March 25, 2022. 59°F/15°C
By the time it’s done our cruise will have taken us through both the great man made shipping canals: the Panama Canal back in January, and the Suez Canal tonight and tomorrow, and again in April.
I researched the statistics above, but it seemed only logical to go to guest lecturer David Burgess’ onboard talk this morning on the Suez Canal to glean all the less dry facts.
Throughout history, Egypt was the trade hub between east and west, with ships having to unload and trek goods by land across the Suez isthmus to get them from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. We know that way back in the 19th century BC, there was a “canal of the Pharaohs” just wide enough for domestic trade, but sometime in the mid 600s BC it closed due to moving sands. There was another canal created during the time of Ptolemy during the 3rd century BC; more canals followed and all were eventually reclaimed by the Arabian Desert, making land crossing, again, the only option.
Blowing and shifting desert sands are still a problem. In order for the modern canal to stay open, it gets dredged DAILY!
The new ability in the 16th century for merchants to sail around the horn of Africa created an alternative to the Suez land crossing. Even though sailing that southern route could be treacherous, it was still sometimes less dangerous than dealing with desert pirates.
A water-based shortcut through Suez remained a goal, but it was not until 1864 that a Frenchman named Ferdinand de Lesseps was able to convince the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammed Said, with whom he had become friends while the Viceroy was still a Prince, to allow construction of a new canal. In 1869, the canal was completed – a technological triumph that benefitted European trade greatly, but the construction of which almost bankrupted Egypt. Even the tolls collected on the half share of the canal that Egypt owned was not paying off Egypt’s debts.
As a result, in 1875 Egypt sold their share to the British for £4 million (the equivalent of £472 million in 2020). What followed was the 75 year long British occupation and colonization of Egypt, based mostly on Britain’s desire to protect “their” canal.
Since 1962, the canal has been 100% owned by Egypt, although that transfer was not a 100% smooth process (think about the 1956 Suez Crisis/War).
At any rate, we’re glad the canal is here now, allowing us to transit from Greece to Saudi Arabia and Jordan without having to go all the way around the African continent.
At around 11:00 p.m. we joined the queue of ships waiting to head into the canal.
DAVID’S TRIVIA FACT: The Statue of Liberty was originally intended by the French as a lighthouse standing at the north end of the Suez Canal. The design of the statue was to be an Egyptian woman in Islamic garments lighting the entrance to the canal, but the Egyptians didn’t want it because it was too expensive. That gave the French an opportunity to redesign (change Islamic gowns to Roman) and repurpose the statue as a “gift” to the United States to help solidify French/American relations. The base of the statue had to be constructed and paid for by the U.S. though.