Suez Canal: the realization of a thousand-year-old project, Jeune Afrique


Suez Canal: the realization of a thousand-year-old project

Since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted in October 2023, Houthi attacks on ships using the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, have increased. In less than three months, they led to a 20% reduction in merchant ship traffic through the Suez Canal. But where did the idea of ​​such a channel dug in the heart of the Arab world come from? How does this pharaonic project, completed in 1869, still have an impact on geopolitics in 2024?

From the outset, everything leads us to think that the idea of ​​a canal can only be the fruit of the galloping industrialization of a 19th century loving progress, having faith in technology and thinking big through construction sites and gigantic projects. . Let's think again. The idea of ​​digging a sea passage is not at all new. It dates back to ancient times. And paleographic evidence attests to this. Stelae dating from the Persian king Darius I (521-486 BC), of the Achaemenid dynasty, evoke the (re)digging of part of a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile.


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“I, the Persian, with the Persian [soldiers], took Egypt, I gave orders to dig a river, from the river which is in Egypt [Piru is its name] to the river Amer which leaves Persia. This river was dug as I had ordered, and the ships from Egypt on this river sailed to Persia, as I had desired,” we can read in particular in cuneiform writing. This work is known today to historians and archaeologists as the canal de Darius.

But this is not its only name, since we also find “canal of the Pharaohs”, “canal of Nêkos” and “canal of the Ancients”. The list is not exhaustive. Thus, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, Darius would have taken to heart to complete a project started by the pharaoh Nekôs but never completed, probably following an unfavorable oracle. The testimonies continue, since in the 2nd century AD, the geographer Claudius Ptolemy evokes a channel which he calls “Trajan’s canal”. Was it a navigable waterway or a watercourse for irrigation? Nothing is specified and the mystery remains.

Drilling the isthmus, an idea that never gets old

Whatever these historiographical speculations, the French historian Alfred Nicolas Rambaud was certainly not wrong when, in 1904, he wrote in the Revue des Deux Mondes that “the Canal as it has summer designed and executed by Lesseps has almost nothing in common with that which the pharaohs sketched and which, with intermittent intervals, seems to have been practiced until the end of the 8th century AD. The idea of ​​a canal across the isthmus existed since the Ancients, and it has survived them.

When in 1517, the Egypt of the Mamluks finally fell into the hands of the Ottomans who, since the spectacular capture of Constantinople in 1453, had continued to expand in the Mediterranean, they seemed to have the project of digging a maritime passage towards the Indian Ocean to hunt the Iberians and the French. It is, very strangely, the idea of ​​the berlebey (a sort of pasha) of Tlemcen who, in a missive, brings this project to the Sublime Porte. He thinks that with 100 workers, the Empire will overcome the breakthrough of channel. The idea died in 1587 with its progenitor, poisoned.


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In Bonaparte's boxes

If the idea of ​​digging a waterway in the isthmus is as old as the region, the project, and even more so the site, remain unprecedented. And if the idea will gradually become French, Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt is no stranger to it. In his famous essay Orientalism, the Orient created by the West, the American thinker of Palestinian origin Edward Saïd notes about Bonaparte and Ferdinand de Lesseps: “Their information on the Orient came from books written in the tradition of orientalism, placed in the library of “received ideas”. »

Dragueurs et élévateurs à l'œuvre sur une section achevée du canal (1869). © MARY EVANS/SIPA

Dredgers and elevators at work on a completed section of the canal (1869). © MARY EVANS/SIPA

But this time, the project does not remain at the stage of abstraction. A man of the field, Bonaparte organized a limited expedition to the Isthmus of Suez. Accompanied by Generals Caffarelli and Bertholi, Rear-Admiral Gantheaume and of members of the Institute of Egypt, the future emperor set off on reconnaissance towards the ancient route of the channel on December 24, 1798. Subsequently, he commissioned a group of engineers to study the feasibility of a breakthrough. After a proper exploration, carried out between January 1799 and October 1800, the latter issued a favorable opinion in a report.


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The French, however, are not the only ones thinking about the project. A generation before De Lesseps, the idea had already gained ground among the new Egyptian viceroy, Mehmet Ali. From the latter, we should probably remember his propensity to reform Egyptian society by modernizing it in all directions in the Western style, and it is to him that we owe the Mahmoudieh canal, some 70 kilometers long, which connects Alexandria to the Nile. in order to supply the city with drinking water and food fresh. We are of course far from the idea of ​​connecting two seas, but the idea of ​​a breakthrough is in the air. And the French are not ready to let go of the idea.

The Saint-Simonians, utopians at work

It is in all likelihood the Saint-Simonians who, after Bonaparte, took up the torch. They are involved on all fronts in Algeria, Egypt but also almost everywhere in the Mediterranean and in the Arab world. “The Saint-Simonians […] are activists of a syncretism between Christianity and Islam, between the values ​​of the West and the East, which results in a growing “indigenophilia”, details the French historian Pierre Vermeren. They were also welcomed with all honors by Viceroy Mehmet Ali, who granted them the status of semi-Egyptian civil servants.

Vice-roi d’Égypte de 1804 à 1849, Mehmet Ali était déjà à son époque favorable au percement d’un canal. © Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Memory of Modern Egypt / Domaine public

Viceroy of Egypt from 1804 to 1849, Mehmet Ali was already in his time in favor of the drilling of a canal. © Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Memory of Modern Egypt / Public domain

“In accordance with their dual mystical and industrial approach,” continues the historian, “the Saint-Simonians imagine a canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, a means of unifying East and West. » One of the most enthusiastic promoters of the project is Father Enfantin, a Saint-Simonian from the very beginning. In 1832, he left for Egypt with 80 of his disciples, including engineers and scientists. Their objective: to modernize the country by following the movement already launched by Viceroy Mehmet Ali.

The Saint-Simonian intervention will have several achievements to its credit. The engineer Linant de Bellefonds notably built, from 1834, the large dam on the Nile delta, while his colleague Lambert Bey created the Cairo Polytechnic School. And of course, the Saint-Simonians are tackling the project of digging the Suez Canal. Their first feat of arms consists of verifying the topographical data carried out under Bonaparte. The latter reported un difference in altitude of around ten meters between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Locks, in this case, would have been essential. This is not the case, in truth. The new surveys from Saint-Simoniens reveal a practically equal leveling.

The next challenge consists of going beyond this purely scientific stage, which involves attracting investors and donors, who will have the last word. Communicating about the project therefore becomes more than necessary. It is the Marseille lawyer Auguste Colin, also Saint-Simonien, who is in charge. In 1848, he published a manifesto entitled “Company of the Isthmus of Suez, general overview and preliminary draft« . Rigorous specifications, in which the idea of ​​a social, beneficial and peaceful project takes precedence. The campaign will then attract the attention of the greatest since in 1845, the son of King Louis-Philippe, the duke de Montpensier, traveled to Egypt to see first-hand the viability of the project. The following year in Paris, Father Enfantin founded the Suez Canal Studies Society with a capital of 150 francs.

However, it was Ferdinand de Lesseps who, taking up the project a little less than a decade later, brought it to fruition, definitively sidelining the Saint-Simonians. The reasons for this withdrawal remain unclear. Their project, placed under the sign of universal fraternity and philanthropy, certainly erred on the side of being utopian. And in the 19th century, in the era of triumphant capitalism and imperialism, the world could only think in financial and economic terms.

The observation is still relevant today: with their drone and missile attacks, the Houthis are in turn hitting the global economy au wallet.

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