To great acclaim, the Suez Canal was opened for navigation on November
17, 1869, having been completed in the August after ten years of work by
25,000 labourers under the command of Ferdinand de Lesseps. With it came
a saving for European shipping to the Indian Ocean of the 6,400-km trip
The dream of such a canal had been a long held one (Napoleon was one
such dreamer), and dates back to the time of the Pharaohs. In those
times the aim was more modest than de Lesseps’ plan to join the
Mediterranean and Red Seas — namely to build a water link between the
Red Sea and the Nile.
The first such waterway was cut in the 13th century BC, possibly at the
behest of Seti I (reigned 1291-1279 BC) or Rameses II (r. 1279-1212 BC).
During the next 1,000 years the canal was re-excavated several times,
once by the Persian king Darius (522-486 BC), who during his state visit
to Egypt gave orders for the building of a canal from the so-called
Pelousiac arm of the Nile (which he knew as the River Pirawa) to the Red
Like the festivities in 1869, Darius’ achievement was celebrated by much
pomp and ceremony. More than twenty ships sailed through bearing
tribute, and many flattering adulatory speeches were made.
It was also commemorated by a typical Darian inscription:
I am a Persian. From Persis I grabbed Egypt. I commanded to dig this
canal from a river by name Pirawa which flows in Egypt to the sea which
goes out from Persis. Afterwards this canal was dug out as I commanded,
and ships went from Egypt through this canal as was my desire.