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Volume 36, Number 3May/June 1985

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Suez Reopened

A Story Of Stamps

Written by Robert Obojski
Photographs courtesy of BBC Hulton Picture Library
Additional photographs courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Exactly 10 years ago - on June 5, 1975 - Egypt reopened the Suez Canal after seven years of stagnation and one year of hard, dangerous work clearing out the debris of two wars and endless artillery duels: sunken ships, live shells, boats and trucks loaded with ammunition and countless mines strewn along the canal's sloping banks.

To mark the occasion - and show that one of the world's more famous waterways was again open - the late President Anwar Sadat and some 600 dignitaries boarded a seven-ship flotilla and steamed south from Port Said amid a deafening din of horns, whistles and music (See Aramco World, September-October 1975.)

For Egypt, those ceremonies, however dramatic, were but one more chapter in a series of attempts to open or reopen some sort of canal in the region. The first attempt, apparently, was in the 20th century B.C. when the ancient Egyptians, under the Pharaoh Sesostris I, dug a west-east canal from the Nile Delta to a point on the Red Sea near the present port of Suez. That canal, probably the first, silted up, despite sporadic re-excavation projects, but successive pharaohs continued to open and reopen the canal in the ensuing millennia. One was Ramses II, who reigned from about 1304B.C. to 1237B.C., and another was Necho II, who was in power about 600 B.C. Necho's attempts to reopen a canal were carried on a century later by the Persian ruler Darius the Great and completed by Ptolemy II, one of the Greek line of rulers, about 250 B.C.

In the following centuries, the Ptolemaic canal was modified, closed and reopened several times. In the eighth century, however, it was put out of commission entirely by Caliph Abu Ja'far Abdullah al-Mansur and remained so for more than 1,000 years.

In modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to try and dig a canal. More ambitious than the pharaohs, he wanted his canal to link the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and so assigned his engineers to make a survey and see if such a canal were feasible. The engineer, J.M. Le Pere, surveyed the Isthmus of Suez and somehow concluded that the waters of the Red Sea were at least 9.8 meters (32 feet) higher than those of the Mediterranean. Since that meant the Red Sea would drain into the Mediterranean if a canal were dug without locks, Napoleon abandoned the idea.

In the next 50 years, various engineers and promoters came up with schemes to build a canal, but it was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, engineer and promoter, who eventually persuaded Sa'id Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, to back him, went on to get the support of France and formed the company that eventually built the canal.

Work on the canal began in 1859 and was completed in 1869. From the northern entrance at Port Said on the Mediterranean to the terminus on the Gulf of Suez, the canal measures 169 kilometers (105 miles), including six kilometers (four miles) of approach channels in the harbors. It cost well over $100 million - several billions in today's dollars - and its opening was one of the most extraordinary extravaganzas ever seen. The khedive invited all the kings, queens, and emperors of Europe, plus 1,000 notables - such as authors Zola, Dumas and Ibsen. He built a new road to the Pyramids. He commissioned Verdi to write an opera - and built a new opera house to present it. He imported chefs from all over Europe to prepare a banquet served to 1,000 guests on tables in the desert under the stars. (See Aramco World, September-October 1969).

De Lesseps, unfortunately, did not stop with Suez. In 1879, he attempted to build another great waterway: the Panama Canal. But this was a quite different challenge and he not only failed to complete the canal, but was involved in a serious financial scandal that ruined his reputation.

Since the Suez Canal reduced sea distances between Western Europe and India substantially - by about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) - it immediately became one of the most important waterways in the world, both economically and militarily. And for Great Britain, as a result, it posed a serious problem: in the hands of an enemy the canal could bar speedy access to its colonies and outposts in Africa and Asia, especially India, the jewel in the crown. British statesmen, therefore, were relieved when the Khedive Ismail Pasha, beset with financial troubles, sold his shares in the canal to the British government in 1875, clearing the way for British control of both the waterway and Egypt and, eventually, for an increased presence throughout the Middle East.

This importance was underlined in 1888 when the major powers of the world signed the Constantinople Convention guaranteeing passage through the waterway to all nations - even in wartime.

In 1956, Egypt's President Nasser nationalized the canal - triggering an attack by French, British and Israeli troops and a bombing raid that left 50 sunken ships in the canal and closed it to traffic. By March of the following year, the canal had been reopened but subsequent rounds in the Arab-Israeli conflict - in 1967 and in 1973 - closed it for the next eight years.

Because of its importance in Egyptian history, the story of the Suez Canal is a natural theme for postage stamps and Egypt has missed no chance to tell the story on stamps and covers. As a result, philatelists around the world have been able to add a large number of attractive and valuable stamps to their collections.

Robert Obojski writes a column for Linn's Weekly Stamp News and is a contributing editor to Acquire magazine.

This article appeared on pages 12-17 of the May/June 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1985 images.