The first canal in this area was built almost 4,000 years ago, connecting the Red Sea to the Nile River. It was used off and on for a thousand years, alternately silting up and being cleared again for use. Napoleon looked into building a canal here in 1799, but his engineers erroneously calculated that the Mediterranean was 33 feet lower than the Red Sea. Forty years later it was discovered that the two seas are at the same level and in the 1850’s Said Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, approved a French canal effort directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. Because the canal required no locks it could be built primarily by digging and moving sand & in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened to shipping. When de Lesseps tried to use the same method to dig a canal through Panama, of course, he failed miserably. Opening the canal also provided a route into the Mediterranean for numerous flora & fauna previously resident only in the Red Sea, altering its ecosystem permanently. This is called the Lessepian Migration.
After a sea day sailing around the Sinai Peninsula we found ourselves anchored before sunup on April 8 off the city of Suez at the northern end of the Red Sea. There were a lot of other ships anchored nearby.
We were to be the second ship in a convoy that was set to enter the Suez Canal before sunrise to spend most of the day sailing through it into the Mediterranean Sea. The Canal is about 121 miles long and and at least two convoys of ships traverse it every day, one north bound and one south bound. Our lead ship, which looked like a small military vessel, headed for the canal as the skies began to lighten & we followed it in.
As we began sailing slowly north, the city of Suez was on our left & the barren Sinai Peninsula was on our right.
Entering the canal behind us was a huge container ship which we were told was one of several identical ships that are the largest container ships in the world. If memory serves, it has a capacity of 22,000 containers and was carrying 14,000. Each container is the size of a large tractor trailer.
All along the canal were military posts & watchtowers. Some were obviously occupied & some less clear, & some had messages for us on the ground outside. They looked like lonely places to be stationed.
We continued up the canal, which is actually the dividing line between Asia, on our starboard (right) side, and Africa on our port (left) side. We saw some of the tall conical dovecotes common in Egypt. The pigeons drop guano on the inside that is used for fertilizer and are also eaten as squab. We came to the first of several lakes in the canal where convoys used to wait for ships going the other way to pass by (no more, as we will soon see).
We passed an oil tanker that had become disabled and had been sitting here for several months while its oil is drained into another ship, repairs are made, and the oil is pumped back in to complete the canal journey. This must be pretty unpleasant for the crew, not to mention very expensive for the owner.
We next came to the place where the canal divides into two parallel channels, one for northbound and one for southbound. This is brand new; the channel on the east (right) side for northbound ships just opened in August. Before this one of the convoys had to wait in a lake until the other passed by, slowing everything down considerably since there are quite a few ships in each convoy. The new parallel channels will enable traffic to increase by about 40%, and this will greatly increase Egypt’s income from the canal.
In this area from the lakes to the divided channels were a number of small fishing boats. After entering the parallel channel we continued to sail north. Most of the scenery consisted of large hills of sand, but they are laying asphalt roads on both sides along the waterfront.
The ongoing canal upgrade project includes more than the new channel. They are building several tunnels under the canal & a new town on the Sinai side, which we were told is expected to be a vacation destination for Egyptians. We saw a mosque & apartment buildings under construction there. Currently crossing the canal is done mostly by ferry, of which we saw a few. There is an old bridge at one point that rotates to let ships through, but it doesn’t reach across the new channel, so its difficult to see what use it will be in the future, unless they build a tunnel there to complete the journey to the Sinai side. In this area there were some statues & logos in the area between the channels relating to the canal.
We passed Ismailia, where the canal headquarters are located, but it was on the side of the other channel so we only got a distant view. This town was named after Ismail, the Egyptian pasha at the time the canal was opened. It has two noticeable monuments: a concrete monolith commemorating World War I dead, and a monument shaped (we were told) like an AK-47 to commemorate the Egyptian dead in the 6 day war with Israel.
Once we reached Ismailia we began to see ships from the southbound convoy in the opposite channel. the hills of sand (perhaps the material removed in digging the second channel) made it impossible to see more than the very top of the ships at first, but later the sandbanks in the center became lower & a better view of the ships was available. As you can see from the pictures, the ships maintain a pretty good distance between them, presumably for safety reasons.
As we neared the northern end of the canal we came to the one bridge that spans the entire canal. It was built by the Japanese & is called the Japan Egypt Friendship Bridge. We spent a long time approaching it at the slow speed used by canal traffic, & only saw one car cross this imposing bridge. It reminded us of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that was supposed to be built in Alaska a few years back.
After the bridge came Port Said, the city at the Mediterranean entrance to the canal that was named for the Pasha who granted de Lesseps authority to build the canal. We had docked in Port Said during our Grand Mediterranean cruise in 2013, although we spent the day visiting Cairo rather than in Port Said. See https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/port-said-cairo-egypt/. The canal was widened long ago to permit northbound ships to exit directly into the Mediterranean, bypassing Port Said. We did that, so our only glimpse of Port Said was from a distance. Having thus completed our interesting encounter with the Suez Canal, which is so different from the canal in which we crossed Panama, we sailed on toward more adventures in the Mediterranean Sea.