What’s the Suez Canal?

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The Suez Canal in Egypt connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowing ships to avoid traveling around Africa. It has a long history of ancient and modern construction and is owned by Egypt. The canal is a major waterway for international trade.

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 travel the entire 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. West of the canal lies most of Egypt, while the historic Sinai Peninsula (also Egypt) and the State of Israel lie to the east.

The Suez Canal is the only major modern canal that had ancient counterparts. As early as 1850 BC, Pharaoh Senusret had built a west-east river linking the Nile River with the Red Sea, connecting the ships of the Egyptian nation with the Red Sea and waters further east. The remains of this channel were discovered in the early 1860s and are believed to have existed for at least 500 years before drying up. Around 600 BC, another pharaoh, Necho II, attempted to dig the canal again, losing 120,000 men in hard labor. However, he failed to rebuild it and the work was stopped with his death. Around 270 BC, the Persian conqueror of Egypt, King Darius, successfully completed his work. Channels from the River Nile to the Red Sea alternately closed and reopened over the coming millennia, as the Red Sea itself was receding and silt buildup often blocked the channels.

The first modern Suez Canal, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, was built from 1858 to 1869 by the French Suez Canal Company. Permission to build 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, which took 11 years and employed 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 slave conditions. Involuntary work on the project ceased and all workers were paid upon completion.

At first, international opinion was skeptical and the channel’s shares only sold well in France. But within a year it became apparent 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, together with the Panama Canal.

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