Its been almost exactly three months since I started my journey eastwards from Shanghai. And although I never intended to come to Egypt as it's not really part of the Silk Road, a couple of miscalculations and logistical hiccups have serendipitously steered me into the African continent. It is perhaps a fitting outcome, that after 90 days on the road I find myself at the junction of Europe, Africa and Asia. Nowhere else in the world can you straddle two continents and be so close to another. I suppose Istanbul comes close, but Africa is further away from Turkey than Europe is from Egypt.
This is a fascinating place, not because of any ancient architecture (there is none to speak of), but because of its fabulously storied past. As you can imagine, a waterway facilitating sea trade between Europe and Asia would be a source of great interest, and even greater conflict. But 4,000 years before all this, the Egyptian Pharaohs had already dug Version 1.0 of the canal linking the Red Sea and the Nile, and hence the Mediterranean Sea. Darius I of the Archaemanid Empire expanded on the concept, linking Egypt and Persia by a naval route 2,500 years ago. After a period of disuse, it was once again revived under the Islamic Caliphate of Omar the Great in the 7th century.
It wasn't until Napoleon's time in the 19th century that the canal's present route was contemplated. But unfortunately, due to a calculation error indicating that the Mediterranean and Red Seas were of different altitudes, plans were prematurely scuttled. In 1830, a British study indicated that the altitude difference was in fact negligible, but the British were resistant to the idea because they already locked-down a monopoly of Europe-India-East Asia naval routes. An alternative passage would have jeopardised the trade dominance they enjoyed at the time. So it fell to the French who spent 15 years planning and constructing the canal, finally declaring it open in 1869. A French ship was supposed to inaugurate the canal by being the first to traverse it, but imagine their horror when a British ship was actually the first to sail through in the cover of the night!
The Brits then scored another coup when they purchased a massive stake in the canal after it ran into financial difficulties in 1875, and they gained full control in the 1882 occupation of Egypt, and successfully defended it during the first and second world wars. They finally did (reluctantly) relinquish control when Egypt unilaterally nationalised the canal in 1956, and British-French-Israeli effort (some say conspiracy) to outmaneuver Egyptian President Nasser was thwarted by the United Nations. The canal was often used as a channel for the crossing of troops during the Arab-Israeli wars in the 1960's and 1970's, and hence heavily mined. It wasn't until 1975 when the canal was re-opened for global trade, this time firmly (and permanently) under Egyptian control.
Today, close to 10% of world trade passes through the Suez Canal, and it brings Egypt some USD5 billion in annual "toll" revenues. Since its inception, it has irreversibly altered the course of international naval logistics, by shortening the Europe-Asia sea route by 7,000 miles or about 10 days-at-sea. About 50 ships pass through the canal daily, and it really is quite something to see supertankers magically slide by, on this narrow strip of water, against a desert backdrop. It's only about 200m wide for the majority of its length of 170km, so ships travel in single-file convoys. Although when I visited, the Egyptian government had triumphantly announced the USD4 billion expansion of the canal, declaring a national holiday on the 6th of August. They are calling it "Egypt's gift to the world". I'm not so sure it's entirely correct to put it that way. The average toll charge per vessel to traverse the canal is USD250,000. A gift is a gift only if you don't pay for it.
Financials aside, there's an incredible amount of historical value here. Initiated by the Pharaohs, expanded by the Persians and the Arabs, consummated by the French, first opposed then embraced then controlled by the British, occupied by the United Nations and finally coming back to the Egyptians in a roundabout 4,500-year full circle. Was it worth the trip? Definitely. And here's a top tip - pedestrians cross the canal in a ferry-ride from Africa to Asia and back for free!
And a giant ship in the middle.