The Suez Canal


The Suez Canal was constructed from 1859 to 1869 at a cost of approximately $100 million.  The canal stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and has been an integral piece of bringing cultures together in a global market place.  This allowed trade of goods, services, ideas, information and knowledge in an expeditious manner that was never experience before in the history of the known world.  The canal still provides a link between Europe and Asia and is a vital part of the global trade.

Suez Canal Purpose, Culture, Scope

The Suez Canal is an amazing feat of perseverance and engineering masterfulness.  The basic tenant and purpose of the Suez Canal was to provide a waterway linkage through the arid region of Egypt from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.  The canal itself initially started as a 102 mile long and 26 foot deep canal which was completed and open for use in 1869.  To put that into perspective the technological advancements of the time revolved around the introduction of the steam engine, railway transportation, printing press and propeller driven ships.  While this was not an all-inclusive list of advancements they all played an important role in the development and ultimate expansion of the canal.  The canal finally rested with a length of 120 miles long and a depth of 79 feet (McCullough).  With trade expanding globally and information traveling at an every growing rate there was a high demand for the canal to cut through Egypt to provide a navigable route between Europe and Asia.  If goods and information needed to travel from Europe to Asia and vice versa the ships would have to travel around Africa to reach their destinations.  The amount of time and effort needed to move goods and information globally was finally going to have an opportunity to shrink exponentially.

The construction began in 1859 based on the need to circumvent the travel time and resources required to get much demanded goods from Asia to Europe and also provide a way to spread different cultures globally.  The plan was to create a canal from one sea to the other without the use of locks and only support one lane of travel.  Initially this would prove adequate for the amount of travel at the time and the free flow from one sea to the other limited the amount of construction required initially for the project.  Although the sea levels were thought to be at differing levels the survey of the landscape proved that the canal would fare well without the need for locks.

The Suez Canal Company started construction with the intent to build a canal open to all ships of all nations and would there after operate the canal for 99 years from the opening.  An interesting integration and collaboration of efforts concluded from the canal build.  The first step toward a global market was the introduction of a canal treaty that allowed all countries during war and not to utilize the canal regardless of the colors flown by the ship.  The other intriguing and milestone element of the canal build was the utilization of many consulting experts from seven different countries.  The initial plans and purpose of the experts were to conduct feasibility tests, gain consensus among the engineering community and produce a production report detailing the project scope and schedule.

While these advancements seem ahead of the time and have multiple elements of collaboration and interconnectedness, there was also the fact that the project’s excavation took nearly ten years to complete and utilized forced labor resembling the same labor force that produced one of the greatest wonders of the world, the Great Pyramids.  These workers could be referred to as slaves and the canal was built on the backs of these people.  The employment was coerced through retaliation and retribution of violence, destitution, violence and death if they did not work on the project.  Through some accounts there were approximately 30,000-35,000 people working on the canal at any given time and a total surpassing 1.5 million individual works took part either legitimately or through force in the project over its lifespan (Karabell).  The conditions of the work environment did not bode well for cleanliness and safety thus thousands of people gave their lives to the canal build.  The use of slave labor was a topic that did not have global boundaries.  The United States was nearly ripped apart based in part to the use of slaves, the British government opposed the build of the canal due to the use of such labor and the global decent of the project came to fruition when the British implemented their naval power to utilize a tactic to show the force of the Royal Navy.  This dissention and lack of support proved to be a great negotiating force and once the canal was excavated the forced labor ceased.  During this time the use of forced labor was culturally acceptable in some parts of the world and was beginning to take shape as a negative and condemnable act by other countries.

The importance of the Suez Canal was known well before the actual construction of the canal by the Suez Canal Company.  Napoleon Bonaparte, in all his strategic wisdom, knew that building a canal to enhance mobility and trade opportunities in the area of Egypt would greatly increase the value and global power of the company that owned the canal.  As early as the 1700’s, expeditions to the stretches of Egypt were undertaken to fully understand the depth, breadth and scope of a project to connect the two seas.  The actual construction based on Napoleon’s plan was halted based on a miscalculation on the sea levels of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea showed the variance between the acceptable baseline level were too great and the canal would not work appropriately due to this.  The feasibility was deemed unacceptable and the construction was halted without further movements forward until 65 years later.  If it were not for the miscalculations and measurements Napoleon and France would have owned the canal super waterway that is today known as the Suez Canal.

When taking a step back to look at the engineering feats of the canal there were many areas that were quiet remarkable.  The canal was over 100 miles long and initially almost three stories deep.  The amount of planning, coordinating and execution of the project was a monumental feat to accomplish and this was only complicated by the fact that unskilled and forced laborers were utilized to perform the brunt of the effort.  The engineering feats were tremendous but the estimations for financial and effort were not accurate.  The budget was over twice the estimation and the amount of people and other resources required trumped the original numbers by far.  The amount of time, funding and effort put into the project began to wear on the investors, the workers and the country.  The project did open in 1869 and there were huge celebrations of the accomplishments which included balls and festivities that lasted for weeks and included heads of state, celebrities and other important members of society across the globe.  When the project opened in late 1869 the fanfare and ribbon cutting was negated by all of the political, financial and technical tribulations that had occurred and that were still present at the opening.  While the canal itself was a tremendous effort in changing the face of the Earth as well as directing nature to flow hundreds of miles between two vast bodies of water there were still technical issues that slowed and hindered the use of the canal.

The free flowing design of the canal proved to be somewhat problematic in the early stages of the canal opening.  The currents of the Mediterranean Sea and that of the Red Sea dictated how the water would ebb and flow through the canal.  Considering the propeller driven vessel was still a new invention, the fight between the flow of the canal and the power of the ship was at odds.  Financially the Suez Canal Company had also underestimated the usage of the canal and was struggling to meet their financial obligations.  On the positive side and of significant historic value for global economy the Suez Canal provided the final leg in circumnavigation of the globe in record time.  The transcontinental railroad was completed within a half a year of the Suez Canal and this provided a significant step toward making the world a bit smaller to live in while providing goods, culture and influence globally at a rate that was never before seen in the history of the Earth.

The canal’s construction impacted the culture of the globe by allowing trade of goods and travel of people to far outreaches of the globe.  Prior to the Suez Canal being built travel across the globe or around the horn of Africa was for the adventurous traveler or sea-faring sailor but this brought a different level of pleasurable travel to the global trade.  The Suez Canal was just as significant advancement toward blending cultures and sharing ideas, tools, goods and beliefs as a telephone, air mail or the internet.  This type of advancement in the global sense was unparalleled regarding the increased ability to send and receive goods globally.  Ships can normally travel the canal in about 12-16 hours which would have normally taken 20 days to navigate (Grigsby).  This was initially a vital waterway in the 1860’s and has continued to be a vital part of trade and navigation today.

The Suez Canal is located in the thinnest portion of Egypt on the western edge of the country.

The ability to circumvent the travel around Africa was so important to the global economy and the global powers at the time the project of cutting a canal into the Earth so large it would later be seen from space was deemed appropriate and needed to advance the society.  While later many other countries would not approve with the labor that was utilized to construct the canal it was only after ten years of death and burden by the forced laborers was a use of force by the British deemed warranted to bring an end to the force labor efforts for the canal.  The picture above illustrates the amount of travel saved by building the canal.  The small sliver of the Suez Canal took ten years to build to save over 97.5% of the travel time.  The cost/benefit analysis on a project like this would show a positive benefit and a positive return on investment even with the cost overruns experienced by the Suez Canal Company.

The Egyptians are known for their colossal engineering projects.  The Great Pyramids, the Suez Canal as well as their ability to thrive in a hostile environment surrounded by potentially hostile military and religious environments but the most important aspect and the driving force behind the completion of the Suez Canal is Egypt’s ability to cooperate and collaborate in a way as to not lose control of the project but build a sense of buy-in and ownership among key strategic members of the global economy.  The Egyptian culture is rich with cultural, scientific and mathematical advancements.  Looking back at the projects that the Egyptians undertook and the timeframes they performed those task in it is not surprising that the Suez Canal with the extreme nature of the depth, length and purpose was built by the Egyptians.  Their mathematical and scientific advancements throughout the historic advancement of the global culture provide a hotbed for monumental engineering projects.  The culture of Egypt involves highly motivated, dedicated and goal-orientated leaders.

The Egyptians knew that the Suez Canal would bring a high level of global power as well as financial benefits to the region and by allowing certain concessions the Egyptians were able to gain approval and support globally.  The Egyptians also leveraged the expertise and abilities of other countries to lead the project and take on the risk of the project hence letting the Suez Canal Company lead the canals construction.  The key was the concessions that were given were not necessarily something the Egyptian’s particularly cared for including the ability for any vessel to utilize the canal.  This type of tactic was central to the type of country that was being run in Egypt.  The Suez Canal would bring a global focus on the Egyptian region and this area would become a centralized location on the ever expanding global market.  The more focus on the area the better and more frequent opportunities for growth and expanding their religious, cultural and economic visions.

The Suez Canal has been established as a great waterway to shrink the global market by allowing freedom of movement and decreased shipping times but how was the canal actually built is also an amazing engineering milestone.  When looking across the horizon today and the view of ships seeming gliding across the desert effortlessly it begs to question how the initial construction of the Suez Canal came about and what allowed the ability to create such a remarkable level of effort to connect two seas.  The canal was designed to stretch between the Mediterranean and Red Sea along a predetermined route connecting the shortest and most easily traversed path between the two bodies of water.  The main point that stopped Napoleon Bonaparte’s progress was deemed insignificant in the overall scheme of the canal project.  During the 1860’s the tools and equipment for the industrial age was still rudimentary and the main way to dig wide enough and deep enough was to excavate the entire canal through manual effort as opposed to utilizing tools to offset the level of effort required to dig the canal.  The canal was excavated in essentially three phases all with increasingly more dependence on mechanized machinery to perform the heavy lifting and molding of the canal.

The main tool for excavation was that of the forced labor using picks and shovels to dig the canal.  This forced labor moved 2.6 billion cubic feet of earth to make room for the ships to eventually pass through the canal from one sea to the other.  The manual labor was used to a point of negating the actual need for the utilization of more expensive tools and machinery.  The second phase of the project coupled this manual labor with machinery based on not only a need for quicker progress but also through the pressure of other countries to end the utilization of forced labor that was leaving thousands of dead and injured people in its wake.  The second phase of the project which coupled man and machine included the use of dredgers.  At first the laborers would create an area that allowed the dredgers to be floated in and then remove enough of the Earth to build banks on either side and create a depth that was usable for the canal.  The third segment of the construction included brining in the heavy machinery to perform the excavation that would require skill and modification to the machinery to perform the tasks.  In certain areas of the build, there were areas that posed to be geographically non-conducive to the Suez Canal build.  These areas included stretches of loose sand that were well above sea level and if not built to the appropriate depth would create a failure point in the project. Specially designed excavators were needed to come in and dredge the dry material into a caravan that moved the material away from the area so it would not eventually make its way back down into the canal.  At the height of the mechanized utilization there were approximately sixty dredgers working on the project simultaneously.  The canal was built in the same fashion that a child creates a moat around a sand castle that eventually leads to the ocean but on an unparalleled and unprecedented manner ever experienced on the globe at the time.

As we fast forward and take a look back at how the construction of the project was completed in the 1860’s and then compare it to how a canal would be built today there are many similarities and many differences in how the construction would occur as well as what type of labor and machinery would be utilized in the overall project.  The first and foremost change would be the type of labor used to build the canal.  The forced labor would not be utilized in the efforts to build the canal but just as any project looks at the constraints impacting the outcome a project the constraint of cost is always evident.  The balance between low wages and expertise is a fine line that would need to be balanced and would definitely be taken into consideration if the project was undertaken today.  In comparison to projects today countries are conducting the reverse of digging a canal and actually building island through a reverse drudging technique that moves rock, sand and other debris from the bottom of the sea and piles it upward forming foundations for islands and inhabitants.  The advancement of technology is what allows the continual utilization of the Suez Canal as well as the upkeep and maintenance required to provide that gateway through Egypt.

Today a country would need to focus on safety and compliance on a global scale and would utilize highly technical machinery to ensure quick, safe and level excavation of the canal.  With the enhanced ability to move earth the canal would potentially be widened to allow the travel of passing ships on both sides of the canal.  The use of hand digging the canal would be extremely unfashionable and the utilization of high tech ballistics, directed energy or satellite laser technology could be used and tested throughout the project to carve the landscape for the project.  Not only would the testing of new technology allow for the progress of the canal it could also become a source of income to negate some of the growing costs of the canal by selling test rights to specific areas of the canal.

Also if the canal were built by today’s standards each section would be sponsored by a specific area that had interest in intercontinental shipping and advertisements would be apparent through the construction and launch of the canal.  Each phase would also have a live feed into social media so that every step of the way could be monitored and evaluated in real-time by those interested in the progress of this canal.  The focus of the canal would also be slightly diverted from the core responsibility it has today.  The business model would dictate what was available along the canal and how easy it would be to traverse.  When the canal was initially built it had the purpose of creating a route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and back.  If it were built today the exploitation of the man-made beaches would sprout the need for tourism and would spawn a secondary market for hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions to make the canal an intermediate travel destination for those traversing the globe.

Works Cited

Grigsby, Darcy. Colossal: Engineering Modernity -Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Panama Canal. Pittsburgh, PA: Periscope, 2012. Print.

Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York, NY: Random House, 2004. Print.

McCullough, D. The path between the seas, the creation of the panama canal, 1870-1914. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1977. Print.