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Volume 20, Number 5September/October 1969

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A Centennial

"It was grand; it was splendid; it was magnificent—as befitted one of the few moments in history that was truly historic..."

Written by John Brinton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Under the sound of the guns the echoes of the past are muted. This, on the eve of its 100th birthday, is the story of the Suez Canal.

In July, 100 years ago, Ismail, Viceroy of Egypt, toured the Continent grandly handing out to the crowned heads of Europe invitations to ceremonies marking the opening of a canal through the Isthmus of Suez. He also invited 1,000 notables of the day, including 100 famous men like Zola, Dumas and Ibsen who were to come as his personal guests- i.e. all expenses paid.

Even for a ruler known for extravagance it was an extravagant gesture. And it was only the first of many. Before the end of the ceremonies he would build a new road to the pyramids, construct a palace for the Empress Eugenie of France and build an opera house. He would also commission, but not get in time, an opera by Verdi, give a ball which 6,000 people would attend, and import 1,500 cooks and servants from Europe to tend to things. It was grand; it was splendid; it was magnificent—as befitted one of the few moments in history that was truly historic: the opening of a canal linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, Europe with India, West with East.

The Suez Canal was not a new idea. As early, possibly, as 2,000 B.C., a canal linking an ancient branch of the Nile with the Bitter Lakes was built. Around 500 B.C., a Persian conqueror named Darius extended it, but stopped when he was warned that the Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean and the opening of a canal would bring the sea flooding into Egypt. (A myth, that would persist through Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and get even stronger when French engineers made what Lord Kinross called "a miscalculation of major proportions.")

But history moved on. Greeks came and built locks near what is now the shell-pocked town of Suez. Romans under Trajan put slaves to work digging a new link to the mainstream of the Nile and called it "Trajan's River" Arabs, 100 years later, reopened "Trajan's River," then finally filled it up again as a defense measure and left it that way for another 1,000 years. During that time Europe found a route to India around Africa and, until Napoleon landed in Egypt, forgot about its filled-in ditch across the isthmus.

Napoleon's invasion of Egypt had a tremendous impact on England. Safe behind its shield of stout English sea-power, getting rich on the returns of its swift merchantmen, England, until that moment, had been perfectly content to subdue its interests in the Mediterranean. But roused by the possibility that France would control an area from which it could threaten England's grip on India, British statesmen decided on a course of action that would shape history for the next 119 years. They decided that England would, hereafter, prop up the sagging military strength of the Ottoman Empire which still ruled, however feebly, all of the Middle East. It was a fateful decision, one that would drag England into the Crimean War, spawn the ill-fated Chesney expedition to develop a new route to India via the Euphrates river (Aramco World , March-April, 1969) and harden into a stubborn, illogical opposition to the dynamic Frenchman who was to become the 'Father of the Canal,' Ferdinand de Lesseps.

The story of Ferdinand de Lesseps is as odd as it is fascinating. It begins with a 19-year old boy going off to Spain as a very junior diplomat, winning fame for some skillful negotiations there and in Egypt, but later falling into disfavor with the new rulers of Republican France and resigning, apparently a failure at a young age.

During his career, however, De Lesseps had met many interesting individuals: Thomas Waghorn who had fought such a heartbreaking fight to convince a stubborn British government that an overland route to India across the Isthmus of Suez was feasible (Aramco World , November-December, 1968); Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, an engineer in the service of Egypt and a fierce proponent of a canal; Prosper Enfantin, a religious fanatic whose faith somehow saw a canal as a route to salvation and, above all, a chubby little prince with an appetite for macaroni.

The prince's name was Muhammad Sa'id. He was 13, corpulent and lazy—to the dismay of his father, the great Muhammad Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, whose own physical prowess and vigor had been important factors in his rise to power. Insistent that this condition be remedied, the story goes, the viceroy put Muhammad Sa'id on a strict diet and sent him to the harbor in Alexandria each day to exercise on a naval vessel there, a vessel, as fate would have it, not far from the home of Ferdinand de Lesseps, then vice consul in Alexandria.

The vice consul who had amiable relations with Muhammad Ali's whole family, took pity on the boy and secretly let him into his kitchen and fed him great helpings of macaroni. It was a small kindness, but as one writer later put it, a "landmark in the history of the canal." Muhammad Sa'id never forgot that kindness and when, 20 years later, he became viceroy, one of his first acts was to repay it: he granted De Lesseps an exclusive concession to construct a canal.

As history and De Lesseps himself have made clear, this was not as fortuitous as a brief summary sounds. De Lesseps did not simply stumble into a good thing; he quite coldly planned it and had, as a matter of fact, been planning it for some time.

As one version has it, De Lesseps's plans for Suez had germinated years before when, quarantined in Alexandria, he read the the report of Napoleon's engineer J. M. Lepere on the feasibility of building a canal.

Soon he was to see Waghorn prove that even an overland route across the isthmus was a shortcut. He also came into contact with a mystical religious sect called the "Saint-Simonians" whose beliefs had somehow come to focus on construction of a canal. He discussed the matter with Linant and Captain Chesney, both of whom had corrected the myth that one sea was higher than the other. It is also known that he kept an eye on the possibilities during the next two decades—even to the point of making an inquiry not long before his prince came to power. In short, De Lesseps did not come to his patron with a sudden inspiration, but with a scheme that had engaged his thoughts for years. De Lesseps was a man who looked ahead.

The actual decision was made under most dramatic circumstances. It took place during military maneuvers in the desert, to which the new viceroy had invited De Lesseps, and the best version is De Lesseps' own:

"On the 30th of November, 1854, I presented myself at the tent of the Viceroy, placed on an eminence surrounded by a wall of rough stones, forming a little fortification with enclosures for cannon. I had remarked that there was a place where we could leap with a horse onto the parapet, there being a terrace outside on which the horse had clearance of a footing. The Viceroy welcomed my project, and requested me to go to my tent to prepare a report for him, which he permitted me to bring him. I vaulted on my horse, which leaped the parapet, galloped down the slope, and then brought me back to the enclosure, when I had taken the time necessary to draw up the report, which had been ready for several years. The whole question was clearly set forth in a page and a half; and when the Prince himself had read it to his followers, accompanying it with a translation in Turkish, and had asked their advice, he received unanimous answer that the proposal of the guest, whose friendship for the family of Mohammet AH was known, could not be otherwise than favorable, and that it was desirable to accept.

"The concession was immediately granted. The word of Mohammet Sa'id was as good as a contract."

In the capitals of Europe, the viceroy's decision provoked sudden meetings and long discussions. The presentations were varied but the point was the same: that an upstart with neither money nor power, and for unknown motives, had suddenly thrown a weighty new factor onto the delicate balances of power in 19th-century Europe and that this could not be permitted to happen. England, with Lord Palmerston at the head of its government, was particularly alarmed. Permit a French company to develop—and then control—a new route to India? A route through which French warships could carry troops to the vulnerable sub-continent? Never, said Palmerston, and sent off word to his envoy in Istanbul: under no circumstances can England permit the Sultan to approve this step.

It was a shrewd move. For Muhammad Sa'id, friend or not, had cautiously added a codicil to his sweeping grant to De Lesseps. The codicil simply said that before construction of a canal could be initiated the "concession must be ratified by His Imperial Majesty the Sultan." It was a natural condition; however shaky his grip, the Sultan still ruled Egypt and still laid claim to Sa'id's loyalty and obedience. But it gave England, the Sultan's chief supporter, a lever with which to exert pressure on De Lesseps and England exerted it. For the next 12 years the Sultan would steadfastly refuse to ratify the concession.

The building of the Suez Canal has always seemed like a great engineering challenge; a man-against-the-desert epic of formidable magnitude. And certainly it was not easy: to excavate millions of cubic feet of sand in the waterless wastes of a desert required an incredible effort—if just to bring a stream of fresh water close enough to permit the work to go on. But the highest point of land involved was only 59 feet above sea level, and it was being cut in a straight line. Once De Lesseps had persuaded the Viceroy—in one of his more shameless schemes—to conscript peasants by the thousands and force them to work on the excavations, the engineering problems were relatively minor. The major ones he soon solved by the bold importation of huge new steam dredgers. No, the engineering was not the main problem. The real problems were in politics, finance and diplomacy, fields, as it turned out, in which Ferdinand de Lesseps excelled.

The Sultan's initial refusal was a body blow to De Lesseps. After visiting the capitals of Europe he realized how serious, and developed his tactics accordingly. Instead of trying to persuade the Sultan directly, he decided it would be far easier to persuade the Emperor of France to persuade the Sultan. De Lesseps would form a company which the Emperor of France could support. Naturally the formation of a company required capital which could be accumulated by the presentation of a scientifically sound project.

It was enough to discourage a titan, but De Lesseps went confidently forward. He formed a group called the International Scientific Commission and sent it to Egypt to prepare a report on the feasibility of a canal. With the report of the commission in hand—"proving" that the canal was quite practical—he wrung a second concession from Sa'id and then, for the next five years, unflaggingly traveled, talked and planned his venture. He saw Queen Victoria and Albert. He talked to the Royal Geographical Society. He approached the Prime Minister of Austria. He harangued editors, businessmen and bankers and, simultaneously, mounted a worldwide propaganda campaign.

Support grew, especially after native troops in India rebelled and England sent troops across the isthmus to save time, thus proving one of De Lesseps' major contentions. But it didn't grow fast enough so in 1858 he formed a company—the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez— and with chilling deceit persuaded Sa'id to put up enormous amounts of capital that western investors were supposed to have provided.

When even that failed to move the Sultan or affect the English position he decided on a reckless gamble. If it failed, so would the canal. But he had negotiated long enough; it was time to bring the issue to a head. It was time to see if the French Emperor was going to permit England to frustrate a project of such vast import to France. He ordered the start of construction and with appropriate ceremonies and suitable fanfare, the first spadeful of desert sand was turned and the Suez Canal got underway.

As De Lesseps had expected, Europe responded violently. From Prime Ministers, Viziers, shareholders, bankers and consuls in five countries came a torrent of arguments, and at last the Sultan stirred. He issued an order to the company to cease work. De Lesseps had not expected this. Worse, Sa'id, his friend and supporter, was losing confidence. The company was clearly foundering.

Whether the next step was taken in desperation or whether Ferdinand de Lesseps had cynically maneuvered public opinion so as to bring it about is a point that scholars can debate forever. Whichever it was, De Lesseps took it. He went personally to the Emperor and put the question to him: will the Emperor of France permit England to block a vital French enterprise? The Emperor, Napoleon III, hesitated and then said softly: "M. de Lesseps, you can count upon my support and protection. The British opposition is unimportant. We must just trim our sails to it."

This was the turning point. It solved nothing in itself; in fact the company was to totter and nearly collapse several times in the coming years as politicians and financiers, sensing victory and profit, closed in on De Lesseps and nearly snatched his prize from him. But the French Emperor's decision cleared the way and the Sultan ratified the concession in March, 1866. Construction proceeded to such an extent that it was soon clear that success was inevitable. Everyone saw it, including the Khedive Ismail, successor to Sa'id. In July, 1869 he set out for Europe issuing his invitations to the opening. He promised everyone it would be worth attending.

Now it was a race against time. Palaces were going up, a seven-mile road was inching toward the pyramids and an opera house was being completed. But the canal was still not finished and at the last minute they had found, on the bottom of a narrow passage, a ledge that had been overlooked, a ledge high enough to tear the bottom out of a ship. Try dynamite, said De Lesseps. Impossible, said the engineers. No one has ever set off that big a charge underwater. We have no choice, De Lesseps said. Try it. They tried it and in an enormous explosion that sent canal water spraying over a good part of the desert, demolished the ledge, and opened the canal.

At Port Sa'id, Cairo, Suez and Ismailia, meanwhile, royalty, nobility, wealth and fame were gathering for the momentous occasion—the voyage of the monarchs through the canal. At Port Sa'id, the L'Aigle already lay at anchor while the Empress went sightseeing. Around her were gathering corvettes, frigates, yachts and merchantmen from everywhere. Prince Henry of the Netherlands was there. The Emperor of Austria was coming. So were the Crown Prince of Prussia and others.

At the last minute Ismail, pale and shaking, summoned De Lesseps. A ship sent through to test the canal had gone aground and was blocking the passage. De Lesseps was stunned. We'll float it, he promised. Float it, said Ismail grimly, or blow it up!

It was not necessary. The ship floated free and not long after L'Aigle , as majestic as its royal passenger, weighed anchor and moved into the canal followed at carefully spaced intervals by 40 other ships. In stately procession they proceeded to the first stop: Lake Timsah where thousands of spectators cheered their arrival and French warships, firing salvo after salvo, signaled the beginning of 24 hours of celebration. There was a banquet given by De Lesseps, an "equestrian fantasia," and a great dinner for 1,000 guests served on tables set in the dunes under the desert stars. As Ismail had promised, it was worth attending.

The next day the great convoy moved on to the Bitter Lakes where the royal guests rowed back and forth in the dark to visit each other as rockets soared into the sky. On the third day they reached Suez. It was the sight of the century. As the great ships slowly rounded the last turn, came about and dropped anchor, with all flags flying, cannons thundered, crowds cheered and band after band played lustily under the sun. The Suez Canal was open at last. It was November 19, 1869.

John Brinton, a specialist in 19th-century Middle East history, contributes regularly to Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 25, 32-36 of the September/October 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1969 images.