1881 drawing of the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal (Arabic, Qanā al-Suways), west of the Sinai Peninsula, forms a 163 km (118 miles) ship canal in Egypt between Port Said (Būr Sa'īd) on the Mediterranean and Suez (al-Suways) on the Red Sea.
The canal allows water transport from Europe to Asia without circumnavigating Africa. Before the construction of the canal, some transport was conducted by offloading ships and carrying the goods overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
The canal consists of two parts, north and south of the Great Bitter Lake, linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez.
In 1300 BC a "Suez Canal" was dug between the River Nile and the Mediterranean Sea. (Note that though the original documents state "Red Sea," we assume the reference was actually rather to the "Mediterranean Sea" as is common in many ancient manuscripts.) Egyptian pharaoh Necho II (610 - 595 BC) then completed the canal by extending it from the Nile to the Gulf of Suez. Perhaps the original intent in the canal's construction was to facilitate trade for the ancient shipbuilders of West Africa Sahara with eastern "states."
However, because the Nile deposits much sediment, the canal likely silted up quite quickly.
In 500 BC King Darius the Great, the Persian conqueror of Egypt, ordered a canal dug northward from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. He commemorated the achievement on a pink granite stele he set up on the Nile bank near Kabret, 130 kilometers from Suez. The Darius inscription reads, "Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended." 
The Suez Canal was again restored several times, notably by Ptolemy II and Trajan. But by the 8th century the Suez Canal had become unnavigable and possibly remained so for the next thousand years.
In 1854, having obtained a royal concession from Said on the evening of 15 November (the formal paperwork arrived on 30 November 1854), the Suez Canal was built again between 25 April 1859 and 1869 by the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez (Universal Suez Ship Canal Company) led by Ferdinand de Lesseps.
While the plan for the project was created by Alois Negrelli, an Austrian engineer, the canal was at its opening owned by the Egyptian government and France. The first ship to pass through the canal did so on 17 February 1867 and it was inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony on 17 November 1869 (the proceedings had begun the day before); Giuseppe Verdi wrote the famous opera Aida for this ceremony. It is estimated that 1.5 million Egyptians worked on the canal and that 125,000 died, many due to cholera.
The canal had an immediate and dramatic effect on world trade. It played an important role in increasing European penetration and colonization of Africa. External debts forced Isma'il Pasha to sell his country's share in the canal to the United Kingdom in 1875. The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 declared the canal a neutral zone under the protection of the Britsh, after British troops had moved in to protect it in 1882. Under the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, the United Kingdom insisted on retaining control over the canal. In 1951 Egypt repudiated the treaty, and by 1954 Great Britain had agreed to pull out.
After the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam, president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, which caused Britain, France and Israel to invade in the week-long Suez War. As a result of damage and sunken ships, the canal was closed until April, 1957, after it had been cleaned up with UN assistance. A United Nations force (UNEF) was established to maintain the neutrality of the canal and the Sinai peninsula.
After the Six Day War in 1967, the canal was closed until June 5, 1975. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War the canal was the scene of a major crossing of the Egyptian army into Israeli controlled Sinai, and later during the war was also crossed to the west by the Israeli army. A UN peacekeeping force has been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since 1974.
Picture of the Suez Canal from Earth orbit, courtesy NASA.
The canal has no locks because there is no sea level difference and no hills to climb. The canal allows for the passage of ships weighing up to about 150,000 tons, with cargo. The canal allows ships with up to 15 m (50 feet) of draught to pass (effectively around a 150,000 ton cargo ship), and improvements are planned to increase this to 22 m (72 feet) by 2010 to allow supertanker passage. Presently supertankers can offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned boat and reload at the other end of the canal. There is one shipping lane with several passing areas.
Some 25,000 ships can pass through the canal each year, bearing about 14% of world shipping. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours.
Since 1980 there has been a road tunnel under the canal, and since 1999 a powerline crosses Suez Canal.
Connections between the shores
For north to south:
- In El Qantara there is a high-level fixed road bridge.
- In 2001 the El Ferdan railway bridge 20 km north of Ismailia was completed: the longest swing span bridge in the world, with a span of 340m (1100 ft). The previous bridge was destroyed in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- South of the Great Bitter Lake is the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel, built in 1983. Because of leakage problems, in the period 1992–1995 a new water-tight tunnel was built inside the old one.