2021 blockage only latest of Suez Canal’s historic moments

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In March 2021, the Suez Canal in Egypt dominated headlines and social media feeds after a blockage threw another wrench in worldwide supply chains, adding more disruption to an already chaotic year for the industry. The container ship Ever Given was stuck for six days in the canal, blocking more than 320 ships before being freed March 29

While the Ever Given captured the world’s attention following a bleak and COVID-19-restricted winter, resulting in comedic memes and continuous news reports, the canal itself has a storied history that goes beyond the blockage. The canal will hit its 153rd birthday on Thursday, with an additional 10 years from the start of its construction, according to the Suez Canal Authority. This makes the passageway one of the oldest canals in the world. 

A map of the Suez Canal on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with nearby capital, Cairo. (Photo: Associated Press file)

French diplomat and developer of the canal Ferdinand de Lesseps was granted the first concession on Nov. 30, 1854, allowing him to establish a company responsible for the digging. After another concession and an official “company establishment,” digging began April 25, 1859, with the official final dig and inauguration ceremony taking place 10 years later in 1869.

The canal is extremely important for trade and logistics because it creates a direct shipping route between Europe and Asia. And, while 153 years old seems historic enough, its beginnings reach even further. 

Egyptian Pharaoh Senusert III of the Twelfth dynasty commissioned a successful connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through the Nile and its branches to drive trade between East and West. While it is not the same path the Suez Canal takes today, it was originally located nearby and started the promotion of trade between the East and West in the region. The canal authority says it is a “well-established historical fact” that the first idea of connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through the Nile came from Senusert. 

Remains of the pharaoh’s canal can still be seen today near the city of Suez, after a dam formed and isolated the Bitter Lakes in 610 B.C. Others attempted to revive it or create similar waterway connections in the centuries to follow but to no avail until the Suez Canal’s official inauguration.

Last year’s debacle with the Ever Given was not the only time it was blocked. For eight years, from 1967 to 1975, war in the Middle East closed the canal, taking some ships by surprise and stranding them, according to this FreightWaves Flashback. These ships were forced to stay for long periods of time with crews on board, who were eventually switched out but still had to live in the canal for some time before their transfer.

An excerpt from the original 1975 article read: “Naturally the ships also had recourse to a great deal of self-help. Not only did the crew begin fishing in the lake for fresh fish, but gradually they started taking what they needed from the cargoes on board.

“Luckily for the Munsterland her cargo included a great quantity and variety of food, and particularly eggs, pears and grapes. ‘I can’t bear to see another pear,’ one desperate crew member is said to have stuttered after some weeks.

“The eggs aboard would have been sufficient to provide the whole crew with three giant portions per day of scrambled or fried eggs (or eggs done any other way) for many years. In spite of the seafarer’s strong preference for this product of the hen (in the most amazing variations) a diet of eggs alone would have been going too far, and so the ships automatically began to swap resources, or to distribute them to less well endowed fellow sufferers. Apart from that, each ship offered its own specialities.” 

Today, the Suez Canal Authority says it has plans to create a new canal, parallel to the existing one, “to double the longest possible parts of the waterway” to help traffic and reduce waiting times. Hopefully, this means no more blockages!

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to fwclassics@freightwaves.com.

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Editor: Brielle Jaekel