The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Suez Canal, a chokepoint of history

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In our digital age, we can forget how fragile — and analog — the interconnected networks threading our world can be. But then there are moments when a faulty cog spins loose, the gears moving the heaving apparatus of the global economy shudder and we realize how suddenly things can go awry.

That’s what has happened in the Suez Canal, where a container ship the size of a skyscraper remains marooned. It has choked off a narrow artery that sees the passage of about a tenth of all global shipping. A Dutch salvage company working on freeing the ship, the MV Ever Given, said it could take “weeks” to pull it loose from its beached landing — an unprecedented blockage in recent years. As dredgers and tugs worked through the weekend, Egyptian authorities ordered preparations for the unloading of the vessel’s 18,000 containers as a fall-back scenario.

Meanwhile, some 300 ships attempting the crossing from Asia to Europe, or vice versa, are facing delays. They are carrying everything from oil and cement to consumer goods and live animals and are trapped in a traffic jam whose trickle-down effects could reach every corner of the planet.

Reeling from the blockage in the Suez Canal, shipping rates for oil product tankers have nearly doubled this week, while oil prices climbed on March 26. (Video: Reuters)

How did a ship get stuck in the Suez Canal?

“The Ever Given, which is operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp., was bound for the Netherlands on Tuesday when a dust storm hit, leading to heavy winds and poor visibility in the 120-mile-long passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean,” my colleagues reported. “Exactly what went wrong and led the boat to run aground remains unclear. … Both Suez Canal Authority officials and Evergreen Marine have blamed winds that reportedly reached up to 30 mph. But that explanation has garnered some skepticism, given that the ship weighs as much as 220,000 tons when fully loaded and was built to withstand much stronger gusts.”

As massive ship remains stuck in the Suez Canal, signs of global economic toll emerge

Whatever the case, the ship’s ordeal has launched online jokes, with social media tickled by the seemingly hapless spectacle of local authorities struggling to extract such a vast vessel out from its sandy rut. But the “latest blockage does highlight the risks faced by the shipping industry as more and more vessels transit maritime choke points including the Suez, Panama Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and Southeast Asia’s Malacca Strait,” reported Bloomberg News, pointing to how container-carrying capacity on vessels has doubled over the past decade.

It’s also a reminder of the deep and vital history of the canal. Long before the modern canal’s construction in the 19th century, the area where it now runs was ripe for transcontinental crossing. Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the Mediterranean, observed how, thousands of years ago, “the low-lying isthmus of the Suez … [had] several times been flooded by the sea, turning Africa into an island.”

In antiquity, potentates saw the utility of building a maritime link for their oared triremes to move from the Mediterranean, or at least the Nile River, to the Red Sea. The first was possibly the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II — identified as Necos by the ancient Greek chronicler Herodotus — who started a massive canal-building project in about the late 7th century B.C. “In the digging of this canal, Necos lost one hundred and twenty thousand Egyptians,” wrote Herodotus, who explained that “Necos was stopped by the opposition of an oracle — to wit, that he was doing work for the barbarian who would come after him.”

Other “barbarians” would indeed come and apparently finish the work, including the Persian emperor Darius I and later Ptolemy from the line of Macedonian kings installed after the death of Alexander the Great. But the Red Sea receded in the centuries thereafter and the ancient canal, clogged with silt, faded into the desert. From medieval times to the end of the 18th century, schemers, from Arab rulers to Venetian traders to Ottoman pashas, contemplated or even tried to launch new canal projects, but their attempts all foundered.

One of the world’s biggest ships remains wedged across Suez Canal, disrupting a key trade route

The idea of the modern Suez Canal picked up steam after Napoleon Bonaparte’s quixotic invasion of Egypt in 1798. Dreaming of constructing a quick passage to India, already the jewel in a burgeoning British Empire, the French general dispatched a team of surveyors to chart the course of a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. But they incorrectly concluded that the latter was 30 feet higher than the former (their elevations are actually relatively similar) and that a canal would risk catastrophic flooding in the Nile Delta.

Decades later, the enterprising former French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps secured financing from the French government and the permission of the Ottoman viceroyalty in Egypt for his Suez Canal Company to begin construction of what would become the Suez Canal in 1859. The initial years involved a huge human undertaking, as workers removed and dredged many millions of cubic feet of earth. By one account, more than a million Egyptian peasants were forced into the project and tens of thousands perished, contracting diseases like cholera in circumstances likened to slave labor.

Conditions improved after local authorities intervened and heavy industrial equipment was introduced. In 1869, the canal was launched in a grand ceremony hosted by the Ottoman Khedive Ismail Pasha. Six years later, with Ottoman Egypt saddled with debt, Ismail would sell off his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British government, which had gone from being skeptics of the project to its greatest beneficiaries. The opening of the canal led to the heyday of European empires in Asia and Africa: Steam-powered warships and cargo vessels were able to skip the lengthy journey around the Cape of Good Hope. The cultivation of oil fields along the Persian Gulf in the early 20th century only underscored the strategic vitality of the canal for European powers.

It’s fitting, then, that the canal’s dramatic closing in 1956 is seen now as one of the death rattles of that age of colonialism. The charismatic nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser opted to nationalize the Suez Canal Company’s holdings and Egyptian troops seized its facilities. That prompted an invasion by a joint expedition of British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to overthrow Nasser. But it turned into a humiliating debacle, with the United States withholding support and global public opinion turning decisively against the British and their allies.

For others, like the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis — who happened to have empty tankers languishing in Saudi ports just as the crisis hit, and then charged huge rates as they circumnavigated Africa with oil for the West — it cemented a fortune. The canal was reopened in 1957 but would be shuttered once more a decade later after the Arab-Israeli War. That closure lasted eight years. In 1975, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat heralded the resumption of shipping activities in the canal by releasing a flock of doves.

This story has been updated.

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