The Canal of the Pharaohs

The Suez Canal is not the first waterway to link the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The present day Suez Canal is only the latest of its kind. As long ago as the 19th Century B.C, Pharaoh Senusret II built a canal that connected the river Nile to the Red Sea! This so called Canal of the Pharaohs survived in one form or another for over 2500 years! In fact, a modern irrigation canal retraces the ancient route to this day.

As the river Nile approaches the Mediterranean, it branches into a massive delta with multiple distributaries. Pliny the Elder writes that at the time of Senusret, the Nile had seven distinct distributaries, the easternmost of which was called the Pelusiac. In 1850 BC, Senusret built a canal that linked the Pelusiac with the Bitter Lakes – a body of salt water in the Isthmus of Suez. At the time, the Bitter Lakes were directly connected to the Red Sea (the land has since risen and they no longer are). Since there were no bulldozers or gigantic dump trucks available, the Canal of the Pharaohs was built by hand, using bronze shovels and armies of slaves. For this was an era of slave power, and none were more skilled in its uses than the Egyptians. The engineers who built the pyramids understood how to direct their slaves to dig what was basically a very long trench. Thousands of slaves certainly died in the canal’s construction, but inflationary pressures on the slave industry were slight and there were several low cost suppliers, such as the Egyptian military and the Hittites.

The problem with building a canal in the middle of a desert is that it takes constant maintenance and repair to keep the desert from smothering the canal. As a result, the canal wasn’t always in the best working order – waxing and waning with the Pharaohs and the size of their tombs. There is some evidence however that The Canal of the Pharaohs remained in service for nearly 600 years, all the way into the reign of the great Pharaoh Ramases II, who ruled in the 13th Century BC!

Darius the Great, the Persian master of half the known world, transformed the canal around 520 B.C. After his armies subjugated Egypt, it was probable he wanted to optimize the movement of his leading imports, like Egyptian wheat, as well as his leading export – Persian soldiers. The most efficient way to do either was to put them on ships and sail then back and forth from Persia. The solution – fix the old Egyptian canal that linked the Nile to the Red Sea. An Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho, had already begun construction in 600 BC, but after expending the lives of 100,000 slaves (or so Herodotus claims), had abandoned the project, although presumably not from a sense of guilt.

Darius did more than fix Necho’s canal. By now, due to geographical changes, the Red Sea and The Bitter Lakes were no longer connected. Darius rectified the situation and linked the two. You could do things like that, even in the ancient world, if you were the supreme lord and master of a good chunk of humanity. Darius’s new canal was nearly 140 km long and so wide that two triremes could ply its length side by side. A ship could cross the canal in just 4 days! Darius almost certainly expended considerable expense on the endeavor, which he could afford to, since he was flush with gold and slaves from the lands cowering at his Imperial feet. Darius was so pleased with the results (and himself) that he even left inscriptions on pink granite boasting of this accomplishment:

Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.

The Canal of the Pharaohs continued it’s off and on existence over the next millennium. It had a major resurgence under the Ptolemys, but by Cleopatra’s reign, found itself once again blocked in places by its old enemy – sand. Then, in the 2nd Century BC, The Roman Emperor Trajan reopened the waterway and modestly named it after himself. “Trajan’s River” remained a fixture on the maritime scene for some time to come. Even Trajan’s successor Hadrian chipped in to maintain the canal’s health, although unlike his predecessor, chose not to rename the canal, being content, one would assume, with Hadrian’s Wall. And so the canal continued operations in some form or the other all the way through to Arab rule of Egypt in the 8th century A.D.

Then, in 770 A.D, the Abassid Caliph Abu Jafar abruptly closed the Canal. His enemies and rebels were using it to ship men and supplies from Egypt to Arabia, which he naturally did not appreciate. It is not known as to how he closed the canal. Maybe he made using the canal punishable by death. Or strung a giant chain across it’s mouth, like the one the Byzantines used to stretch across the Bosphorus.  Its more likely that he simply had the canal filled in at crucial points. Whatever he did, it was permanent. For amazingly, the Canal of the Pharaohs was never reopened after this closure. After three thousand years of survival, it now languished for good, possibly because people had finally gotten tired of digging the same trench over and over again. Or perhaps no one had the money and or the slaves to do the work. The canal slowly disappeared into the desert and by 1489, when Vasco Da Gama ‘discovered’ India, it had mostly disappeared from memory as well.

It would be another 1000 years before a canal would once again link the Red and Mediterranean seas.

{Picture: Nile Delta, from space. Area outlined in red is the probable location of the Canal of the Pharaohs.}

Nile

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