What is the Suez Canal?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The Suez Canal is a canal in Egypt between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. It allows water access from Europe to the Indian Ocean without having to go all the way around the southern tip of Africa, an extreme distance of thousands of miles. The Suez Canal has a length of 192 km and is owned and maintained by the Arab Republic of Egypt. To the west of the canal is the bulk of Egypt, while the historic Sinai Peninsula (also Egypt) and the State of Israel lie to the east.

Woman waving
Woman waving

The Suez Canal is the only large modern canal that had ancient counterparts. As early as 1850 BCE, the Pharaoh Senusret had constructed a west-east river joining the River Nile with the Red Sea, linking the ships of the Egyptian nation with the Red Sea and waters further east. The remnants of this canal were discovered in the early 1860s, and it is believed to have existed for at least 500 years before drying up. Around 600 BC, another Pharaoh, Necho II, attempted to re-excavate the canal, losing 120,000 men in hard labor. Still, he failed to rebuild it and work discontinued with his death. Around 270 BC, the Persian conqueror of Egypt, King Darius, successfully completed his work. Canals from the River Nile to the Red Sea alternately closed up and were reopened over the coming millennia, as the Red Sea itself was receding and accumulating silt often blocked the canals.

The first modern Suez Canal, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, was built from 1858-1869 by the Suez Canal Company from France. Permission to construct the canal was given to Ferdinand de Lesseps by Said Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. Austrian engineer Alois Negrelli laid out the plans. The excavation, requiring 11 years and using the forced labor of 30,000 Egyptian workers, was completed in 1869. During construction, the British Empire sent armed Bedouins to start a workers revolt to protest the conditions of slavery. Involuntary work on the project ceased, and by its conclusion all the workers were paid.

At first, international opinion was skeptical, and shares of the canal only sold well in France. But within only a year, it became evident that the canal was extremely useful, and the impact on world trade was substantial. Today, the Suez Canal is one of the most used waterways in the world, alongside the Panama Canal.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


In 1956, Israeli, British and French forces attacked Egypt after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the Suez Canal seized and nationalized. Egypt took this action because they wanted Britain to end its military presence in the region.

The U.S. didn't support the efforts of these three forces and threatened sanctions for their actions. In the end, France and Britain were seen as weakened world powers.


What was the Suez Canal crisis? I faintly remember hearing something about in history class many years ago.

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