Myths about Africa: the Suez Canal was first built by France myth

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Africa is an ancient and great continent, the first home of humans. A continent in which its ancient peoples through numerous foundational inventions opened the doors of advancement to the world.

Over time a great many of her contributions to human development and advancement has been lost, forgotten or unjustly denied credit.

Some of the inventions and creations of its early inhabitants, however, cannot be denied and even in present-day still stands out and is clear for all to see. While some over time have become myths, shrouded in mystery over whom the originators were. One of such myths relates to who built the Suez canal.

What is the Suez canal? The Suez canal is a conduit for close to $1.7 trillion of global trade. 10% of global exports which in 2018 amounted to roughly $17.4 trillion goes through the Suez Canal. It is a sea-level waterway running through Egypt that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Suez Canal

Just like many foundational works of Africans that have been advanced or expanded upon by Europeans and all the credit accorded to the later, while the originators are relegated to the background. Many people believe that until the 19th-century construction of the Suez Canal by the French, there were no such canals in Egypt.

It would, however, shock many to know that ancient Africans had thousands of years ago thought about the idea of connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and had actually carried out construction works in that regard.

Not only were Africans the first people to accomplish such feat, but they also invented the water lock around 274 BC which kept the river Nile salt free[1].

The Modern Suez canal is a man-made sea level waterway that connects the Mediterranean sea directly to the Red sea through the isthmus of Suez. Located in Egypt, it is 193.3 Km(120.1 miles) long, 78 feet deep(24 m), and 673 feet wide(205 m). The channel extends from the northern terminus of port Sa’id to the southern port Tewfik.

Map Showing Location Of The Suez Canal

Its construction ultimately breaks the African continent away from the Middle East and Asia.

It would be simply naïve to attribute the linking of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red sea entirely to the French.


In ancient times African people dug to reasonable extent canals that attempted to link the Mediterranean and Red seas, the French expanded and advanced upon these ancient works to bring the project to fruition.

Egypt was the first nation to construct man-made canals on the surface of the earth. Search the Internet, but while diminishing the completeness, quality and accuracy of public knowledge, what you will find are stories about 18th and 19th century canals built by the British or French. The Egyptians during those ancient times had a focus to encourage and advance world trade.

The Suez canal is an ancient conception. The idea of linking the Mediterranean to the Red sea dates to as far back as 1800 BC during the times of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

This conception has been acted upon by generations of leaders starting with the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt from 1800 BC up till the Islamic era, to the present day Suez canal. It was intermittently dredged and acted upon until its present-day condition and actualization.

There is a possibility that Ancient Egyptians as far back as 2000 BC or earlier, might have actually constructed canals that ran from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

This is going by the inscriptions in the tomb of Weni the Elder (2407 – 2260 BC) that tells a great deal about Egyptians constructing canals for warships and transportation. However, the debate rages on between scholars on whether actually, the waterways ran all the way from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Map Indicating The Ancient Suez Canal or Canal Of The Pharaohs

Although there are sources that attribute the first attempts to King Necho II of Egypt. According to ancient writers, however, activity leading to the modern day Suez canal most likely started with Pharaoh Senusret III also known as Sesostris (1878 BC – 1839 BC).

Because of the many branches of the Nile river at the time, he initiated works on the Sesostris canal in an attempt to link the Mediterranean to the Red sea utilizing the branches of the Nile river. But it was not completed, the reason being the difference in height between the Nile River and the Red sea[2].

Map Showing The Darius Canal And Locations of The Darius Inscriptions

Professor Fathi Saleh founder and emeritus director of the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Cairo (CultNat), has talked about such works citing the journals of ancient historians and travellers such as Herodotus who made lots of references to the Sesostris canal.

The Sesostris canal also known as the ancient Suez canal or the canal of Pharaohs or the Necho canal is the progenitor of the modern Suez canal, although it followed a different route than its modern counterpart; It linked the Nile to the Red Sea.

The canal was at multiple times and under different leaders used, abandoned, re-dug and reopened, most probably due to lack of maintenance, the desert nature of Egypt and silting. It was even given different names depending on who was at the helm of affairs at the time as follows:

Canal of Sity I 1310 BC
Canal of Nkhaw 610 BC
Canal of Darius I 510 BC
Canal of Ptolemy II 285 BC
Canal of Romans 117 AC
Canal of Amir El-Moemeneen 640 AD

Darius I (528 – 486 BC) is recorded as being another leader that restored the canal going by his famous Darius the Great Suez Inscriptions.

This feat most likely might have been the re-digging and advancement of the Sesotris canal.

Darius I, to celebrate his achievement erected five monuments in Wadi Tumilat; a series of granite stelae that were set up along the bank of the Nile river known as Darius the Great’s Inscriptions.

These Monuments contains Old Persian, Egyptian, Elamite and Babylonian texts that commemorate the opening of a canal between the Nile and the Bitter Lakes[3].

Among these monuments is the Chalouf stele which records the construction of the progenitor to the modern Suez canal[4].

A Fragment of The Chalouf Stele

The canal was constructed to establish a trade route or shipping connection between the Nile and the Red sea; between Egypt and the Persians.

Herodotus wrote that the length of the voyage through this channel is four days and that the channel was wide enough to allow for two triremes with oars fully extended to go side by side.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus is said to have extended the canal to the Red Sea. The channel was abandoned during the reign of the Romans.

Over the next seven centuries, it was dredged, abandoned and rebuilt by different rulers who used it for limited purposes.

The first attempt to construct a modern canal was carried out by Napoleon. He had hoped that the canal, when constructed, would cause trade problems for the English.

Works began in 1799 but it was quickly stopped due to the difference in sea levels between the Mediterranean and Red seas; this was a miscalculation as both seas were at approximately the same level.


The official, most popular and widely regarded account of the Suez canal conveniently leaves out the part played by the early Africans that started it all.

It goes that in the 19th century, around the 1830s, amidst growing interests of the need to directly link the Mediterranean to the Indian ocean, a French explorer and chief engineer for Egypt’s public works Linant de Bellefonds performed a survey of the isthmus of Suez, and his findings was vital to the work that was carried out in the construction of the Suez canal, he confirmed that the Mediterranean and the Red seas were at the same level of altitude.

Up until that time the belief was that the Mediterranean and Red seas sat at different levels of altitude, which would make the construction of the canal almost impossible without locks. This fallacy was due to the previous erroneous calculations of earlier engineers.

By the 1850s, Sa’id Pasha the Viceroy of Egypt and Sudan granted Ferdinand de Lesseps a French diplomat permission to establish a company for the construction of the canal which was to grant access to ships from all nations.

Lesseps set up a commission of 13 experts that would aid in creating the company.

Notable among them was Alois Negrelli a top class civil engineer, who developed the architectural plans for the project.

In 1858 the company came to life and was called the Suez Canal Company, it was granted a 99-year lease over the waterways of the canal.

Construction works began in 1859. It involved about 1.5 million workers most of whom were Egyptian forced or slave labourers. There are reports that many of the workers died from cholera and other related illness.

A decade later, work on the canal was completed, and the Suez canal was inaugurated on 17th November 1869 in full control of the French. But it wasn’t without its challenges.

The British and some few other European countries opposed the use of forced labour in the project and instigated attempts to thwart it.

One of such attempts was the deployment of armed Bedouins to incite a rebellion among the workers.

However the real motive of the British was not the use of forced labour or slaves as they claimed; since the British themselves used slaves and forced labour also in the construction of their British railway in Egypt only a couple of years earlier, and they showed no remorse on the death of many of the workers.

It was rather a fear of encroachment on their trade relations with India since the Suez canal upon completion would grant everyone direct access to the Indian ocean.

The Suez canal due to its strategic position and benefits has been the subject of conflicts between nations.

These conflicts have led to the closing of the canal twice in its history.

Previously owned by France and the United Kingdom, in 1956 it was nationalized, and Egypt became its new owner.

Today it is completely operated and maintained by the Suez Canal Authority of Egypt, but a multinational body which includes The United States, Israel and Egypt oversees its affairs.

In 2015 Egypt deepened parts of the canal and constructed a parallel 35km long shipping lane in the middle, along part of the main waterway, this expansion enabled the Suez canal to accommodate two-way traffic along part of the route and made it possible for much larger vessels to pass through.

Map Showing Difference In Routes

The channel is the busiest in the world largely because of its advantage of directly linking the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans. Therefore ships rather than circumvent the African continent, simply use the Suez Canal shortcut which reduces the distance by approximately 8,900 Km[5].

This is the major reason the international community strives to ensure the channel stays open. Coupled with the fact that the majority of the world’s goods are transported via sea and the Suez canal aids commerce by drastically reducing the transportation time and costs of international goods.



  1. Gmirkin, 2006
  2. Meteorology 1. 15
  3. William Matthew Flinders Petrie
  4. William Matthew Flinders Petrie
  5. World Shippers Council. The Suez Canal – A vital shortcut for global commerce

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Myths about Africa: the Suez Canal was first built by France myth

by Editorial Team time to read: 8 min