As the longest canal in the world without locks, the Suez Canal links the Mediterranean and Red seas across the Isthmus of Suez. Although Eygpt's ancient rulers devised a means of connecting the Nile River to the Red Sea, it was only in modern times that French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps developed a workable design for the 101-mile (163-km) canal, which opened in 1869. In 1956, the canal became the site of an international crisis involving Britain, France, Egypt, and Israel. Today the canal remains a strategic point of movement of the world's oil supply.
Early history. From ancient times, trade flourished in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and pharaohs recognized the advantage to be gained by connecting the two bodies. As early as 1500 B.C. , pharaohs of Egypt's New Kingdom commissioned the building of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. This early canal was covered by sand, and though the late seventh century B.C. pharaoh Necho II attempted to build a new canal, the project would not be completed until the Persian invasion of Darius after 522 B.C. This canal eventually met the same fate as its predecessors, and successive rulers—the Greeks under Ptolemy I and Cleopatra, and later the Romans under Trajan—attempted to restore it, but in each case the canal fell into disrepair.
Napoleon Bonaparte, when he conquered Egypt in 1798, revived the idea of a canal, this one to directly connect the two seas. The project did not begin for half a century, however, due to engineers' misconceptions regarding relative water levels. Finally, Lesseps, the former French consul to Egypt, received a 99-year concession on the canal from the khedive of Egypt. With a crew of some2.4 million Egyptian workers, he commenced the building project, which cost more than 125,000 lives over the course of a decade. The canal opened with much ceremony on November 17, 1869.
Crisis and concerns. Until the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company controlled the canal. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had developed increasingly close ties with the Communist bloc, and therefore, when he requested assistance in building the Aswan High Dam—a project intended to tame the Nile and provide hydroelectric power to Egypt—the United States, Britain, and France refused. On July 26, Nasser retaliated by declaring martial law in the canal zone and seizing control of the canal.
Britain and France at first tried diplomacy, and when this failed, they sought Nasser's overthrow through an alliance with Israel. The three nations followed a classic "good cop/bad cop" strategy. On October 29, the Israelis invaded Egypt, whereupon Britain and France went into presented themselves as peacekeepers, and offered to occupy the canal zone on behalf of the United Nations (UN). Their actions raised such tensions among the two superpowers that both the United States and the Soviet Union very nearly intervened. The UN forced the evacuation of the French and British on December 22, and Israel pulled out in March 1957.
Aftermath of the Suez Crisis. The Suez Crisis raised the stature of Nasser immeasurably, and he has remained a powerful symbol to Arab nationalists such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. The incident also marked the end of British and French influence in the Middle East, where they had held considerable sway for the better part of 150 years. From an intelligence standpoint, the Suez Crisis was significant for the role played by British interception of cipher transmissions, an operation known as Engulf.
Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and for the next six years, the canal served as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. It was closed during that time, and the Egyptians, who regained control in 1973, only reopened it in 1975. Since then, they have widened it twice, and have plans to widen it again by 2010 so as to accommodate larger oil-carrying vessels. The U.S. Department of Energy has identified the Suez Canal as one of several geographic "chokepoints"—narrow passages that are both vital to the international oil trade and extremely susceptible to attacks or accidents.
█ FURTHER READING:
Immermann, Richard H. John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Kelly, Saul, and Anthony Gorst. Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000.
Kunz, Diane B. The Economic Diplomacy of the Suez Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Kyle, Keith. Suez. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
World Oil Transit Chokepoints. U.S. Department of Energy. < http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/choke.html > (April 1, 2003).