Once feted as a triumph of nineteenth-century engineering and regarded as the linchpin of Britain’s empire, the Suez Canal nowadays seems as the author Joseph Conrad described it: “a dismal but profitable ditch”, connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Except around the harbour mouths or where ships are glimpsed between sandbanks, it’s a pretty dull waterway relieved only by the interesting cities of Port Said and Ismailiya.
Foreigners generally unfairly overlook both Port Said and Ismailiya, prejudging them on the basis of Suez, a neglected and untidy city but a vital transport nexus between Cairo, the Sinai and the Red Sea Coast. The Canal scarcely impinges on the leafy, villa-lined streets of Ismailiya, once the residence of the Suez Canal Company’s European staff and now a popular honeymoon destination for Egyptians. By contrast, with its evocative waterfront, beaches and duty-free shopping, Port Said feels like Alexandria minus its cultural baggage – and a place that’s somehow more authentic as a maritime city.
The first attempts to connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean are usually attributed to Necho II (610–595 BC). However, it was Persian emperor Darius, around 500 BC, who completed the region’s first canal, linking the Red Sea and the Great Bitter Lake, from where an older waterway connected with Bubastis on the Nile and from there on to the Mediterranean. Refined by the Ptolemies and Trajan, these waterways were restored by Amr, following the Muslim conquest, and used for shipping corn to Arabia until the eighth century, when they were deliberately abandoned to starve out rebels in Medina.
The idea of a direct Red Sea-Mediterranean canal was first mooted – then vetoed – by Napoleon’s engineers, who miscalculated a difference of ten metres between the two sea levels. The later discovery of this error encouraged junior French consul Ferdinand de Lesseps to present his own plan to Said Pasha, who approved it despite British objections.
Work began in 1859 and continued throughout the reign of Said’s successor, Ismail, who went bankrupt attempting to finance his £19 million sterling investment. In 1875, he was forced to sell his shares to Britain – swooping before France could make an offer – for £4 million sterling. When the Canal opened in 1888, its vast profits went abroad with the Suez Canal Company, while two world wars transformed the Canal Zone into the world’s largest military base.
Post World War II
In the wake of World War II, guerrilla attacks in the Zone led to the British assault on Ismailiya’s police barracks, sparking Cairo’s “Black Saturday”. After the 1952 Revolution, Egypt demanded the British army’s withdrawal and a greater share of the Canal’s revenue, and when the West refused to make loans to finance the Aswan High Dam, Nasser announced the Canal’s nationalization (July 26, 1956). Britain and France agreed to use Israel’s advance into Sinai that October as a pretext for “safeguarding” the Canal by bombarding and invading its cities. But by standing firm and appealing to outraged world opinion, Nasser emerged victorious from the Suez Crisis.
The 1967 War with Israel, and the subsequent “War of Attrition”, led to the closure of the Canal until 1969. The Egyptians then stormed the Israeli-fortified Bar-Lev Line along the Canal’s east bank during the 1973 10th Ramadan/Yom Kippur War. Although the Canal was reopened in 1975, both sides remained dug in on opposite banks until 1982, when Israel withdrew from Sinai.
The cities of the Canal Zone played an important role in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of President Mubarak in early 2011, notably Suez, where anti-regime protests were a catalyst for demonstrations throughout the country. In February 2012, 74 people were killed at a riot at a football match in Port Said. Many believe the violence was politically motivated, and rumours that the police had failed to intervene sparked days of clashes across Egypt in which a further sixteen people died.