Written for my world history class and noded for the same reason as most of my other stuff ... people seem to like it.
A Blessing and a Curse: The Suez Canal
When one thinks of the Middle East, the images conjured up are mixed ones. The Bible stories of Abraham and Moses, perhaps, or more modern scenes of sniper fire, barbed wire and crumbling concrete walls. This tract of land between Europe, Asia and Africa bears many significant titles -- the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of religion, the most politically volatile place on Earth. The Middle East is a crossroads where the traders of Europe and Asia would have to pass through in order to reach their destinations by land. It separates the Mediterranean from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, forcing ships to sail all the way around Africa in order to travel from Europe to the Far East. At least, until the Suez Canal was built. The Canal allows ships a more direct route through the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean, speeding trade and simultaneously becoming one of the most important strategic positions in the Middle East. Whoever controlled the Canal had control of trade between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and with it the power to make or break the economies of individual countries and whole regions through taxes, tariffs, and embargoes. As such, wars have been fought over and included the Suez Canal for centuries.
The canal has been around longer than most of the countries in the Middle East today, in some shape or form. It was originally dug towards the 20th century B.C. by the Egyptians. It was extended by their Pharaohs and, later, the Greeks. (Electric Library, "Suez Canal.") However, it was closed around the 8th century A.D. and went unattended until it was rendered unusable by lack of maintenance. The Canal as we know it today is attributed to Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer. He was the second wave of French interest in the construction of the Canal - engineers working for Napoleon had decided it was implausible because of a large difference in the sea level of the Red and Meditteranean Seas (which de Lesseps proved wrong). He began construction of the canal in 1854 and the Suez Canal was inaugurated in November of 1869 ("The Suez Canal," Phillips, Brent.). De Lesseps was granted sole control over the Canal by the Egyptian ruler of the time, Khedive Said. However, the Khedive was forced to sell off his shares of the Canal to Britain in order to refill his country's empty coffers. This was something of a snub to Russia, which was also looking to gain influence over the Canal, as well as a humiliation for Egypt, which wound up holding no real control over its own waterway -- one which saw 14% of the total world trade, 26% of oil exports, and 41% of the total volume of goods and cargo that reach Arab Gulf ports pass through its 100-mile stretch during the mid 1990s (Egypt State Information Service).
The British gaining control of the canal was just the first shift in the balance of power. World War I allowed many Middle Eastern nations to declare independence, and the heavy-handedness of the Allied powers in decreeing new borders and forcing the payment of damages did wonders for reducing the Western world's reputation in the Middle East. World War II made it necessary for Britain to follow through on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which stated its support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (Class notes, 15 October 2001.). Needless to say, the forced evacuation of whole populations irritated a great deal of the Middle East.
In 1956, the Egyptian President Gamal A. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which was a shock to the European stockholders who actually owned the thing as well as a jolt to Israel, who Nasser declared would never sail a single ship through the canal ever again. Israel immediately threw in their lot with the British and French, who conspired to attack Egypt and seize control of the canal once again. This was known as the "Suez Crisis." The tripartisan attack on Egypt succeeded, but the U.N., United States, and Soviet Union all stepped in to force Israel to relinquish control back to Egypt, fearing this tip in the balance of power would cause World War Three. While it did not cause a nuclear armageddon, it did create more anti-Israeli strife and was part of the reason for the Six-Day War. The Six-Day War was just one of many conflicts dating all the way back to Israel's inception in 1948, including the Yom Kippur War. In the midst of it all the Suez Canal, the Middle East's primary trade route, was lost, won and given back again like clockwork since it was first nationalized in 1956.
Phillips, Brent. "The Suez Canal." Available online:
Egyptian State Information Service. "The Inaugration of the Suez Canal." Available online:
"Suez Canal." Colombia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. Columbia University Press; 2000.
Middle East class notes, World History; 15 October 2001.