Today, we ask, when was the Suez Canal built? The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1869, the Suez Canal was
finished under Ferdinand de Lesseps's leadership.
The French had wanted a shipping route from the
Mediterranean to the Red Sea for a long time. A
shortcut from Marseilles to the Orient would give
France a fine advantage over England. As early as
1800 Napoleon had surveyors looking at routes.
Napoleon was told that the Red Sea was 30 feet
higher than the Mediterranean. Dig a canal, his
surveyors said, and the Red Sea will hemorrhage
into the Mediterranean. It'll sweep away the Nile
Delta. The survey was grossly in error, of course.
French scientists tried to point out that sea level
couldn't possibly differ that much at two points
only eighty miles apart.
But the damage was done; the moment had passed;
only the idea wasn't dead. It re-emerged in both
England and France after Napoleon was gone. Lesseps
finally dug his Suez Canal so it wandered northward
from the Red Sea, following two lakes, to a
mid-point. Then he dug in a straight line to the
That southern leg of the Lesseps canal actually
followed a vastly older canal. Napoleon had been a
latecomer to the canal idea. In 500 BC, the Persian
conqueror of Egypt, Darius, had begun a canal along
that same route. He meant his canal to swing west
at the mid-point and link with the Nile near Cairo.
But Darius's experts, like Napoleon's, decided the
Red Sea was higher than the Mediterranean. They too
thought a canal would result in disaster.
So Darius didn't finish his canal. But the
Ptolemies who followed Darius did finish it. By 250
BC, a substantial canal linked the Red Sea and the
Mediterranean. It was fifty yards wide and it
served ocean-going vessels. Cleopatra probably rode
that canal in her royal barge, a few years before
the birth of Christ.
Here the plot thickens even further: For Darius had
built on the route of an earlier canal, begun in
600 BC. And that canal followed the route of an
even older canal that served shipping around 1500
BC. Temple carvings show the Queen of Egypt setting
out for Africa on that canal. And, as Egyptian
history blends into myth, 4000 or so years in the
past, it tells of still other canals.
But the Suez Canal we remember is the one built
only 140 years ago by Lesseps. The crowning irony
is that the French honored Lesseps so highly for
his work that they gave him the job of digging a
Panama Canal. But that was another matter entirely.
The Panama Canal had to penetrate jungles, cross
mountains, and span great fields of mud. Twenty
thousand workers died, and Lesseps returned to
France in failure.
This time he didn't have the old Egyptians to lead
him. In Panama, he undertook a problem that hadn't
been solved, millennia before him, by some of
finest engineers the world has known.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kinross, L., Between Two Seas. New York:
William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1969.
Marlow, J., The Making of the Suez
Canal. London: The Cresset Press, 1964.
James, P., and Thorpe, N., Ancient
Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books,
1994, pp. 89-92.
See also Encyclopaedia Britannica
entries on Egypt, Africa, Lesseps, Suez, etc.
I am grateful to colleague N. Shamsundar for pointing
out two things in this episode. One is the ambiguous
use of "140 years ago." I wrote this episode 140 years
after de Lesseps began the Suez Canal in 1858. It was
finished eleven years later, in 1869. The second, more
serious issue is my implication that de Lesseps' work in
Panama was a disaster while the Suez Canal was not.
Actually, de Lesseps conscripted Egyptian labor into
conditions of slavery. Over a hundred thousand workers
died, mostly of malnutrition. In his first canal-building
adventure, de Lesseps had already created a humanitarian disaster
of the first magnitude.
From the 1897 Encyclopaedia
Map of the Suez Canal (Click on the image for an
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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