It was a very pleasant surprise for us. Maybe not so much for the subscribers of the bonds, but for us, yes.
Under its new leader, al-Sisi, Egypt has gilded the lily, improved the Suez Canal. Certainly there have been other, and necessary, improvements of the Canal since the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps cut his ditch in the desert in the middle of the 19th century, revolutionizing travel between Europe and the Indian Ocean. But for us it is a matter of time.
Previously, in an earlier voyage through the Canal, we had run into the ‘Suez roadblock’. We had swung on the hook for an entire day, along with a huge northbound convoy, waiting for our turn to enter the congested waterway. Since, coming from the Gulf of Aqaba, a convoy position will not be assigned until the ship is remarkably near Suez City, we had been stuck at the back of a very long queue. Today, not so much: expedited service for the Seabourn Encore, we will lead the northbound convoy.
A canal joining Egypt with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean was a dream of 4,000 years. Early pharaohs toyed with the idea. Pharaoh Necho did much more than toy – he threw 100,000 lives into the desert in an attempt to dig a canal between the Nile River and the Bitter Lakes area. He failed. It was the Persian, Darius the Great, who actually completed the canal after his conquest of Egypt more than 2,500 years ago. And he did it to link Egypt to the “…sea which begins in Persia”. How do we know that? During the de Lesseps’ construction project a fresh water canal had to be dug from the Nile to the construction zone in the isthmus of Suez. The moderns dug along the Wadi Tumilat and continually discovered large stone stelas left behind by Darius. On the stelas were carved a description of the project in Persian. Darius’ bragging rights.
We enter the Canal at Suez shortly after sunrise, the Encore leading the convoy. Behind us, trailing out as far as we can see, are huge container ships and automobile carriers, each of which appears large enough to hoist the Encore on board and sail away. We are spaced out nicely and proceeding at a leisurely eight knots. The first of three Suez pilots has boarded while we were still waiting for our green light. Of course we must have approval to proceed, but the Canal administration is also waiting to confirm the arrival by bank wire of our toll fees. Canal fees are one of the prime sources of revenue for Egypt. Which brings up the bonds.
Al-Sisi had offered canal construction bonds to the people of Egypt for this new project, paying 12%. The bonds were quickly snapped up. He raised over $9 billion. Some analysts have questioned whether the return will be there for Egypt, or if this was just a massive construction project to capture the attention of the people. Either way al-Sisi pushed three years of construction into one year and the results are there for all to see.
The new construction area is north of the Bitter Lakes so the canal from the Bitter Lakes to Suez is still one way. We drift along on a quiet morning of bright sun and light breezes. None of the passengers are too excited by what they see of the southern part of the Canal. Perhaps it’s the early hour. Perhaps it is the redundant and monotonous view of pale yellow sand dunes on both sides of the Canal.
The bright mid-morning sun accompanies us into the Bitter Lakes. Despite the increase in traffic lanes further north the Bitter Lakes is still the anchorage of choice for the southbound convoy as they patiently swing on the hook awaiting our convoy to clear the channel. Large mooring points are located along the channel in cement islands but the ships seem to prefer their own anchors. Along the narrow Canal large bollards can be seen set in cement along the bank, ready to secure any ship with engine or steering problems while they await the rescue tugs. Rarely does there seem to be a problem.
We cruise through the Bitter Lakes at our comfortable eight knots and without pause. Hmmm. Interesting. Previously we would have waited here for the second southbound convoy, now no need to stop. Ahead we see what appear to be sand islands in the middle of the Canal. We are approaching the area of the new construction and about to enter the new eastern channel.
While the new, eastern channel, is open and in use construction along the Canal continues apace. Diggers, trucks, cranes all grunt and puff as we pass. New ferry crossings have been constructed to transport autos and cars across the Canal. Strangely enough the huge and expensive ‘Friendship Bridge’, a long suspension bridge across the Canal built a dozen years ago with Japanese help, remains closed. The government feared, four years ago, that terrorists could drive onto the bridge at mid-span and explode a bomb, dropping the bridge on passing ship traffic. With the number of military personnel visible around the Canal it seems odd that a resolution to the problem has yet to be reached. The lack of access to the eastern side of the Canal is hamstringing the new container port on the east side. Further south, near Suez City, the government is tunneling under the canal. Perhaps a new security plan will be forthcoming.
The spoil for the new channel has been dumped in huge berms on both sides of the eastern channel giving our voyage a tunnel effect. We are able to peek out, through breaks in the spoil islands between the channels, at the south bound traffic. Our peaceful drift up the Canal is occasionally interrupted by the horns and whistles of the construction crews along the banks, who wave enthusiastically to us to remind us how welcome we are.
Fishermen drift by, still casting their nets as they have for hundreds of centuries, yet another reminder than the Canal is a salt water canal connecting two seas. The tide may rise as high as six feet at Suez City, but at the Mediterranean exit at Port Said the tideless Mediterranean barely laps up one foot at high tide. There is little in the way of current within the canal, another sign that Napoleon was wrong.
When the French Directorate ordered Napoleon to Egypt he was to seize Egypt (and its endless supply of grain), harass the British and ‘…cut a canal at the Isthmus of Suez’. Napoleon, ever cagy, realized such a task was impossible with the Royal Navy controlling the seas. He realized the Directorate was giving him a lifelong task in Egypt and he had ambitions in France. So his engineer reported that the Red Sea end of the project was 40’ higher than the Mediterranean and that such a canal would result in “…disaster” for the Mediterranean. Naturally he dropped the project and marched on Palestine and glory.
Of glory there is much honored here along the Canal. Near Ismailia, although difficult to see from the eastern channel, rises the monument to “The Defense of the Suez Canal, 1914-1918”. The WWI remnant, two sandstone towers soaring out of the desert, commemorates the British led resistance to the Ottoman Turk attack on the Canal early in the war. Strangely the monument was erected by the French.
Further along the channel the muzzle of an AK-47 assault rifle, topped with a bayonet, jars the landscape. The monument is about four stories high and adds some edge to our otherwise serene voyage. It also serves as a reminder to the turmoil and conflict within the region for, oh, the last four thousand years or so. This monument commemorates the successful defense of Ismailia by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War against the Israelis. The rest of the war didn’t go so well for the Egyptians.
We pass other monuments and works of art. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the context of all being said by displays. A large stone art work welcomes us to Egypt. Further along is another war memorial – tanks and valiant figures striving in the desert. More modern, and peaceable, displays garnish the center islands between channels. Here is a bronze to a construction worker, there another bronze of a woman bordered by sphinxes. A long parade of flag poles celebrates the flags of the nations whose ships use the Canal. Ever wary, the banks at strategic places are lined with large green panel boxes – bridging equipment for the Egyptian Army.
We glance over the side just in time to see the pilot boat roar away from the Encore. It is headed for a small harbor filled with similar boats – the Canal pilots’ station for the northern end. Looking ahead we can barely make out Port Said to the west and, to the north, the open sea. The Mediterranean. It is only 2:30pm – we have made the passage in just over 8 hours, remarkable.
Some passengers grumble, some laugh: “It wasn’t very exciting”. No, de Lesseps effort here at Suez was completely different than his disaster at Panama. Here he dug a straight ditch in the desert, but one that changed the world. At Panama his hubris would collide with Mother Nature who would administer a stern and heart breaking lesson. But for us, a pleasant day and a rapid passage. We wave as we pass the shrimpers trolling the bottom of the Med and wonder: ‘who could ask for more?’
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