Une histoire d'entreprises



Le canal de Suez, c'est quoi :

160km (in 1869)
151 meters
(54 meters in 1869)
11 meters
(8 meters in 1869)
0 mètre
(pas d'écluse)
Work started
Work completed
Cubic ms removed
75 millions
Duration of transit
15 hours approx.
18 000 p.a.

  • 1 - Port-Saïd
  • 2 - Port-Fouad
  • 3 - Kantara
  • 4 - Ismaïlia
  • 5 - Lac Timsah
  • 6 - Canal d'eau douce
  • 7 - Seuil d'El Gisr
  • 8 - Lacs Amers
  • 9 - Lignes de chemin de fer
  • 10 -Suez
  • 11 - Port-Taufiq

Technical challenges

The canal has been the catalyst for a technical revolution : in the early stages, the canal has been dug in a pharaonic way by thousands of fellahs handling shovels and pickaxes ; by the end of the project, huge steam-driven monsters had taken over.

It was in Egypt, land of pyramids and temples, that machines first replaced manual labour on a grand scale.

Geographical and historical challenges

Mohammed-Saïd and Lesseps had chosen a direct route defined by Linant and Mougel Bey. This route was a straight one, between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, but the challenge was that it passed through a total desert.A complete desert – not a waterhole and not any track – bordered to the south by a fishing village and to the north by a swampy coast without any port or shelter.The top priority was to supply the work sites with fresh water. So first, water from the Nile was channelled into the isthmus.Next, a port in the north was essential, initially to receive materials shipped from Europe, but eventually also to moor ships travelling through the canal. Since the swampy northern coast could not provide any shelter, Port-Saïd was established, with its buildings, quays, channels, harbour, on the swamps of the Gulf of Peluse. On the opposite side of the canal, Port-Fouad was established to site workshops, stores and accomodation.

The town of Suez already existed. In 1880 it was a small and virtually forgotten fishing port. Construction of the canal had very littleimpact on the town : for geological reasons, a new town, Port-Tewfik was built just besides

The isthmus being a desert, where to find the workers to dig the canal ? According to the firmans, Egypt had to provide the necessary manpower by the mean of forced labour (“corvée”). At that time, that was a classical method of carrying out public works. It was a tax in kind. However, working conditions on the canal were not bad and relatively advanced for the time. The 1856 workers' regulation proved it – workers were paid, housed and fed. Neither were there any uprisings or protests.

And then, for political reasons, "corvee", forced labour, was brutally abolished.

Rising to the challenges

Geographical challenges

To provide the 16 000 litres of water daily required in late 1859, the Company initially imported three distillers from The Netherlands, each producing 5000 litres a day. These distillers were steam driven and powered by water and coal.Another solution was to deal with a boat owner with a number of small boats which brought water into Port-Saïd, across lake Menzaleh. Then the water was distributed to the work sites, using camels. But these were only makeshifts, before the Nile water be channelled into the isthmus.

The initial project was to divert the river in Cairo and to dig the canal from there. This plan was abandoned as being too ambitious. Finally, the freshwater canal, linked to the irrigation system of the delta, was dug from Zagazig to Ismaïlia. In 1862, freshwater began to be supplied to the isthmus and the canal also enabled some materials to be transported. The freshwater canal still supplies the isthmus today.

Another - and impressively modern - response to the geographical challenges was the creation from nothing of the port of Port-Saïd.
Natural blocks of stone were used to form rocks upon which the landing stage of the future pier would rest. The blocks were shipped by a fleet of a dozen boats from quarries located to the west of Alexandria. Later, from October 1863 onwards, this mean of transport being too difficult and slow it will be replaced by a more revolutionary method : instead of carrying blocks of stone, artificial concrete blocks were directly cast on site.In Port-Saïd, the first artificial blocks were laid in August 1865. The two piers (1900 and 2200 meters long) were completed in January 1869 and required 250 000 cubic metres concrete.

Political challenges and replacement of man by machines

The abolition of “corvée” left a situation which seemed rather dramatic. But very soon, steam-powered machines were used at a large scale to continue the work and manpower did not disappear completely. Instead of the 20 000 workers previously employed, there remained approximately 4 000, all volunteers.

The engineers
The first engineers, Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds and Eugène Moigel had worked on the project from the origin. Civil servants of the Egyptian government, they were seconded to the Company. Voisin, engineer from the French Highways Department, managed the works right to the end.

The entrepreneurs
Work was divided up and entrusted to different companies. They were responsible for much more than carrying out work; they also played a part in developing some new and sometimes revolutionary machines. Although Lesseps was not an engineer and was not involved in technical decisions, he was always present on the work sites and co-ordinated all activities.

The machinery
Up to 1863, most of the work on the canal had been done by labourers with baskets (there were no wheelbarrows in the East). In 1860, 50 000 shovels and pickaxes were ordered in France. It was only after 1863 that really revolutionary machines appeared on work-sites.

Historical background

For a very long time, the project of a canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had been a very common idea, except by Bonaparte, had a direct link across the Suez isthmus, been envisaged.

Early attempts were said to have been made to build a canal linking the Nile to Lake Timsah during the time of Pharaoh Sesostris I (circa 1960 BC) but no traces of such a project remain, in spite of Strabon's statement. The Pharaoh Necho II then had a new canal dug (circa 600 BC). Work was resumed by Darius

1st (510 BC), and Ptolemy II Philadelphus who gave the canal its definitive form (circa 260 BC). Abandoned and chocked with sand, Ptolemy's canal was restored during the reign of Trajan (circa 100 AD), but abandoned again. In around 640, Caliph Omar ordered the canal be reopened. At last, in 775, Caliph Al Mansur closed the canal for political and military reasons..

In 1799 during the expedition of Egypt, Bonaparte asked J.M. Le Père, ingénieur en chef des Ponts et Chaussés to plot the isthmus in detail. Le Père mistakenly established a difference of around 10 meters between the levels of the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

In 1799 during the expedition of Egypt, Bonaparte asked J.M. Le Père, ingénieur en chef des Ponts et Chaussés to plot the isthmus in detail. Le Père mistakenly established a difference of around 10 meters between the levels of the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

In 1846, on the initiative of their leader Prosper Enfantin, Saint-Simonians (a group of following the ideas of the philosopher-economist Claude Henri de Saint-Simon) created an engineering company to promote the project for along the Nile and linked to theRed Sea.

In 1847, Louis-Maurice Linant de Bellefonds, a brilliant French engineer working in Egypt, carried out a technical survey on the possibility to go through the isthmus.

When Lesseps arrived in Egypt in November 1854, he found all the technical basis on the place. But none of its predecessors had had the political skills or willpower wich were essential to drive the project forward.

On 30th November 1854, Mohamed Saïd signed a document linking both parties.

At that time, the viceroy of Egypt was the vassal of the Sultan of Turkey. He felt it necessary - and Lesseps shared this view - to secure the approval of the Sultan before starting work.Both thouht that such approval would be obtained rapidly. But a good lot of difficulties soon arose. First there were British objections to the project and as a result, the sultan, over whom the British ambassador has significant influence, refrained from giving a positive response.

After a number of attempts and many journeys, on 5th November 1858, Lesseps established the "Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez" with a head office in Alexandria and administrative headquarters in Paris; the viceroy approved the statues of the Company and a fund was started for the construction of Canal.

On 25th April 1859, Lesseps officialy broke ground for the first time.

But even from the beginning of work, all kinds of obstacles arose, as a result of pressure exerted by the British and the Turks. In one particularly serious crisis, in October 1859, Lesseps was forced to turn to Napoleon III who was supporting his canal project reluctantly so as not to offend the British and work continued at a somewhat slower pace.

As from 1863, the campaign against Lesseps escalated, fuelled by the prime minister of the new viceroy Ismaïl, who had succeeded Saïd. At the orders of the Sultan, who was himself taking his instructions from England, forced labour (corvee) was abolished in order to bring the work came to a standstill. But Lesseps then managed to substantially defuse the dispute over labour, replacing manpower, thanks to engineers, with steam engines, dredgers, excavators and other machines. Begun with shovels, pickaxes and baskets, construction of the canal continued under the power of steam.

From 17th and 20th November 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated with great pomp and ceremony in the presence of Empress Eugenie and most European governments.

At that time, 44% of the Company's capital was owned by Egypt and and additionally, according to the statutes, Egypt received 15% of the profits generated by the canal, giving it a total of 59% of the profits. This meant that the company was a semi-public company even before such a term be coined. This provided a probably unprecedented partition in favour of the licensing country, a situation that continued until 1875.

At that date, 1875, the Khedive Ismaïl was in dire straits. England, who was not favorable to the canal, took the opportunity to acquire, almost secretly, the 170 000 shares the Khedive was forced to sell and so became the major shareholder of the Suez Canal Company.

In 1882, on the pretext of the revolt by Arabi Pacha, British troops landed in Alexandria and occupied strategic points in Egypt, starting with the Suez Canal. They declare that they had come to restore order, before withdrawing. As a matter of facts, the British rule governed Egypt for more than 70 years.

As national feelings began strengthen in Egypt, the canal was seen as the reason for foreign presence on Egyptian soil. By returning the canal into Egyptian ownership would mean returning to Egypt that part of the country which had been lost. But nothing could be done as long as British civil servants and Troops remained. In 1952, independent officers seized power. King Farouk abdicated and the evacuation of the canal zone began. It was completed in 1956.

On 26th July 1956, Colonel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. Egypt planned to use the income from operating the canal to finance the construction of the Aswan dam. In November of the same year, Franco-British troops landed in Port-Saïd and Egypt blocked the canal by sinking ships in it. The canal will be reopened in April 1957.

Following the Six Day War in June 1967, the canal remained closed until 1975. Since then, it uninterruptely remained navigable and Suez Canal Authority has welcome ships from all over the world and has respected the strict neutrality of waterways.

A la suite de la guerre des Six-Jours en juin 1967, le canal restera fermé jusqu'en 1975, date à laquelle il est définitivement rendu à la navigation.



Les imaginaires du Canal de Suez : Représentations littéraires et culturelles (1858-1975)
04 November 2018
Colloque à l'université du Caire, 4-6 novembre 2018

Ce colloque international et interdisciplinaire traitera des représentations littéraires et culturelles du canal de Suez entre 1858 et 1975.

Ouvert à tous, les frais d'inscription sont de 100€.

Hélène Braeuner et Arnaud Ramière de Fortanier y partagerons leur communication.

Voir le programme.

Les Arenberg.
26 October 2018
au musée de Louvain, du 26/10/2018 au 20/01/2019

Le musée de Louvain a imaginé retracer l'importance de l'histoire de cette maison princière par une exposition. Une partie sera dédiée à sa puissance économique. L'histoire du canal de Suez y a sa place par la présence du Prince Pierre Auguste d'Arenberg, président de la Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez. (1896-1913)

L'association prête à cette occasion un tableau de ses collections: François Barry, le chantier N°5, vue du canal de Suez.

Marseille et "L'épopée du canal de Suez"
19 October 2018
au musée d'histoire de la ville, du 19 octobre 2018 au 31 mars 2019

"L'épopée du canal de Suez"de l'Institut du monde arabe à Paris se poursuit par une exposition au musée d'histoire de la ville de Marseille du 19 octobre 2018 au 31 mars 2019. 

La revue"Marseille", revue culturelle trimestrielle de la ville prépare son prochain numéro sur le thème: Marseille et l'Egypte.

Nous attendons nos amis et adhérents nombreux le soir du vernissage jeudi 18 octobre à 18h 30. Cette inauguration sera précédée d'une visite de la chambre de commerce et d'industrie, fleuron de la puissance commerciale marseillaise au XIXème siècle. 

Nous nous retrouverons au Mucem vendredi 19 pour une visite du musée et de l'exposition "connectivités".

Un colloque est en cours de programmation pour mars 2019.



Enquêtes orales: formation des enseignants
19 October 2018
avec le recteur Philippe Joutard.

Vendredi 19 octobre 2018, le recteur Philippe Joutard, administrateur de l’association,

directeur scientifique de ses travaux d’enquêtes orales a dirigé une journée de formation

au musée d’histoire de la ville de Marseille pour une quarantaine d’enseignants de lycée professionnel.

Après une visite de l’exposition « Marseille et l’épopée du canal de Suez » avec Ann Blanchet, directrice adjointe du musée, le recteur Joutard a présenté

des méthodes d’enquêtes orales, leur pédagogie et application pratique pour des élèves en classe de français et d'histoire.

Visiter l'exposition
16 May 2018

Si vous souhaitez visiter l’exposition “L’épopée du canal de Suez” lors des visites proposées les :

Mercredi  16 mai   10h15
Mardi 22 mai         19h
Jeudi 24 mai         10h 15
Mardi 29 mai        10h 15
Mardi 5 juin          16h

Merci de bien vouloir vous inscrire en cliquant ici


"Canal de Suez : chantier de l'extrême"
26 January 2017

 Documentaire réalisé par Johanna Gauterie, avec l'aide de l'Association Lesseps Suez, diffusé le jeudi 26 janvier 2017 à 20H50 sur RMC Découverte (canal 24).

Visite du président Hollande en Egypte
17 April 2016
Le projet d'exposition sur le canal de Suez à l'Institut du Monde Arabe à Paris pour 2018


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