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Suez Canal

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Boats and barges at work in the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal is the longest artificially constructed waterway in the world without locks; it links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea via the Gulf of Suez. The approximate length of the canal is 100 miles (163 km) and at its narrowest, the canal measures 197 feet (300 m) across in width.[1] The canal is not one continuous stretch of water from sea to sea but consists of two different parts that flow into Bitter Lake as well as the waters of Lake Manzilah and Lake Timsah. At a cost of $100 million dollars, the canal took 10 years to build.[2]

It has also been referred to as the “crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia” [3]because it is an important trade route that transports goods to all three continents. The canal enables ships to bypass circumnavigation around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, cutting out an additional 6,000 miles (9,656 km).[4]

According to statistics, the canal averages eight percent of the world’s shipping traffic. In 2003, Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority (SCA) reported 17,224 ships passed through the canal. A trip through the canal can range anywhere from 11 to 16 hours at a speed of about eight knots.[5] Traveling at a slow speed prevents the canal banks from eroding from ship’s wakes. It is only wide enough however to facilitate the passage of one-way traffic but several bays have been constructed that accommodate the passing of northbound and southbound ships.


[edit] Construction History

In 1300 B.C., the Egyptians built a very rudimentary navigational canal that linked the Red Sea to the Nile River and thereby, indirectly linking with the Mediterranean Sea. Aside from Egyptian pharaohs building smaller canals, Persian kings and Roman emperors also attempted to build smaller canals that would strive to join the Nile to Bitter Lake and then from the lake, to the Gulf of Suez. These smaller canals were used for about 2,000 years before falling into disrepair in the 8th century A.D.

In the 1500s, Europeans revived the concept of an Egyptian canal that would eliminate the trip around Africa, but plans to construct a canal were never executed until surveys were conducted in the early part of the 19th century.[6]

[edit] Napoleon Bonaparte

It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s engineers who resurrected the concept of establishing a shorter maritime trade route to India via the Suez Canal. For his part, Bonaparte wanted to build the canal to devastate British trading.[7] A group of surveyors estimated that the Red Sea was 98 feet (30 m) higher than the Mediterranean Sea. Constructing a canal would likely lead to flooding of the Nile Delta and cause considerable damage to the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, plans to build a canal were suspended.[8]

[edit] The French Intellects

In 1883 a group of French intellects called the Saint-Simoniens became very interested in the Suez Canal project despite the estimated difference in sea level between the two seas. The group ran into health and political troubles and returned back to France. A few managed to stay behind. One such engineer was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a vice consul in Alexandria at the time.

The Saint-Simoniens created an association to study the possibility of a Suez Canal. By 1847 a technical report confirmed that there was no real difference in the sea level between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.[9]

[edit] Ferdinand de Lesseps

In 1854 Ferdinand de Lesseps received approval from Said Pasha, the Ottoman governor, and secured an agreement that permitted him to move ahead with a plan to build a canal cut across the Isthmus of Suez. With the assistance of an international team of engineers, a construction plan was drafted and a private company set up called the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal or Compaigne Universelee du Canal Maritime du Suez as it was known in French to oversee construction in 1858.[10] The company signed a concession to operate the canal for 99 years after which it would be passed over to the Egyptian government to control. The company ran into financial problems at the onset. To keep it operating, Said Pasha purchased 44 percent of the company’s stock. Excavation and construction finally commenced on April 25th 1859.[11] When completed the canal would have 60 miles (97 km) of passage through specially prepared lakes and another 40 miles (64 km) cut out of the land.[12]

[edit] Canal Contracts

Construction of the canal was broken down initially into four separate contracts. The first contract involved supplying 326,988 cubic yards (250,000 m3) of concrete blocks to build jetties at Port Said that would mark the entryway of the canal. The second contract focused on the removal of 29 million cubic yards (22 million m3) of sand and mud from the first 37 miles (60 km) of the channel from Port Said. The third entailed cutting through the high ground at El Gisr. The fourth and the largest contract involved excavating the portion of the canal between Lake Tisma and the Red Sea. Paul Borel and Alexandre Levalley, two contractors, managed both the second and last stage of the canal’s construction starting in 1865.[13]

One of the ports along the Suez Canal

[edit] Forced Labor vs. Mechanization of Labor

The building of the canal started with a heavy reliance on "forced human labor" in the tradition of what John Pudney in his book, Suez De Lessep’s Canal calls “pyramid building” but “ended as a highly mechanized job in keeping with the progressive techniques of the century.” [14]Forced labor was viewed as a more limited or temporary form of enslavement. Though workers were forced to work under less than ideal conditions, they were fed and compensated for their work. The British, who positioned themselves as "liberal thinkers" alleged the use of forced labor in the construction of the canal was nothing short of slavery itself.[15] However, British contention on the subject had more to do with politics than human rights as they opposed France's control of the waterway.

The majority of canal laborers were Egyptians forced to work in grueling conditions likened to building the Great Wall of China.[16] Of the 1.5 million Egyptians who worked on the canal, it is estimated 125,000 died from cholera.[17]

After 1863, Egypt began a gradual withdrawal of forced labor due to external political pressure from Britain. Lesseps objected the decision and for loss of labor was awarded an indemnity for the amount of 840,000,000 francs paid by the Egyptian government to the company over a period of 15 years.[18] This move paved the way for the mechanization of work that ultimately would prove to be more “economical and efficient” in the end.[19]

[edit] Excavation of the Canal

The first excavation of dirt from the canal was done by hand with picks called a “fass”[20] and shovels yielded from forced labor.[21] In total, workers moved more than 2.6 billion cubic feet (73.6 million m3) of earth. Of that total, 600 million (17 million m3) were removed on land and another two billion (56.6 million m3) dredged up from under the water.[22] For instance, to widen the canal in hard terrain, most excess material would have had to be removed by hand and then loaded into crates and transported by camels to a dumping site.[23]

Sometimes, man worked in combination with machine. In some parts of the canal such as Lake Menzala, native laborers would make a shallow channel by scooping out the soil by hand and throwing it on the sides of the canal to form banks. After the banks were built, dredgers were floated in and finished off the excavation to the necessary depth. The soil would be spewed through a long spout onto the bank’s side.[24]

Sometimes, machinery would be modified or altered to adjust to geological complications. In the third phase, the cutting through the high ground of El Gisr, Alphonse Courvreus, a French contractor, employed an excavator of his own design. Since the soil of the region was composed of loose sand that rose 60 feet (18.3 m) above the sea, his machine operated much like a bucket dredger for dry materials. The contraption incorporated a long arm projecting downwards at an angle from an engine located on the bank. The long arm carried a number of buckets mounted upon a continuous chain that scooped up material at the bottom and disposed of it at the top, into wagons.[25]

Elevator dredgers were largely used for most of the canal’s construction. The dredgers had an iron bucket or scoop fastened to an endless chain revolving over two drums and driven by a steam engine. One drum was fixed to a long moveable arm and regulated by the depth in which mud was scooped up. The second, rested on an iron framework mounted on top of the hull of the dredging vessel. The boxes on the dredger had a capacity of four cubic yards (3.1 m3). Dredgers varied in size and power with the smallest being 15 horsepower and the largest 75 horsepower.[26] Excavated mud was sometimes dumped on the sides of lakes or on the banks of the canal or removed and transported to deeper water by mud barges.

More sophisticated dredgers called by the French long couloir had reaches of up to 75 yards (69 m) with a slightly inclined channel and were used in connection with dredging vessels. The machine encompassed a long duct of a curved form five feet (1.5 m) wide and two feet (0.61 m) deep that was supported by an iron framework fixed to a barge deck. A steam pump allowed for the continual flow of water through the channel by which dredged matter, when dropped into its upper end, was carried off and cast onto the canal’s bank. Sometimes this process was assisted with the use of a balayeur. This contraption was an endless chain passing along the center of the channel and bearing a number of iron scrapers to remove mud. The long couloir, with its ample reach, gave the dredger the capability to work from the very middle of the canal as if floating and dispose of material horizontally and at a moderate elevation well beyond the line of the shore.[27] Workers kept the waste flowing using a sort of a rake.[28]

The company eventually employed a fleet of 60 dredgers simultaneously. With this number of dredgers in full operation, up to two million cubic yards (1.5 million m3) was the maximum amount of material excavated in a given month.[29]

Final completion of the canal fell on November 17, 1869 when it was officially inaugurated.[30] The opening of the canal was marked by a huge celebration that brought heads of state to Port Said for the festivities of fireworks and a ball. Over 6,000 people attended.[31] In the first year, only 500 ships navigated there way through the canal. It was not very long before the canal became one of world’s most traveled shipping lanes.[32]

[edit] Canal Ownership

As a significant trading route between Europe, Africa, and Asia, ownership of the Suez Canal soon became a hot political issue after completion. Britain, who had originally opposed France’s involvement in the construction of the canal, soon realized its apparent strategic and economic benefit. Controversy quickly ensued over the canal’s ownership. Though Ferdinand de Lesseps had been granted a concession of control for 99 years post construction, the ruling and possession of the canal did not go as planned. For one, Egypt, who had purchased shares in Ferdinand de Lesseps’ company, ran into financial problems resulting in selling off a large part of the company’s stock to the British for about $400,000 pounds sterling in 1875.[33] This gave both France and Britain control of the canal and both countries benefited largely from its use.

[edit] British Occupation and Nationalization

In 1882 the British had invaded Egypt, beginning what was to become a long occupation of the country. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed in 1936 gave Egypt independence from the British but permitted the British to retain rights to protect the canal by stationing a military presence in the canal zone.

However, Egypt, having been instrumental in the construction of the canal, was not ready to give up total control of it. They sought to nationalize the canal and under the terms of a Convention of Constantinople, the canal was officially opened up with out discrimination, to all vessels of all nations in 1888.

By 1951 Egypt wanted Britain to start withdrawing its troops from the canal-zone. Both countries signed an agreement in 1954 that outlined Britain’s removal of all troops within seven years. All British troops were evacuated by 1956.[34]

[edit] The Suez Crisis

In 1956 another crisis was brewing bringing the Suez Canal to the political forefront yet again. Then Egyptian president, Gambel Abdel Nasser, announced the nationalization of the canal based on the refusal of the British, French, and American to loan monies for the building of the Aswan Dam Project. Nasser felt that assuming control of the canal would finance the building of the dam. His reasoning was that the country had a legitimate stake in the canal’s ownership and use since many Egyptians had lost their lives in the canal’s construction. The British and French quickly retaliated and attacked Egypt within two months of the announcement, claiming that the canal should remain open to vessels of all nations. On the orders of Nasser, Egypt sank 40 vessels that were positioned in the canal at the time. Egypt also sought to close off the canal to all Israeli shipping. This led to Israel assuming a ground assault on Egypt while the English and French partnered together for an invasive air attack and also in providing ground support to Israel.[35]

The United Nations, seeking to avoid an all-out catastrophe in the region and halt the inevitable spread of war, dispatched the very first peacekeeping mission to the region and removed the 40 sunken ships from the canal. The British and French, finally succumbing to U.N. pressure, withdrew troops from the area in December 1956, followed by Israeli troops in March of 1957. Egypt resumed control of the canal and reopened it again to commercial shipping.[36]

[edit] The Six-day War

In 1967 the canal was once again closed off when Israel and Egypt went to war. Egypt forced U.N. peacekeeping out of the region and then proceeded to station its army along the Israeli border in an attempt to close off the canal to Israeli shipping. In response to these actions, Israel launched a pre-emptive all-out attack against Egypt in the middle of 1967, capturing the Sinai Peninsula. As a result, the canal became the buffer zone between forces and was closed to protect it from invasion and possible destruction.[37] Though the war only lasted for a total of six days, Egypt blockaded the canal off to any traffic for eight years following the war until 1975 when it finally reopened again to international traffic. In 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement that gave Israel, once again, unrestricted use of the canal.[38]

[edit] Suez Canal Today

Today, 50 ships a day navigate through the waters of the Suez Canal carrying about 300 million tons of goods.[39] Taxes paid by vessels traveling through the canal also provide a viable source of revenue for the Egyptian government.

[edit] Equipment Used

[edit] Refurbishment/Recent Projects/Renovations

When first constructed, the canal was only 26 feet (8 m) deep and had a minimum bottom depth of 72 feet (22 m) wide with a surface level ranging 200 to 330 feet (61 to 101 m).[40]

The first improvements made to the canal started in 1876 when it became apparent that the canal’s dimensions needed to be enlarged. A more comprehensive plan was instituted in 1885 that expanded parts of the canal’s depth and width.[41] Upgrades greatly enhanced the ability of ships traveling in opposing directions to pass each other. Since that time, numerous modifications and upgrades have been continually made.

Today, plans to widen the canal by another 10 feet (3 m) by 2010 will allow the passage of supertankers through the canal.[42] As it stands now, supertankers have to offload part of their cargo onto a canal-owned boat and then reload at the other end of the canal.[43]

[edit] Unique Facts

  • Three times the amount originally spent in the actual construction of the Suez Canal has since been spent on upgrades and repairs.[44]
  • De Lesseps, taking what he had learned in overseeing construction of the Suez Canal, would later attempt construction of the Panama Canal but without success.

[edit] References

  1. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  2. The Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  3. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  4. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  5. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  6. Alfred, Randy. April 25, 1859: Big Dig Starts for Suez Canal. Wired, April, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-23)
  7. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  8. Alfred, Randy. April 25, 1859: Big Dig Starts for Suez Canal. Wired, April, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-23)
  9. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  10. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  11. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  12. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 86
  13. 1911 Encyclopedia. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  14. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 86
  15. 1911 Encyclopedia. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  16. Dunn, Megan. The Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  17. Alfred, Randy. April 25, 1859: Big Dig Starts for Suez Canal. Wired, April, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-23)
  18. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 105
  19. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 82
  20. Rogers, J. David. Construction of the Suez Canal., September, 2007 (accessed: 2008-09-24)
  21. November 17, 1869: Suez Canal Copens, 2008-09-24.
  22. Alfred, Randy. April 25, 1859: Big Dig Starts for Suez Canal. Wired, April, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-23)
  23. Rogers, J. David. Construction of the Suez Canal., September, 2007 (accessed: 2008-09-24)
  24. 1911 Encyclopedia. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  25. 1911 Encyclopedia. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  26. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 116
  27. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 116
  28. Rogers, J. David. Construction of the Suez Canal., September, 2007 (accessed: 2008-09-24)
  29. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 116
  30. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  31. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  32. November 17, 1869: Suez Canal Copens, 2008-09-24.
  33. Dunn, Megan. The Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  34. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  35. Dunn, Megan. The Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  36. November 17, 1869: Suez Canal Copens, 2008-09-24.
  37. Dunn, Megan. The Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  38. / Encarta. Suez Canal, 2008-09-24.
  39. November 17, 1869: Suez Canal Copens, 2008-09-24.
  40. Pudney, John, Suez De Lesseps’ Canal pg 124
  41. 1911 Encyclopedia. Suez Canal, 2008-09-23.
  42. Alfred, Randy. April 25, 1859: Big Dig Starts for Suez Canal. Wired, April, 2008. (accessed: 2008-09-23)
  43. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)
  44. Dunn, Jimmy. Suez Canal. Tour Egypt, November 2006. (accessed 2008-09-23)