National Geographic : 1952 Jan
I 115 National Geographic Photographer Maynard Owen Williams An Arab Dhow in the Gulf of Suez Calls to Mind the Canal's Age of Sail Steam had not won the seas when the canal opened in 1869. Business was so slow that its owners faced ruin. Now the French-controlled Suez company is fabulously rich; gross earnings in 1950 exceeded $80,000,000. The British Government owns almost half the 800,000 shares, including a block bought from Egypt's bankrupt ruler by Prime Minister Disraeli (page 105). Egyptians normally hold most canal jobs. Unlike De Lesseps' big ditch, which cuts the isthmus in virtually a straight north-south line, earlier canals were linked to the Nile. History indicates that the first of these may date back to the reign of Seti I of the 19th dynasty, about 1300 B. c. Herodotus, the great Greek historian, re cords that about 600 B. c. Necho, son of Psametik I, began digging a canal to the Red Sea. He abandoned the project when an oracle warned that the canal might aid an Asiatic invader. A later project was given up because learned men feared that salt Red Sea water would flood the Nile Valley. Centuries later, incidentally, Napoleon's engineers made a similar mistake-they cal culated that the Red Sea was more than 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean. Actually their level is the same and Suez needs no locks. Darius, Persian conqueror of Egypt, even tually completed Necho's canal, "the width being such as to admit two triremes being rowed along it abreast." It finally fell into long disuse, but in the year 640 Caliph Omar ordered it reopened. A little more than a century later it was closed again to keep goods from going to Arabia. As far back as history can take one, the Isthmus of Suez has known the stresses of contention and rivalries. They existed when ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian armies marched and countermarched along its old caravan paths; when Joseph was sold into bondage in Egypt; when the Israelites began their 40 years of wandering; and when another Joseph fled into Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus.* In both World Wars the Suez Canal was a prize sought in vain by the powers that ulti mately lost. In troubled 1952 the free world watches lest the keys fall into unfriendly hands. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Sinai Sheds New Light on the Bible," by Henry Field, December, 1948, and "Suez: Short Cut to Em pires," by Maynard Owen Williams, November, 1935.