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In March 2021, the Suez Canal in Egypt dominated headlines and social media feeds after a blockade further ravaged global supply chains and further disrupted an already chaotic year for the industry. The container ship Ever Given was stuck in the Channel for six days, blockading more than 320 ships, before being freed on March 29.
While Ever Given caught the world’s attention after a bleak and COVID-19-constrained winter, prompting comedic memes and continuous news reports, the channel itself has a turbulent history that stretches beyond lockdown. The canal will celebrate its 153rd birthday on Thursday, with another 10 years since construction began, according to the Suez Canal Authority. This makes the passage one of the oldest canals in the world.
The French diplomat and developer of the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was granted the first concession on November 30, 1854, allowing him to set up a company in charge of digging. After another concession and an official ‘incorporation’, excavations began on April 25, 1859, with the official final excavation and dedication ceremony taking place 10 years later in 1869.
The canal is of great importance for trade and logistics as it creates a direct shipping route between Europe and Asia. And while the age of 153 seems historic enough, its beginnings go even further.
The Egyptian pharaoh Senusert III. of the twelfth dynasty commissioned a successful connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through the Nile and its tributaries to promote trade between East and West. While not the same route the Suez Canal takes today, it was originally located nearby and began promoting east-west trade in the region. That the first idea of connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through the Nile came from Senusert, the canal authority says is a “tested historical fact”.
Remains of the pharaoh’s canal can still be seen near the city of Suez after a dam was built in 610 BC. BC had formed and isolated the Bitter Lakes. Others tried to revive it or create similar waterway connections in the following centuries, but in vain until the Suez official inauguration of the canal.
Last year’s Ever Given debacle wasn’t the only time it was blocked. For eight years, from 1967 to 1975, the war in the Middle East closed the channel, caught some ships by surprise and stranded them, according to this FreightWaves flashback. These ships had to remain on board for long periods with crews who were eventually changed but had to live in the canal for some time before being transferred.
An excerpt from the original 1975 article read: “Of course, the ships also resorted to a lot of self-help. The crew not only began fishing for fresh fish in the lake, but gradually took what they needed from the cargoes on board.
“Fortunately for the Munsterland, their cargo contained a large quantity and variety of foodstuffs, particularly eggs, pears and grapes. “I can’t bear to see another pear,” a desperate crew member reportedly stuttered after a few weeks.
“The eggs on board would have been sufficient to provide the entire crew with three huge portions of scrambled or fried (or otherwise) eggs per day for many years. Despite the seafarers’ strong fondness for this product of the hen (in the most astounding variations), a diet of eggs alone would have gone too far, and so ships automatically began trading resources or distributing them to the less gifted and compassionate. In addition, each ship offered its own specialities.”
Today, the Suez Canal Authority says it plans to build a new canal parallel to the existing one “to double the longest possible parts of the waterway” to improve traffic and reduce waiting times. Hopefully that means no more blockages!
FreightWaves Classics articles shed light on various aspects of the history of the transportation industry. If there are topics that you find interesting, please send them to [email protected]