah and several smaller lakes. A freshwater canal excavated at Ismailia supplies the canal zone with water from the Nile River.

The Suez Canal lies at the center of international sea communications linking not only the oil-producing region of the Middle East but also East Africa, Asia, and Australia with Western Europe. It therefore carries a tremendous amount of traffic, handling about 15 percent of the world’s total oceanic cargo transports and over 20 percent of the world’s oil and petroleum-product shipments (the latter, in fact, represent over 70 percent of the cargo hauled through the canal). The number of vessels passing through the canal has grown from 486 in 1870 (with a combined tonnage of 400,000), to 5,100 in 1913 (20 million tons), to 21,250 in 1966 (274,300,000 tons). Until 1967 the Suez Canal led all other waterways in total transit tonnage. Egypt in 1966 received 95 million Egyptian pounds for the canal’s use.

The history of the canal may be traced to about the second millennium B.C., when an artificial waterway, called the “canal of the pharaohs,” was built in the region, joining the Nile with the Red Sea. It fell into disuse, however, as Egypt itself declined. The canal was restored and extended in the third century B.C. by Ptolemy II and again during the Roman period, when it became known as Trajan’s Canal.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the canal was restored once again, in A.D. 642, but in 776 it was filled in so that trade could be directed across the main regions of the caliphate. Subsequent plans to rebuild the canal—developed in 1569 by order of the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed Sokolovic, and in 1798–1801 by the French during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt—were not carried out.

In 1854 the French diplomat and entrepreneur F. de Lesseps, taking advantage of France’s growing influence in Egypt, as well as of his personal ties with the Egyptian ruler, Said Pasha, obtained a concession from the latter to build the Suez Canal on favorable terms. The project was designed by two French engineers, Linant and Mougel, and an Italian engineer, Negrelli. The Suez Canal Company, organized by de Lesseps and legally considered an Egyptian enterprise, took charge of construction. The Egyptian government acquired 44 percent of all stock; 53 percent was acquired by France and 3 percent by other countries. Under the terms of the concession, 71 percent of the gross receipts went to the stockholders, 15 percent to Egypt, and 10 percent to the founders of the company.

Construction on the canal began on Apr. 25, 1859, and was completed in 1869 (G. Verdi was commissioned by the Egyptian khedive [viceroy] to compose the opera Aida for the canal’s opening). Most of the work on the canal was performed by Egyptian fellahin (peasants), who were pressed into service at the rate of 60,000 a month (at a time when the population of Egypt was 4 million); many died from exhaustion and disease. The enormous outlays required for the canal’s construction placed a heavy burden on Egypt’s economy. Taking advantage of Egypt’s financial difficulties, Great Britain in 1875 bought the Egyptian government’s share of Suez Canal stock from Ismail Pasha. In 1880 the Egyptian government was further compelled to sell to a French bank its rights to the canal’s gross receipts. Thus, Egypt was effectively deprived of any control over the canal as well as of the right to participate in its net profits. The Suez Canal Company became de facto an Anglo-French enterprise.

After the occupation of Egypt by British troops in 1882, the canal became Great Britain’s major strategic military base in the Middle East. In 1888 an international convention was adopted in Constantinople (Istanbul) to guarantee freedom of passage through the canal; it continues to remain in force as the chief instrument in international law regulating navigation through the canal. During both World War I and World War II, British authorities directly controlled use of the Suez Canal.

In the 1920’s the Egyptian people began their struggle against British occupation of the canal. In 1936, under an Anglo-Egyptian agreement, the British government pledged to limit the term of its occupation of the canal to 20 years. After World War II, the movement calling for the complete withdrawal of British troops from the Nile Valley and the Suez Canal zone intensified, since the activities of the foreign company controlling the Suez Canal were seen to be contrary to the national interests of Egypt. For example, in 1955, the company, while paying 12.4 billion francs of its profits to shareholders, paid only 1.1 billion francs to Egypt. Furthermore, Egyptian vessels had to pay the same transit duties as did foreign vessels, with the result that Egypt could not use the canal freely even as a link between its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. The company also held back modernization of the canal; while receiving enormous profits, it spent extremely insignificant sums on improvements.

On July 26, 1956, the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal Company. At the same time, however, it declared that it intended to respect freedom of navigation through the canal in accordance with the Constantinople Convention and promised to pay compensation to stockholders (by early 1963, 28.3 million Egyptian pounds had been paid out). The ruling circles of Great Britain, France, and the USA exerted diplomatic and other pressures on Egypt to “reinternationalize” the canal. The matter was discussed at the London Conference of Suez Canal Users and in the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council recognized Egypt’s sovereignty over the canal. But the imperialist powers organized an economic blockade of Egypt and recalled their operation teams from the canal. Shortly thereafter, operational teams from the USSR, Poland, Yugoslavia, and other countries arrived to help the Egyptian administration maintain navigation through the canal.

In late October 1956, the imperialists of Great Britain and France, with the participation of Israel, resorted to direct military intervention against Egypt. In their concerted action against Egypt, the aggressors caused considerable damage to the Suez Canal. On Apr. 24,1957, after reconstruction work was completed, movement through the canal was resumed.

As a result of the 1967 Israeli aggression against Egypt and other Arab countries, navigation through the canal was again interrupted, the canal zone having been turned into a front line separating Egyptian and Israeli troops. During the October War of 1973, the canal zone again became an area of active military operations. The annual loss to the world economy caused by suspension of the canal’s use was estimated at 4–5 billion dollars. In 1974, after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the canal zone, Egypt set to clearing, restoring, and rebuilding the Suez Canal. On June 5,1975, it was opened once again for navigation.


Suetskii kanal: Sb. Dokumentov. Moscow, 1957.
Dement’ev, I. A. Suetskii kanal. Moscow, 1954.
Ob” edinennaia Arabskaia Respublika, Moscow, 1968. Pages 212–19.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Suez Canal

a sea-level canal in NE Egypt, crossing the Isthmus of Suez and linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea: built (1854--69) by de Lesseps with French and Egyptian capital; nationalized in 1956 by the Egyptians. Length: 163 km (101 miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005