The inauguration of the Suez Canal

The inauguration of the Suez Canal

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Title: The inauguration of the Suez Canal, November 17, 1869.

Author : RIOU Edouard (1838 - 1900)

Date shown: November 17, 1869

Dimensions: Height 204 - Width 300

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: National Museum of the Château de Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet web site

Picture reference: 95DE6041 / C.30.D2

The inauguration of the Suez Canal, November 17, 1869.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: May 2005

Historical context

Linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea by piercing the Suez Isthmus is an idea that dates back to ancient times. AD, shows Seti Ier, a pharaoh of the XIXe dynasty, along an embryo of a canal drawn between the Nile and the Red Sea. AD, a pharaoh of the XXVIe dynasty, Nechao II, wanted to extend it to the Red Sea, but he had to give it up. A century later, the Persian king Darius Ier set out to clear the canal, and his son Xerxes opened a modest channel to the Red Sea that the Egyptian king Ptolemy Ier (285-247 BC. Eminent ancient travelers - Diodorus of Sicily, Strabo, Pliny the Elder ... - have left descriptions of this avant-garde infrastructure.

It's the technicians of the XIXe century that it will be up to resuscitate this old ambition by digging a sea channel on Egyptian soil.

In 1798, French troops landed in Egypt under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took up the idea of ​​breaking through the Isthmus of Suez. The imprecise survey carried out by Gratien Lepère concludes that the business is impossible because of too great a difference in level between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

It was a French engineer originally from Lorient and living in Egypt, Louis Linant de Bellefonds (1799-1883), who would develop, between 1822 and 1833, an elaborate and realistic communication project between the two seas. In 1833, the "Père Enfantin" had also founded a company with the objective of boring the canal.

On November 30, 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained from the Viceroy of Egypt the concession of the canal area for a period of ninety-nine years. The premiere of Verdi's opera Aida is given for the occasion.

Image Analysis

At the request of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the painter Édouard Riou (1833-1900), future collaborator of Jules Verne at the publisher Hetzel and illustrator of the works of Alexandre Dumas, executed The Empress Album: Picturesque Journey Across the Suez Isthmus. This album brought together after-life watercolors retracing and commenting on the inauguration of the Suez Canal, from the religious ceremonies of November 16, 1869, to the crossing of the isthmus from November 17 to 20. Riou also produced this representation of the inaugural event, a monumental painting now exhibited at the Musée national du Château de Compiègne.

At the entrance to the Suez Canal, on a sandy lagoon, there are large platforms decorated with foliage and tricolor flags, on which many people crowd. Around these stands are crowded a crowd of spectators who do not have access to the official stands. In the foreground, a few Egyptians cross a small inlet on foot, on horseback or on the back of a camel. In the background, in the mist, we can see the international fleet lined up.


In 1869, the inauguration of the Suez Canal gave rise to an international event with great spectacle which once again highlighted the prestige of France before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was also a personal triumph for Ferdinand de Lesseps.

From now on, a canal crosses the isthmus right through over a length of 162 kilometers, 54 meters wide and 8 meters deep. It shortens the journey between London and Bombay by 8,000 kilometers - it avoids having to bypass the African continent. The digging of the canal, in a hitherto sterile region, was accompanied by the creation of four towns: Port-Saïd, Port-Fouad, Ismailia and Port-Tawfiq, not to mention a road network and water supply. water for the irrigation of 28,000 hectares.

By creating the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps had wanted to give this ambitious enterprise an international character and to involve Egypt, then under the supervision of the Ottoman Empire. If France had absorbed the majority of the shares - more than 200,000 - the Khedive Ismaïl Pasha had agreed to subscribe a significant number of 176,602 shares. In addition, article 63 of the Company's statutes granted the Egyptian government 15% of the profits generated by trafficking. The deplorable financial policy of the Khedive would deprive Egypt of these advantages. Heavily indebted as a result of mad lavishness, he found himself obliged, in November 1875, to sell his shares to the British government. Five years later, he ceded his profit participation to Crédit foncier de France. Thus, through the fault of the Cairo government, the Suez Company, whose initial vocation was universal, became a Franco-British affair. From 1883 almost all of the seats on its board were held by the English and the French, the latter even holding the majority.

From the end of the XIXe Century the Egyptian government attempted to recoup the lost benefits, encouraged by the extraordinary financial success of the affair, but it was not until 1936 that the Suez Company began to embark on the path of concessions. In 1949 in particular, the government of Cairo was able to collect 7% of the profits and occupy three seats on the board of directors. The proportion of Egyptians among the employees and workers assigned to the canal rose from 30 to 80 percent. When he came to power in 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) asserted that his government would not extend the concession of the canal, which expired in 1968. The Anglo-American decision to suspend all aid for the construction of the dam of 'Aswan served as a pretext for nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956.

  • Suez Canal
  • Egypt
  • Empress Eugenie (Montijo de)
  • saint simonism
  • Second Empire
  • beach
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Lesseps (Ferdinand de)
  • Turkey
  • channel
  • engineer
  • lock


Catherine SALLES, The Second Empire, Paris, Larousse, 1985.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The inauguration of the Suez Canal"

Video: Panama Canal vs. Suez Canal


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