Since its opening in 1869, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for the first time, the canal has drawn avaricious eyes from all over Europe and the Middle East, from the British Empire to the Nazis.
It’s perhaps the most valuable 193km of water on the planet.
French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps won a licence to create the Suez Canal Company from the Viceroy of Egypt – notionally a province of the Ottoman Empire – in the 1850s.
Construction began in 1859, with shares in the company selling mostly to French buyers.
It is estimated that thousands of the 1.5 million people who worked on it during the following decade died, with diseases such as cholera spreading swiftly and with some regularity through the labourers – many of whom were conscripted.
The canal was officially opened in November, 1869, with the SS Dido the first ship to pass through it, from south to north.
The canal’s effect on the world was significant.
Not only did it undercut the British Empire’s grip on trade with the “Far East”, but it helped facilitate European colonisation of Africa – one of history’s less pleasant epochs.
What Britain wants, Britain takes
Initially resistant to the project, Britain became a significant shareholder in the Suez Canal Company in 1875 when the Viceroy of Egypt sold his 44 per cent stake to the UK government in London.
Britain responded as Britain was then wont to do, by occupying Egypt in 1882 in the face of increasing local unrest (though Egypt was still, at this point, technically an Ottoman possession).
In 1888, a new treaty declared the Suez Canal a neutral zone under British “protection”.
British troops would remain in Egypt for almost the next 70 years, some of the most tumultuous the world has ever known.
The Suez Canal was regarded as strategically important during both world wars.
In 1915, the UK beat back a major Ottoman attack, while in World War II, the Nazis and fascist Italian government made the canal a focus of their North Africa Campaign.
After WWII, Egypt decided the UK probably had no business “protecting” the vitally important shipping lane, and in 1954 the Brits agreed to pack up and go home.
But it wouldn’t be long before they were back.
The Suez Crisis and Arab-Israeli Wars
Egyptian President Gamal Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, kickstarting the Suez Crisis.
In brief, Israel, France and the UK concocted a plan to retake control of the canal involving an Israeli assault that the European partners would use to justify a mission to re-impose stability in the Middle East.
The plan was averted by Canadian politician Lester Pearson, who proposed as an alternative the creation of the first United Nations peacekeeping force, to maintain security on the Suez Canal.
Backed by the US, the plan was accepted, and the UK and France settled back down.
The canal reopened in 1957, with a UN force in place.
A decade later, the Six Day War saw Israel occupy the Sinai peninsula and the east bank of the Suez Canal.
Egypt promptly closed the blockade to all shipping, sealing 15 cargo inside.
This “Yellow Fleet” would stay there until 1975.
Wreckage from the continued conflicts, including the Yom Kippur War of 1973, can still be seen on the canal’s edges, a reminder of the lengths nations have gone to in attempts to possess it.
Bombs away, and re-opening
A major mine-clearing operation by the US and the UK followed the 1973 conflict.
The process was slow and arduous, but by 1975, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat re-opened the Suez Canal to shipping.
Since 1979, the UN peacekeeping force has been replaced by the Multinational Force and Observers, under an agreement by the US, Israel, Egypt and multiple other nations.
The canal has never again been shut to shipping for military reasons, though ship accidents have led to temporary closures over the years, leading up to the Ever Given today.
At the height of his power, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a survey to determine whether a canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea was a feasible project.
Only an incorrect report stating the seas were at different levels prevented him from going ahead with it.
In an alternate world where the numbers were right, the canal may have come into being under Napoleon’s iron grip, and the shape of history since then would be very different.