Canal, Arab. Qanat as Suways, waterway of Egypt extending
from Port Said to Port Tawfiq (near Suez) and connecting the
Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and thence with the Red Sea. The
canal is somewhat more than 100 mi (160 km) long. Proceeding S from Port
Said, it runs in an almost undeviating straight line to Lake Timsah.
From there a cutting leads to the Bitter Lakes (now one body of water),
and a final cutting then reaches the Gulf of Suez. The canal has no
locks and can accommodate all but the largest ships.
The desirability of a
water connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was long
appreciated in antiquity. A canal was built in the 20th or 19th cent. B.C.
to Lake Timsah (then the northern end of the Red Sea). Xerxes I had the
canal extended. It was restored several times (notably by Ptolemy II and
Trajan) until the 8th cent. A.D.,
when it was closed and fell into disrepair.
The modern canal was
planned by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also supervised
construction (1859–69). Great Britain, which had opposed the
construction of the canal, became the largest shareholder in 1875 by
purchasing the interest of the Egyptian khedive. The Convention of
Constantinople signed in 1888 by all major European powers of the time
declared the canal neutral and guaranteed free passage to all in time of
peace and war. Great Britain was the guarantor of the neutrality of the
canal; management was placed in the hands of the Suez Canal Company.
Under the Anglo-Egyptian
treaty of 1936, which made Egypt virtually independent, Britain reserved
rights for the protection of the canal, but after World War II, Egypt
pressed for evacuation of British troops from the area. Egypt in 1951
repudiated the 1936 treaty, and anti-British rioting and clashes on the
border of the zone erupted. In 1954, Britain agreed to withdraw, and in
June, 1956, the British completed their evacuation of armed forces from
Egypt and the canal zone.
After Great Britain and
the United States withdrew their pledges of financial support to help
Egypt build the Aswan High Dam (see under Aswan),
Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser
nationalized (July, 1956) the Suez Canal and set up the Egyptian Canal
Authority to replace the existing privately owned company. In August,
British oil and embassy officials were expelled from the country. Having
been denied passage through the canal since 1950 and having suffered
repeated border raids from Egypt, Israel, with French and English air
support, invaded Egyptian territory on Oct. 29, 1956. Within a few days
France and Great Britain sent armed forces to retake the Suez Canal.
Intervention by the United Nations brought an armistice in early
November, and a UN emergency force replaced the British and French
troops. The canal, blocked for more than six months because of damage
and sunken ships, was cleared with UN help and reopened in Apr., 1957.
Egypt agreed to pay, in six annual installments, approximately $81
million to shareholders of the nationalized Suez Canal Company; final
payment was made on Jan. 1, 1963.
Despite UN efforts to
guarantee the free passage of vessels through the canal, Egypt prevented
Israeli ships from using the waterway. The canal was closed by Egypt
during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, after which it formed part of the
boundary between Egypt and the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula. Egypt
lost considerable revenue as a result of the closing of the canal, but
friendly Arab countries agreed to subsidize the Egyptian economy with
contributions roughly equaling the former income from the canal. After
the Suez Canal was closed, many ships (especially tankers) were built
that were too large for the canal, and alternate sea routes were used
increasingly in world trade.
In Oct., 1973, Egyptian
troops crossed the canal and attacked Israeli forces on the east bank of
the canal; Israeli units crossed the canal to the west and eventually
encircled the Egyptian Third Army. In early 1974, Egypt and Israel
signed an agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. With
both banks of the canal again secured, Egypt, with the assistance of the
U.S. navy, cleared it of mines and war wreckage, and it was reopened in
1975. Traffic declined in the 1980s, largely because of high fees and
water too shallow for oil supertankers. In 1997 officials announced fee
reductions and a plan to deepen the channel.
See D. A. Farnie, East
and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854–1956 (1969); K.
Love, Suez, the Twice-Fought War (1969); A. G. Mezerik, ed., The
Suez Canal 1956 Crisis–1967 War (1969); M. H. Heikal, Cutting
the Lion's Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes (1987); D. Neff, Warriors
at Suez (1987); Z. Karabell, Parting the Desert: The Creation of
the Suez Canal (2003).
Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia,
6th ed. Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press.