The Suez Canal is a 120 mile long sea level man made waterway running through Egypt between the mainland and the Sinai Peninsula. It connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. This canal enables ships to cut over 5000 miles off their journey by not having to sail around Africa.
Interest in a waterway through the area extends back to ancient times. Archaeological evidence suggests a small canal was built in the time of the Pharaohs connecting the Nile to the Red Sea. The river would then take these early Egyptians to the Mediterranean.
Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to consider constructing a canal on the Isthmus of Suez during his conquest of Egypt in 1798. His team of surveyors miscalculated the height of the Red Sea as 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean, so he gave up the idea as unfeasible due to the flooding that would cause in the Nile Delta. A survey done in the 1830’s by French explorer and engineer Linant de Bellefonds determined that contrary to popular belief, they were actually at the same height.
The Suez Canal is the shortest link between the east and the west. Construction began at Port Said in early 1859. 1.5 million people worked on the project, some of them slaves. Tens of thousands died of cholera and other causes while working in the region. Political unrest during construction and limitations of the technology of the time doubled the estimated cost of building the canal to 100 million. The canal opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction by the French and British. Egypt took control of the canal in 1956.
Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi of France proposed a 90-foot statue of a women dressed in Egyptian peasants clothes holding a massive torch called Egypt Bringing Light to Asia as a lighthouse guiding ships into the canal, but could not convince Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to allow him to build it. Not giving up on the idea, in 1886 he instead unveiled a massive statue in New York called Liberty Enlightening the World – otherwise known as the Statue of Liberty.
The cost for a ship to transit the Suez Canal can be quite astronomical with cruise ships and other large vessels often paying upwards of $400,000 for passage. Initially the canal was wide enough only for one way traffic with just a couple wider spots for passing, but a new channel opened in 2015 allows for two way traffic throughout most of the canal so more ships can pass through each day.
Cruising Through the Suez Canal
MSC Lirica dropped anchor at the Port Said end of the canal in the Mediterranean Sea awaiting what was scheduled to be an 11pm entry into the canal, though the ship didn’t actually start moving again until late into the night.
The sun rose over the ship as it passed through the narrow channel near that end of the canal. Ships travel through in a convoy, each accompanied by a tug and changing pilots 4 times during their transit. Passage through the canal is carefully controlled so that all ships in the narrow areas are heading the same direction. The wider areas run through a couple lakes as well as the recent additional canal dug through the middle stretch that allow ships to pass by one another in opposite directions. The narrow bits with one way travel are at the beginning and end. Some parts are quite narrow where land is not far from the ship on either side.
While there was some signs of human life on both sides, in general most of the activity was all on one side of the canal with the other mostly looking like a desolate desert of sand even where there were occasional buildings. On the side with the most activity there were often stretches of greenery, towns, and large cities. Railroad tracks and a road paralleled the canal for some distance. We saw a train, trucks, cars, and a donkey cart going by.
There was one huge tall permanent bridge we passed under in the early morning fog. Other places had small ferries. We saw one bridge that could swing across from both sides of the canal and meet in the middle, and a number of floating dock type bridges that could be set in place for cars to cross.
In one spot on the desert side many trucks were lined up near one of the floating sort of bridges, which was at the time docked parallel to the shore. Waiting I assume for the convoy of boats to pass by so they could cross before boat traffic came along in the other direction.
We had container ships ahead of and behind us, but they stay distant enough that you never see more than one or two in either direction so I have no idea how many ships were in the convoy or where our place was within it other than neither first nor last.
In the new channel where ships pass by in the other direction we saw container ships from MSC (which stands for Mediterranean Shipping Company). It is the same company as MSC cruises. They were originally a cargo shipping company and later added cruise ships to their fleet.
The land was mostly flattish and often nothing but desert sands except for the green oasis areas by the cities, but sometimes there were rolling hills in the sand and near the Red Sea end there were distant mountains on both sides.
At 11-16 hours, it takes longer to pass through the Suez Canal than it does through the Panama Canal, as the distance is considerably longer. Unlike the Panama Canal, there are no locks as the water is all at sea level and there are no mountains to cross. Even with stops at 2-3 sets of locks, crossing through the Panama Canal takes 8-10 hours. (The original Panama Canal has 3 sets of locks, the new lane for larger ships has just 2.)
We enjoyed our crossing through the Suez Canal. Weather that day was foggy in the morning and sunny later in the day.
We saw some interesting architecture along the way. Buildings came in all shapes and sizes. There were some fancy mosques and several interesting towers.
Love this post, I learned so much. Thank you. Which canal crossing did you like better, the Suez Canal or Panama Canal?
Both are fun, but in different ways. The Suez Canal is a very relaxing journey (for passengers anyway) through a mostly narrow waterway with no stops and not a whole lot going on other than scenery and at some point a convoy of ships going the other way passes by. The recent event with the Ever Given cargo ship getting stuck definitely disrupted that, but luckily stuck ships there are a very rare occurrence. The Panama Canal has sections like that, but also locks to go through where there’s a lot of activity, and there may be a wait if the lock is already occupied when your ship arrives. They are similar in that both are mostly manmade waterways, but not entirely as the Suez Canal passes through several lakes, and as well as passing through a lake part of the Panama Canal is also a river. The scenery is very different as the Suez Canal passes through a sandy desert, and the Panama Canal over stone mountains.
Thank you so much.