17 November 1869: Opening of the Suez Canal

On this day in 1869, the Suez Canal, designed by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessops, opened for business, connecting Europe to Asia through Africa.

Africa has always been something of an obstacle for people wanting to get from Europe to Asia. And so, quite naturally, those who had cause to go between the two have always hankered after a shortcut. As far back as the 18th century BC, there had been a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea via the River Nile. The first was built on the orders of Senausert III. Over the years, it followed a pattern of silting up and being re-dredged by various rulers. But it was eventually abandoned in the 8th century AD.

Napoleon (obviously) had plans to construct a canal in the 1700s, thereby annoying the British who would either have to pay to use it or continue going the long way round. But although construction was started, Boney's plans came to nothing.

However, it was another Frenchman who eventually got the canal built. In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a diplomat, formed La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez. The company would construct the canal and operate it for 99 years, after which it would be handed to the Egyptian government. 

Construction began in April 1859. In the ten years it took to build, over 1.5 million people are estimated to have worked on the canal – many of them died. The canal was opened on this day in 1869 by Eugénie de Montijo, "Empress" of France and wife of Napoleon III.

The canal has a length of 164km, and a depth of eight metres. 30km of its length is through two lakes Lake Timash and the Great Bitter Lake. The canal has no locks, as the terrain between the Mediterranean and Red Seas is flat. At present, much of the canal is only wide enough for one-way traffic – ships must transit the canal in convoys. But in August 2014, the Suez Canal Authority announced plans to enlarge it to enable two-way operation along its entire length.

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