Hearts, Death, Steam and a Lot of Sand: How to Dig the Suez Canal 150 and 5 Years Ago

In recent weeks, the focus has been on one of the world‘s most important shipping lanes, the Suez Canal, when it was blocked for about a week by the cargo ship Ever Given. The blockade meant that the channel manager lost about $ 15 million every day, but nearly $ 10 billion in cargo was not moved every day due to the accident. However, this is by no means the first blockade in the history of this canal – in the first decade after the canal was completed, hundreds of ships landed. Initially, it was much more unpleasant and dangerous for sailing – not quite the very wide, deep and well-organized shipping lane that it is today.

Started by hand, continued with steam

Although the gigantic project started more than 150 years ago, some digging equipment was already available at that time. But in the beginning, the work of the lion’s court was done just as in ancient Egypt – with simple tools and tremendous physical effort. Historian Karolina Pique talks to the publication “CNRS News“Explains:” Due to the lack of manpower on site to build the canal in the middle of the desert, the Egyptian vice-king proposed a rumor – in the past, farmers had traditionally been mobilized for a month in Egypt to clean and maintain the Nile Basin. So, in fact, the canal is being dug with the help of free labor in direct sunlight and in extreme conditions. It is estimated that tens of thousands of some 400 thousand fellahs (Egyptian farmers) died between 1859 and 1862. Nasser (supposed to be one of the founders of the Republic of Egypt and its second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who announced the nationalization of the canal before the concession expired in 1956) has reported 120,000 deaths, but there are no exact data in the archives to confirm these figures. “

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It is no longer relevant whether they were the 120 thousand mentioned by Naser or “only” tens of thousands. It is clear that the first years of construction of the Suez Canal required a lot of fellah life. Apart from strenuous physical work in the sun, another common cause of death was cholera, which is caused by a bacterium. Vibrio cholerae. Usually these bacteria get into the body through water or food. The incubation period is from one to five days, but once it has started, the bacterial infection does its job very quickly – without the necessary help, a person’s life can disappear even within a day.

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