The Making of the Suez Canal: How the Impossible Dream Became a Reality

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

The making of the Suez Canal did not come easily. There were many people who dreamt of connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. The idea traveled from Napoleon through many others. But the man who actually turned this dream into reality was someone who was a master of public relations.

Image of Suez Canal in 1869.
The first vessels sailed through the Suez Canal between Kantara and El-Fidane in the year 1869. (Image: Scanned from engraving in “Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art”, 1869/Public domain)

1869—The Year of the Suez Canal

At the end of the year 1869, in November to be precise, a fleet of international ships did something which had earlier been practically impossible to do. This fleet traveled along the Suez Canal in Egypt straight from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The Suez Canal, in fact, had paradox manifested in it. The paradox was that by cutting through the continents of Asia and Africa, it had actually joined the world. The accomplishment of this engineering marvel, the Suez Canal, helped in binding the world together by means of communications. The world became one like never before. This became one of the key points that bound the world together by modern technology.

It took a very long period of time to complete the Suez Canal. The time taken from arriving at an agreement to make the canal to its actual completion was 15 years. But it also had a history that extended for a long time before that. The thought of building a canal through Egypt that would connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea was very old. Although the ancient Egyptian monarchs had worked on canal projects, their scale was very small. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Dream Lives On

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he asked his engineers to make plans for a grand canal so that new routes could be opened for French powers (it could even mean an approach to India, then controlled by the British). However, a critical mistake was made by the engineer who was exploring this project for Napoleon. His calculation was that the Red Sea was 30 meters higher than the Mediterranean Sea, and if the channel was cut it would result in a catastrophic flood. So Napoleon’s plan could not be taken forward.

But the idea of the Suez Canal did not die. and this time it involved some unusual dreamers. This group of people was from the French reforming socialists called Saint-Simonians. This movement was influenced by and took its name from Claude Henri, who was the count of Saint-Simon, one of the sociology’s founders. Saint Simon and his followers had a belief that if consciously built new societies replaced the old authorities, especially religion and tradition, the human race might ultimately achieve true equality and progress. 

The followers of Saint Simon revered progress and novelty. Their aim was to put the Enlightenment’s dream of perfectibility into practice. Saint Simon himself said that the golden age was ahead and not behind. After his death, Saint Simon’s followers kept dreaming about projects that could promote their faith. And the idea of a canal across Egypt gave them the required endeavor. They thought that by linking the seas they would provide a philosophical meaning. These followers of Saint Simon announced that such a canal (the Suez Canal) would act as a unifying entity between the east and the west, the masculine and the feminine, and would help in forging a new kind of harmony.

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Enter De Lesseps

Photograph of Ferdinand de Lesseps.
Ferdinand de Lesseps’ canal project revolutionized the way the world traveled. (Image: Nadar/Public domain)

However, efforts by Saint Simonians in the 1830s to ignite the interest of the Egyptian authorities in such a project did not yield any result. But the dream did not die. And, eventually, the man who realized this dream was someone who was brilliant in public relations. He was a Frenchman named Ferdinand de Lesseps.

The new ruler of Egypt in 1854, Sa’id Pasha, was an old friend of de Lesseps. And de Lesseps was able to convince him to start the project. To start with, de Lesseps employed engineers to recalculate the actual levels of the two seas. These engineers confirmed to him, after doing their calculations, that there was no chance of any flood as the result of this project. Next, international investors were engaged and a new company was formed that would undertake the project. This company was supposed to run the canal for 99 years and collect fees from the ships that passed through it.

This project of de Lesseps revolutionized the way the world traveled and the way shipping was done. The distance needed to travel between East Asia and Africa was drastically reduced from 11,000 miles when traveled around the Cape of Good Hope to just 6,000 miles. It meant that the time taken to travel between India and Britain would be reduced to half. The company was founded in the year 1858 and started work the following year. De Lesseps was Empress Eugenie’s cousin, who was the wife of Emperor Napoleon III. Thus, de Lesseps used his connections well so that most of the finance for the canal project came from France.

There was a turning point in the making of the Suez Canal in the year 1864. Prior to this, the work was done on the canal in much the same way as the pyramids were built, by employing a huge number of people. However, in the year 1864, they started using huge dredging machines thus providing the construction an entirely new technical basis.

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The Opening of the Suez Canal

An 1881 drawing of the Suez Canal.
The Suez Canal was of global importance. It joined the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. (Image: Young Persons’ Cyclopedia of Persons and Places/Public domain)

From the Egyptian ruler’s viewpoint, they had taken a gamble in going with the canal project. They expected to bring modernization to Egypt with the help of European technology. The Suez Canal, with a length of 100 miles, was ultimately completed in August 1869. A big opening ceremony was arranged in November 1869 to celebrate the completion of the canal. The main feature was that many European royals traveled on their own yachts to be part of the first great fleet to pass through the Suez Canal. These included the French Empress Eugenie, the Emperor of Austria, the Grand Duke of Russia, and the crown Prince of Prussia. Italian musician Giuseppe Verdi was engaged to write an opera named Aida.

The opening ceremony in Egypt was attended by a thousand dignitaries and they hailed the construction of the Suez Canal by describing it as the unification of two worlds, East and West. They praised de Lesseps and described him as a new Christopher Columbus. De Lesseps took this praise to heart and tried to make a similar canal in Panama. However, that project ended in disappointment for him. The events that took place after the opening of the Suez Canal emphasized the true global importance of this canal. But then that is another story.

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Common Questions About the Suez Canal

Q: Who was the man to build the Suez Canal and why was it built?

Between 1854 and 1856, a Frenchman named Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained authorization from the then ruler of Egypt to form a company that would build the canal. The purpose of the Suez Canal was to join the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

Q: What is the importance of the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal is important for one main reason—it is the shortest link between Europe and the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean for trade, so the cost and time of transportation of goods are considerably saved.

Q: What was the advantage of the Suez Canal to Britain?

The British had a strategic interest in the eastern Mediterranean and the Suez Canal provided them the shortest and the fastest sea route to India.

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