In 1831, a 26-year old French foreign service official by the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps was sent to Alexandria to serve as vice-consul. While undergoing an obligatory period of quarantine, the French Consul-General, Monsieur Mimaut, sent his new understudy a number of books to help pass the time, and one of these books proved to be a lengthy memorandum composed by French engineer Jacques-Marie le Pere, writing on instructions from Napoleon Bonaparte. The subject was the linking of the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by the construction of a canal. This study made a deep impression on the mind of the young diplomat, and for the remainder of his term of service in Egypt, he applied himself to studying the question. Eventually, he came to believe that it was not only a viable project, but a potentially profitable one too, and, of course, it would be nothing less than a stupendous gift to mankind.
As it turned out, the concept of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean was not by any means new. In fact, the idea was as old as trade across the isthmus itself. Work on the Canal of the Pharaohs, or Necho’s Canal, as it is more commonly known, began during Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty, under the reign either of Sethi I, or his son, the great Rameses II. The project sought to link the two oceans through an artificial canal of modest length linking a navigable stretch of the Nile to the Bitter Lakes, and then to the Red Sea.
The Suez Canal: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Waterway examines the various attempts to create the canal over thousands of years, and how the modern Suez Canal came to be.