A lightning history of the Suez Canal, part I

Yesterday, 26 July, was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Suez war, when Israel, Britain and France conspired to invade Egypt and bring down the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime.

It reminded me that a couple of years ago I wrote a short history of the Suez Canal for a publication on Egypt. I'm reproducing it here in two parts -- one is below and the other will be online tomorrow. I can't claim any original scholarship, it's all cribbed from popular history books in English and French (so blame them for any mistakes.)

A lightning history of the Suez Canal, Part I

Egyptians, it is said, have a taste for the grandiose. The ancient monuments of the Nile Valley are only the oldest testaments to this tendency, ranging from the magnificent tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor to the Pyramids. A few thousand years later came the Great Library of Alexandria, a great intellectual undertaking that was part of a much larger project based around the city that included the famed lighthouse as well as numerous palaces and public buildings that were unrivalled at the times. Go another thousand years into the future and it is medieval Cairo, with its towering Citadel and mosques, that provides an answer to the vision of the ancients. Modern times are no exception to Egyptian ambition. The Aswan dam, which revolutionised the life of average Egyptian peasants by regulating the flow of the Nile, which for thousands of years replenished the soil of the valley at its whim through unpredictable floods. Even today ambitious "mega-projects" are hatched to create a second Nile valley in the arid desert that will be irrigated by a canal drawing from Lake Nasser.

One of the most intriguing Egyptian projects is marks the country's entry into modernity. The Suez Canal, like Egypt's other projects, was built at a great cost to the country's treasury and at great labour by Egyptians. It is however unique in the degree of international attention and participation its construction entailed.

Most of Egypt's other great projects were built largely for domestic purposes -- whether that was harnessing the fertile lands of the Nile Valley so they would produce regular crops or flattering the conceit of Pharaohs who thought their immortality could be assured by the construction of great tombs. The Suez Canal, however, came to Egypt largely as an idea from the outside and to serve the interests of the world at large -- and the powerful empires of its time -- rather than the immediate interests of the country's people or rulers. To this day, it has a multitude of meanings for Egyptians. It marked the entry of Egypt on the modern world scene as an important player, but that entry was subject to the intrigues of the great imperial powers of Europe. The canal bankrupted Egypt and delivered it into the hands of its creditors, and was the scene of three major wars with Israel. Today, as two of Egypt's five largest cities have grown alongside its shores, the Suez Canal remains a national asset with an ambiguous history, present at some of the nation's greatest moments but also its lowest points.

The story of the Suez Canal begins with an invasion. In 1798, an ambitious young French general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Alexandria to spread the light of the French revolution and check the maritime power of England. By July, he had defeated the Mamluks at the foot of the Pyramid, and entered Cairo triumphant. He was not to stay there for long -- he returned to Paris by the end of 1799 -- but along with 40,000 troops he had brought with him something that would leave a lasting impact on the West's perception of Egypt: a contingent of 167 savants, learned men from diverse fields who founded the Institute of Egypt. Most were graduates of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, in their mid-20s, and eager to leave their mark on the world of science by reporting on what they found in Egypt.

Among other things, Napoleon had been given the instruction to "cut the Isthmus of Suez and take all necessary measures in order to assure the free and exclusive possession of the Red Sea for the French Republic." He honoured that directive -- as out of touch with the reality of what an undertaking making that "cut" was -- and sent out Jacques-Marie Le Pere, a surveyor, with a group to carry out a study. Rushed and with poor tools to carry out a proper study, Le Pere's group mistakenly concluded that a direct canal was impossible because the waters of the Red Sea at high tide were nearly 12 metres higher than the waters of the Mediterranean. Instead, he proposed an indirect route that would link the canals of the Nile Delta, accessible through Alexandria and other ports, to the Bitter Lakes, which could then be rejoined to the Red Sea. As the French were evicted from Egypt by the British in 1801, Le Pere would never have an opportunity to revisit his calculations. They remained the final conclusion of the Institute of Egypt for 30 years, when two men began a long rivalry over the project.

Bartholemy-Prosper Enfantin, long obsessed with the idea of a canal, mounted his own, smaller scale, expedition to Egypt and follow the footsteps of Napoleon, who in the meantime had become emperor, lost his throne at Waterloo and died in 1821 in lonely exile at St. Helena. Enfantin was a curious product of the early nineteenth century: he was a follower of the philosopher St. Simon, who had started a cult to progress and modernity. After St. Simon's death, Enfantin had elaborated on his master's notions of scientific development and universal progress and mixed them with pagan notions of sexuality, a fetish for bizarre, brightly-coloured clothing and something he called "New Christianity." For Enfantin, who told his followers to call him "The Father," Egypt was to be a "nuptial bed" for union of East and West.

It is easy -- and probably justified -- to consider Enfantin a kook, but he was also a man of determination with a metaphysical sense of his own destiny. In 1833 he went to Cairo managed to get an audience with Muhammad Ali, Egypt's new ruler, and tried to revive the idea of a Suez Canal. The Pasha was not responsive. He feared that a direct route between the two seas would cut out Egypt entirely, including the taxes he levied on trade and the business that was generated from the traffic on the way between the Mediterranean ports and those on the Red Sea. Enfantin stayed on, working on engineering projects on the Nile and carrying out feasibility studies for a canal, hoping that he would get a break later on. He never did, and after some frustration with the projects he was working on, he returned to France in 1836 and never returned. Enfantin did contribute however to reviving the idea of a canal and spreading enthusiasm about it. And although "The Father" wanted others to see him as the father of the canal, that privilege would eventually fall to another Frenchman that Enfantin had met in Egypt: Ferdinand de Lesseps.

De Lesseps was a career diplomat. He had met other Frenchmen who had tried -- and failed -- to promote the idea of building a canal while serving in Egypt, and did not return to the idea until many years later. Like Enfantin, he was wedded to ideas of science and progress, although he was not interested in metaphysics and spirituality. De Lesseps was a man of action, and although the two men became rivals for many years as each tried to put forward his own plans for a canal -- a direct route one, an indirect one for the other -- on his death bed Enfantin recognised that without de Lesseps' formidable diplomatic skills and boundless energy, the canal would have never been built.

De Lesseps was a well-connected man. He had been born into France's establishment, and years in the diplomatic service gave him access to the most powerful men -- and women -- of his days. In Egypt in the 1830s, he had developed a bond with Muhammad Ali and his son Said, with whom de Lesseps shared a passion for horse-riding. Muhammad Ali had asked the diplomat to watch over his son, and particularly watch that he did not eat too much -- already as a teenager Said's love for sweet pastries threatened him with obesity. Years later, when Said become ruler of Egypt, he remembered a kind French diplomat who had secretly allowed him the food he craved. Another crucial connection for de Lesseps was the warm friendship with his cousin Eugenie de Montijo, who would eventually marry Napoleon II, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, and become Empress Eugenie in the Second Empire. Eugenie provided access to the French emperor that proved invaluable when de Lesseps and the canal came under attack.

To be continued in Part II tomorrow.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.