Published: June 1975

Suez Canal

Photo: Dredging the Suez Canal, Egypt

New Life for the Troubled Suez Canal

Only a handful of wild animal species have been successfully bred to get along with humans. The reason, scientists say, is found in their genes.

By William Graves
Photograph by Jonathan Blair

This article was originally published in the June 1975 National Geographic.

Groping our way through water dark with silt, Mohsen El-Gohary and I drift cautiously down on the bomb. It lies armed and lethal in some forty feet of water, half buried in the mud of the Suez Canal floor.

As we approach the bottom, I edge closer to Mohsen; with visibility limited to a few feet, I have no urge to go exploring. I am simply an observer in a dangerous task, that of clearing the Suez Canal of the debris of war.

Happily for me the dive is brief, merely involving inspection of the bomb. Found earlier by Egyptian Navy divers, it has been identified as an Israeli 550-pounder, probably dropped during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Mohsen's job as an Egyptian ordnance expert is to determine whether the bomb should be recovered for study or blown up where it lies.

The answer comes quickly. Concentrating on the bomb's exposed fuse, Mohsen probes it thoughtfully with his hand in a way that gives me chills, even in the 75-degree water. After a pause he shakes his head and gestures upward: The job calls for a demolition team.

Nations Join to Unclog Waterway

Such episodes were common along the Suez Canal last autumn in the midst of clearing operations. During more than a month of exploring the historic waterway, I met many with Mohsen's courage and dedication. Not all were Egyptian, for in the massive challenge of reopening the canal, the Arab Republic of Egypt received help from many quarters, notably the United States, Great Britain, and France. The gesture represented a major effort to promote peace in an explosive area of the world; it cost U.S. taxpayers alone more than $20,000,000.

Whether such international efforts will help bring lasting peace depends in some measure on the Suez Canal itself.

The canal when I saw it belonged temporarily to several hundred ordnance and salvage technicians from several countries in addition to Egypt. As a result of years of intermittent combat between Egypt and Israel, the waterway had become a giant slag heap of war—blocked by scuttled and sunken ships, strewn with unexploded ammunition, abandoned by more than a million Egyptians who had fled their homes along its banks, and occupied on either side by mortal enemies. Along the 100-mile-long canal, scarcely an acre had escaped being fortified or damaged.

Such was the challenge in early 1974, when a disengagement agreement and Israel's subsequent withdrawal from the canal offered the first real hope in more than six years. Egypt promptly announced its intention to reopen the waterway, whose closure since 1967 had cost the world an estimated 12 billion dollars in higher shipping costs, including the expense of the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. By this spring the canal was clear of war debris. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced that the waterway would reopen on June 5.

For nearly a century after its completion in 1869, the Suez Canal was a highroad of commerce and empire, linking the nations of Europe with far-flung outposts and funneling the raw wealth of Asia and East Africa—rubber, oil, coal, tin, and manganese—to industrial markets in the West.

During the peak year of 1966 more than 21,000 ships passed through the canal. But to regain such importance, I discovered, the waterway must expand to keep pace with a worldwide revolution in transportation.

Two Wars Cause Two Blockages

The decision to reopen the canal brought to Egypt such men as Rear Adm. Kent J. Carroll, in command of the U.S. Navy task force sent to assist in the clearing operation. One morning I accompanied him on a helicopter flight from the battle-scarred city of Ismailia midway along the canal to the southern entrance at Port Taufiq.

In preparation for his assignment, Admiral Carroll had obviously done considerable research. As we skimmed southward above the bright ribbon of water, hemmed on either side by vast reaches of desert, he gave me an illustrated course in modern Suez Canal history.

"This is the second time Egypt has cleared the canal," the admiral began. "After the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956, war with Israel, Britain, and France resulted in major blockage that closed the waterway for five months. But the six-day war of 1967 shut it down for years. At that time Egypt scuttled several vessels in the canal to deny its use to Israel, and Israel occupied the east bank." He waved toward a line of fortifications sweeping by on our left.

"That's the famous Bar-Lev Line the Israelis constructed in 1968-69. It was built while both sides were pounding each other across the canal with artillery and occasional air strikes. Now look off to the right; you'll get a glimpse of some of Egypt's deadliest defenses." Dotting the desert at wide intervals were the ominous sites of Soviet-built SAM's, the surface-to-air missiles that had taken a heavy toll of the Israeli Air Force.

Farther along the canal we came to the remnants of a huge dike that had obviously once spanned the entire canal.

"That's still another chapter, the Deversoir Causeway," Admiral Carroll explained. "After the October war of 1973, Israeli engineers built it to support their forces on the west bank. It's a massive thing, made of huge stones and sunken barges, the largest single obstacle in the canal."

Over the course of an hour we took in a variety of other sights, including a huge natural bulge in the canal known as the Bitter Lakes and the jumbled ruins of Suez and Port Taufiq. Here, on a triumphant day in November 1869, the French builder of the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, completed the historic first transit of the waterway with other dignitaries aboard a ceremonial fleet that had sailed from Port Said in the north.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |