A Wolfsonian Commemoration of the opening of the Suez Canal on this date, 1869


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

On November 17th, 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated in a showy ceremony presided over by the French Empress Eugénie, consort of Napoleon III. The idea of connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas with a canal was the brainchild of a former French consul to Cairo, Ferdinand de Lesseps. In 1854, de Lesseps brokered an agreement with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to construct a 100-mile-long canal across the Isthmus of Suez. Two years later, the Suez Canal Company was formed to undertake the construction project in return for the right to operate the canal for ninety-nine years after its completion. Construction began in 1859 with laborers using picks, shovels, and other hand tools; steam shovels and other technological tools were utilized later on. Although scheduled to open in 1865, it was not until November 17, 1869 that the canal was completed and opened to navigation. Eventually, the Suez Canal became one of the most heavily traveled shipping lanes in the world.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Great Britain quickly recognized the militarily significance of the strategic passage to their seaborne empire, and bought up a controlling stake in the stock of the Suez Canal Company in 1875. The protection of the canal became an important justification for the British invasion of Egypt in 1882 and their subsequent occupation of the country through the mid-1930s.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Michel Potop and Helena M. Gause

During the First World War, Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops were shipped to and stationed in Egypt to defend the canal against the Ottoman Turks. Thanks to the generosity of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, The Wolfsonian–FIU library holds a number of photograph albums documenting the history of the canal during and after the Great War.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The first album contains original black and white photographs that had been taken by soldiers stationed in and around Ismailia after the evacuation of ANZAC forces from Gallipoli. The images show the soldiers on maneuvers, manning the forts, and establishing defensive positions; others taken by soldiers while on leave also depict life in the desert, and their visits to various ancient monuments and sculptures.







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

 The photographic images also show Allied cruisers anchored at Port Said and positioned elsewhere to secure the canal.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Another photograph album donated by Jean S. and Federic A. Sharf also contains views of the Suez Canal in the mid-1930s.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

This album was most likely put together in Egypt at the RAF base Abu-Sueir (Suwayr) by a member of 27th flight training squadron. Between 1934 and 1935, Great Britain’s Royal Air Force established a flight school in the Egyptian desert where they trained airmen on new planes and bombers.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The Wolfsonian library also holds another photograph album donated by the Sharfs with images of the canal. Assembled by an identified British soldier in the British Royal Army, the album primarily focuses on Balochistan (formerly British India, now Pakistan), shortly before, during, and after the massive 1935 Quetta earthquake. Some of the early b&w photographs capture scenes of Port Said and the Suez Canal.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

~ by "The Chief" on November 17, 2016.

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