A Middle East Expedition
I have a fixation on canals. There is something about man's attempt to join bodies of water for his own purpose that fascinates me. The Santee Canal, the first in the US, once connected the Cooper and Santee Rivers. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal du Midi, completed in 1681, connects the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea through France. The Erie Canal connects the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. The Ohio Canal connects the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. The Imperial Canal of China is the longest and oldest in the world - 1,114 miles long and over 1,500 years old.
The ancient Egyptians built a canal connecting the Nile and the Red Sea, but the present Suez Canal was conceived by Napoleon, designed by French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and completed in 1869 by a joint French- Egyptian company. The British controlled it from 1886 until 1956 when Abdul Nasser of Egypt nationalized it and closed it to Israeli ships. When Israel, Britain, and France threatened to seize the canal, Nasser closed it completely. The United Nations intervened, and the canal was declared neutral territory.
During the Arab- Israeli Six Day War of 1967, Nasser kicked out the UN and seized the canal. Israel attacked and conquered Sinai. The Egyptian navy blockaded the canal. In 1973, Egyptian forces crossed the canal and invaded Sinai trashing the canal along the way. In 1975, Egypt and Israel signed a treaty that reopened the canal under Egyptian control.
Most of Europe's oil and about eight percent of the world's sea trade passes through the canal in about 19,000 vessels a year. Egypt rakes in about $150,000 in fees from each freighter.
During our Middle East Expedition, we had the thrill of cruising the 119- mile- long Suez Canal, the man- made trench that divides Africa and Asia and connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. We boarded our OAT Boat (MS Artemis) at Port Said on the Mediterranean. Since the canal was dug through a barely- above- sea- level desert, there are no locks.
As we were undergoing our obligatory safety lessons, our 50- passenger ship sailed under the Egyptian- Japanese Friendship Bridge and joined the southbound convoy of ships for our 15- hour passage. Along the way, we passed several historic landmarks: • The Railway Bridge, completed in 2001. With a 1,100- foot span, it is the longest swing span bridge in the world. • The Hamdi Tunnel, completed in 1995, allows vehicles to cross under the canal between Egypt proper and Sinai. • The Overhead Powerlines built in 1999 carry electricity from Egypt proper to Sinai.
The halfway point was Ismailia, a city of 50,000. DeLesseps lived here during construction of the canal.
At Port Suez, we were boarded by Egyptian customs/ immigration officers who sat down with the captain and examined our ship's papers. No one smiled and, as far as I was able to see, no money passed hands. But cartons of cigarettes were slipped to the officers as they disembarked.
The Red Sea opened up in front of us like a waiting ocean. It wasn't red but crystal clear and warmer than the Mediterranean. A scientist onboard noted that warm, saltier, nutrient- poor water from the Red Sea flows through the canal into the Mediterranean carrying plant and animal species that are destroying native European species creating a real environmental problem… not unlike the equivalent human migration that is creating a political problem in Europe.
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