The Egyptians built the pyramids and all these other amazing temples and tombs… surely they can sail ships through the desert. Why, yes, they can. The Suez Canal is a culmination of hundreds of years of attempts to enrich trade and connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. A digging of the canal in one form or another was literally started in 610 BC. The French eventually completed today’s modern canal which was completed in 1869 officially slicing Africa off from the continent of Asia.
The canal itself was owned by the French and the British for nearly a century, until 1956 when the UK and the US withdrew their pledge to support the construction of the Aswan Dam due to Egyptian overtures towards the Soviet Union provoking the “Suez Crisis,” in which President Nasser nationalized the canal and blocked Israeli ships from using it. British, French, and Israeli troops took the canal by force, but were forced to retreat after international appeals and the creation of UN Peacekeeping forces. The Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, proposed the creation of the very first United Nations peacekeeping force to ensure access to the canal for all and an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. The resolution mandated that UN peacekeepers stay in the Sinai Peninsula unless both Egypt and Israel agreed to their withdrawal. Pearson, who later became Prime Minister, was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But relations with neighboring Israel remained iffy and there was never a real resolution of any of the underlying issues. Eventually Nassar make a blockade on the Israeli port of Eilat. While he amassed his forces, Israel struck first, beginning what was known as the “Six Days War.” Hence, just six days later, Israel controlled all of Sinai and closed down the Suez canal which was not reopened until 8 years later trapping a fleet of cargo ships inside for eight years. Humiliated and surprisingly open, President Nassar offered up his resignation, but in an outpouring support for their leader it was not accepted by the people. But just three years later he died of a heart attack while still in office.
In 1973, Egypt’s new president, Anwar Sadat launched an attack on Israeli forces in the Suez on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Then Sadat did something new. In a time when Arab countries still refused to accept Israel’s existence, he traveled to Jerusalem and negotiated a peace treaty with Israel to be called the “Camp David Agreement” in which Israel agreed to retreat from Sinai in return for Egypt’s acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist as a nation. This was a controversial and largely unwelcome move amongst Middle East nations who saw it as betraying former President Nasser’s pro-Arab/anti-Israel stance which created hatred toward Sadat and ultimately led to his assassination in 1981 by a member of an Islamic group and one of Sadat’s own soldiers.
Today the Suez is one of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes and tolls from cargo ships’ passage bring an, er, ‘boat-load’ of money to the Egyptian government. The canal is 192 km (119 mi) long and it allows passage of ships with up to 150,000 tons displacement.
And now, from the ‘I didn’t know that’ file of random trivia: Apparently, the Statue of Liberty that graces New York’s harbor was originally intended to overlook the Suez Canal. French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi designed a lady carrying a torch to represent progress and “Egypt carrying the light of Asia.” But the idea was scrapped due to high costs and ultimately some of his designs were used in creating the Lady Liberty we know today welcoming immigrants and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on arrival in the land of the free.
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”