By Mursi Saad El-Din
Visitors to Egypt in recent times have tended to produce specialised books about different areas of interest. One subject which has inspired many a writer, especially British and French, is the Suez Canal. The canal has been described as the "world's longest man- made short cut."
A few books on the canal -- Hugh J Schonfield's Sir River Wilson's and Sir Ian Malcolm's -- combine what they have to say about it. All were involved one way or the other with Egypt and the Canal, and had lived in Egypt for quite a time.
The idea of the Suez Canal is not a new one. The earliest authenticated attempt to connect the Red Sea with the Nile and thereby with the Mediterranean was made by Necho (600 BC). His plan was to extend southwards from Lake Timsah to the Red Sea an earlier canal, dug probably about 2000 BC by Sesostris, which diverged from the Nile near Babustis and flowed through the fertile strip of land known as Wadi Al-Timulat. Writing a Necho, Herodoties says:
"This prince first commenced leading to the Red Sea which Darius, King of Persia, afterwards continued. The length of this canal is equal to four days voyage and is wide enough to admit two trimeres abreast. The water enters it from the Nile, a little above the city of Babstis. It terminated in the Red Sea, not far from Patumos, an Arabian town. They began to dig that canal in that part of Egypt which is nearest to Arabia. The canal extends from west to east, through a considerable tract of country and, where a mountain opens to the south, and is discharged into the Arabian Gulf.
Wilson, in his book The Suez Canal reminds us it is necessary to take into account the changes which have taken place in the geography of the Nile over the last 2,000 years in order to explain the situation of those early canals:
"The river divided itself in ancient times into three great branches. Two of these are still extant, the western one, discharging into the Mediterranean at the Rosetta mouth, and the middle one, or Damitta River, whilst the third, or eastern branch, called the Pelusiac, has disappeared. It is with this one, however, that we have to deal."
Wilson then goes on to describe the course of that third canal, which left the main stream below Babylon or Cairo. It then flowed north-easterly and discharged into the Mediterranean, passing through a large fresh water lake and it was from that canal and not from the Mediterranean that Necho's canal was carried towards Arsinoe, which is Suez now, and terminated in the Bitter Lakes. From these lakes the canal dug by Plolemy extended to the Red Sea itself.
Many writers agree that the Red Sea in ancient times extended much further north; the indications of the retreat of the sea southwards are so manifest in various places as to make it clear that the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were at one time commingled.
The canal fell into disrepair during the first century BC and Trajan (AD 98-117 apparently restored it. In all events, a canal known as "Trajan's River" ran from near Cairo to the Gulf of Suez. Centuries later, after the Arabs had entered Egypt in 640, Amr Ibn El Ass, general of Caliph Omar, joined the two seas by restoring the ancient canal of Tajan which he used for the transport of grain from Cairo to Suez and thence by the Red Sea to Arabia. After the 8th century this canal again became unserviceable.
The question of by-passing the Nile and joining the Mediterranean directly to the Red Sea by cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Suez also arose long before the 19th century. In the late 15th century the Venetians urged the construction of such a canal to recover the trade they had lost to the Portuguese as a result of the discovery of the Cape route to India, but the Memluke sultans, seeing no profit for Egypt in it, refused to finance the project. The idea, however, was never wholly abandoned, especially in France. Leibniz, proposing an expedition to Egypt, recommended to Louis XIV in 1671 that a canal should be dug across the Isthmus of Suez and the ministers of Louis XV and XVI also viewed the suggestion favourably. At that time Egypt played an unimportant part in the Oriental trade and nothing was done until the French Expedition to Egypt in 1798 when Bonaparte revived the scheme, seeing in it a possible means of destroying British commercial supremacy. Significant among the aims of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition was the cutting through of the Isthmus of Suez to assure "the free and exclusive possession of the Red Sea to the French Republic".
As Wilson pertinently comments:
"Here, perhaps, we have the key to the determined opposition offered by Great Britain for more than half a century to the schemes of Delesseps."
Yet on 25 April 1859, despite the British government's hostility to the scheme, work on the canal was begun at the Port Said end. The work finished and on 19 March 1869, in the presence of Khedive Ismail, the prince and princes of Wales and a brilliant company of Egyptian and foreign notables, the water of the Mediterranean was, at length, allowed to flow into the salt- encrusted basins of the Bitter Lakes. On 17 November the canal was officially opened in the presence of Empress Eugenie, many European princes and princesses and 6,000 other distinguished guest from all over the world.