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The Suez Canal is of the most important manmade waterways in the world. Crossing the isthmus that connects Africa and Asia, the Suez joins the Mediterranean and Red Seas, providing the shortest maritime route, 105 miles, between Europe and the Indian Ocean, Far East, and western Pacific. The canal diverts from the shortest route to include Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes. Traversing parts of the desert, the canal is lined with stone revetments and sheet-piles to prevent erosion. Along the canal are many settlements, including the major port cities of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia, most of which arose with the canal’s construction.
President Sa’id ordered the creation the canal in 1854, commissioning its construction and management to the French. Instead of helping Egypt modernize, the canal contributed to the country’s bankruptcy. By 1875, Egypt had to sell its company shares to Britain, transferring control to France and Britain, making the canal an Egyptian symbol of European exploitation. Finding the canal key to accessing its empire and oil, Britain crafted its colonial policy in the Middle East and Africa in order to best control the canal. In 1956, Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal to gain independent revenue for development projects.
The Suez Crisis resulted when Britain, Israel, and France used military might to regain control, but withdrew under pressure from the United States and Soviet Union, illustrating Britain’s decline as a superpower and establishing Nasser as a panArab hero. After the June War of 1967, Israel won the canal in an easy victory. To regain revenues and restore national pride, Nasser started the war of attrition, which only harmed settlements along the canal. Egypt regained ownership in the 1973 October War.
Although narrow and shallow, without space for ships to pass side by side, the canal is a significant source of Egyptian revenues. In 1994 approximately 20,000 ships passed through the canal per year and 35 percent of the tonnage belonged to the oil industry. The canal was widened for supertankers, in the 1980s and 1990s.
The canal has significantly changed ecological patterns. Organisms can pass between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing scientists to observe migration and colonization processes that usually take place over geological time. Primarily tropical floral has traveled from the Red Sea, in a process called Lessepsian migration. No species has disappeared, but there have been decreases in Mediterranean flora that have affected fishing patterns. The canal has occasionally been affected by systems around it. The canal was created to accommodate its surrounding geography and was expanded to accommodate economic needs, such as supertankers. As the canal becomes a part of the landscape, new political, economic, and ecological systems, such as desire for easier oil access and increasing sea levels, may dictate the future of the Suez.
- William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, 2000);
- Daniel Golani, “Impact of Red Sea Fish Migrants through the Suez Canal on the Aquatic Environment of the Eastern Mediterranean,” Bulletin of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (Yale University, 1998);
- D. Griffiths, “Queueing at the Suez Canal,” The Journal of the Operational Research Society (v.46, 1995);
- Keith Kyle, Suez (St. Martin’s Press, 1991).