Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The epic of the Suez Canal

A new exhibition in the French capital is recounting the epic story of Egypt’s Suez Canal to a new generation of visitors, writes David Tresilian in Paris

The epic of the Suez Canal
The epic of the Suez Canal

One of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century, and one of the 20th century’s major geopolitical flashpoints, Egypt’s Suez Canal is today one of the world’s most important international waterways and a major artery of global seaborne trade. 

Built by a French company working closely with the Egyptian government of the time and subsequently occupied by the British for some seven decades, the Canal was fought over during the 1956 Suez Crisis following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

It saw major military operations again in the 1967 War, when Israeli troops invaded Sinai and occupied the eastern side of the Canal. Six years later, Egyptian troops crossed the Canal in the 1973 War, liberating the Sinai from occupation and restoring the Canal to international shipping once more. 

Today, the Canal is again the focus of national and international attention because of its role as a centrepiece of Egypt’s economic development. It was enlarged in 2015 in the first operation on such a scale since it was built in the late 19th century in order to increase capacity and shorten crossing times for ships passing through the Canal. The surrounding Suez Canal Economic Zone is also being developed as a major hub for logistics and international trade.

The Suez Canal, today nearly 150 years old and the final realisation of plans to build a waterway between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that go back some 4,000 years, has successfully built on the intensification and expansion of international trade that have come with globalisation over recent decades.

However, looking back the Canal also has an extraordinary history behind it, having played a central role in the development of modern Egypt and on many occasions drawing global attention. It is this history, perhaps rather more than the Canal’s present global role, that is at the heart of the major exhibition on the Suez Canal that opened in Paris at the end of March.

Hosted at the Institut du monde arabe in the French capital until 5 August, the exhibition, the “Epic of the Suez Canal,” will transfer to the French port city of Marseilles in October for a further run at the Museum of the History of Marseilles until March next year. 

It will then transfer to Egypt in 2019 to mark both the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Suez Canal and the inauguration of the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Cairo.


OPENING THE CANAL: The exhibition opens with a reconstruction of the elaborate ceremonies staged along the Canal and in Cairo to mark the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869.  

The project, as the exhibition explains, had been inherited by Egypt’s then ruler, the khedive Ismail, from his predecessor the khedive Said, who had negotiated the agreement to build the Canal with a French entrepreneur, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and hisCompagnie universelle du canal de Suez, in 1856. However, it was Ismail, rather than Said (who died in 1863), who really oversaw the building of the Canal, seeing it as an expression of larger plans to modernise Egypt and to open it up to the rest of the world.

Simultaneously with the building of the Canal, Ismail was also rebuilding and extending Cairo to make it a fitting capital for a country which, he said, was “no longer part of Africa… but part of Europe.” Enormous amounts were spent on building what is now Cairo’s downtown area, as well as the Suez Canal and the three new cities of Port Said and Ismailia at the northern end of the Canal facing the Mediterranean and half way down the Canal and Port Tewfiq, now Port Suez, at the southern end giving onto the Red Sea. 

A new opera house was built in Cairo to mark the opening of the Canal. In the event, a commissioned work, the ancient Egyptian-themed opera Aida by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, was not ready in time for the inauguration and instead was premiered in Cairo in 1871. However, even without Aida, strains of which greet visitors to today’s Paris exhibition on the Canal, the opening ceremony was gorgeous enough. The French empress Eugénie attended on behalf of France, along with dignitaries from the European nations and across the world.

The exhibition brings together items from this time, including a film reconstruction of events and the major roles played in them by the khedive Ismail, de Lesseps, and the international dignitaries gathered to witness the opening of the Suez Canal. It then winds back some 4,000 years to the reign of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Senusret III who may have started work on a canal joining the Red Sea to the River Nile, thus making navigation possible to the Mediterranean in around 1850 BCE. 

Later Pharaohs maintained this first canal, notably Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the third century BCE, and it seems that though it later became unusable because choked with sand, the mysterious Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021 CE) — he disappeared one night while out in the Moqattam Hills — may have repaired the waterway leading from the Nile across the desert to the Red Sea.


DEVELOPING EGYPT: However, the idea of building a canal in its modern form only really resurfaced at the end of the 18th century with the military expedition to Egypt led by the then French first consul Napoléon Bonaparte. 

French engineers began producing proposals for a canal from Suez northwards to the Mediterranean, but it was not until the 1850s that de Lesseps, a former diplomat, managed to convince the khedive Said. A contract was signed setting up the Compagnie universelle du canal de Suez, which set about raising money to build the new Canal on a 99-year lease. Fifteen per cent of the profits would go to the Egyptian government, which would also own a 44 per cent share in the Company. 

Work began in 1859, at first under the corvée system of forced labour that had already been used to build Egypt’s early railways. However, the location of the Canal meant that conditions were especially harsh, and thousands of labourers conscripted in to work on the Canal died. It was not until 1864 that the corvée system was abolished and steam-powered dredgers were used instead. 

This aspect of the Canal’s construction, entailing enormous sacrifices among the Egyptian workers drafted in to build it, is amply covered in the exhibition. Covered, too, are the national and international stakes of the new Canal, with Britain in particular at first being hostile to the Suez Canal, seeing it as a French attempt to stake a claim in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean at its expense. British investors also proved unwilling to buy Company bonds despite de Lesseps’s attempts to raise money on the London money markets. 

All this was to change upon the Canal’s completion, when it swiftly established itself as an essential route for international trade, joining Europe to Southwest Asia and the Far East and facilitating British shipping to India. In the 1870s, the khedive Ismail, increasingly short of money because of the winding down of the cotton boom and in debt to European banks, sold his share (the Egyptian government share) in the Canal to the British government, which thus acquired a significant stake in the Company. 

Six years later, British troops invaded Egypt, ostensibly to restore the khedive Tawfik, whose government had been threatened by the revolution led by Ahmed Orabi, an early nationalist, but in fact to protect the interests of British bondholders and other investors in Egypt. It was not until president Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company in 1956 that Egypt truly began to benefit from the location of the Canal on its territory, having earlier had to consent to the continuation of 19th-century arrangements that benefitted European shareholders.

The exhibition is right to describe this as an epic story and one that brings together an extraordinary engineering achievement — the realisation of a dream going back thousands of years — with elements of imperial rivalry, 19th and 20th-century realpolitik, and the liberation of Egyptian territory and economic interests from foreign control. 

The catalogue to the exhibition contains additional material that fleshes out this story in ways perhaps unfamiliar to European visitors. Emad Abu Ghazi contributes a chapter on “the Canal through Egyptian eyes,” for example, and Rania Fathy writes on the Suez Canal in Egyptian literature and Salma Mubarek and Walid Al-Khashab on the Suez Canal in film. 

As Abu Ghazi comments in his contribution, until Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, intended to ensure that profits from the Canal were used to finance Egypt’s development, the Canal was viewed ambivalently by many in Egypt. On the one hand, there was pride in this extraordinary engineering achievement in whose construction so many workers had died, but on the other there was also mistrust at seeing so many of the benefits of the Canal flowing into foreign hands.

Nasser’s nationalisation of the Company, highlighted in the Paris exhibition, thus brought the Canal back into line with Ismail’s original intention in supporting it. “No one can be more enthusiastic about the Canal than I,” Ismail commented in 1869. “But I want the Canal to belong to Egypt, rather than Egypt to belong to the Canal.”

L’Epopée du Canal de Suez, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 5 August.

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