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The History Of The Suez Canal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Suez Canal is unclogged. Tugboats and dredgers freed the massive container ship called the Ever Given today, which means this shortcut connecting Europe and Asia is back in business. We're going to talk now about how this 120-mile man-made ditch became such an essential part of global trade. Zachary Karabell wrote the book "Parting The Desert: The Creation Of The Suez Canal," and he joins us from Wyoming.

Welcome.

ZACHARY KARABELL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The canal opened in 1869. How long had people been talking about doing something like this?

KARABELL: People had been talking about it for thousands of years. And there is some evidence of a canal in ancient Egypt, although it didn't go that full 120 miles between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But the idea of, like, building a canal there, especially when the British began to expand into India and Asia and the French into Africa and Asia - that's when the idea of - wow, wouldn't it be a great idea if we didn't have to sail 7 or 8,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope in order to get into the Indian Ocean when we could just go to the eastern Mediterranean and south? That would be great.

SHAPIRO: If people had been talking about it for thousands of years, why didn't it happen sooner? What was the big hurdle?

KARABELL: Well, part of it's political. Part of it's technological. Part of it's economic. All those things together combined with the fact that, really, the golden age of human beings and particularly in the West, thinking, OK, we can manipulate the physical world to the advantage of mankind - that's a mid-19th century European idea. And that's where the idea of the canal turns into the reality of the canal.

SHAPIRO: Once it opened, was the impact on global trade immediate? Was it like flipping a switch?

KARABELL: It was pretty rapid. And even though this was the dawn of the steamship age so that the route around the Cape of Good Hope wasn't four months longer, which it would have been when it was sailed, but it was still many, many weeks longer. And so the minute the canal opens, traffic appears.

SHAPIRO: What were the consequences of this for people in the region as these great Western powers were kind of, you know, deciding the fate of the world?

KARABELL: The Egyptian ruler at the time was all in on building the canal and firmly believed that the opening of the Suez Canal would restore the Egyptian state to a place of glory and leadership amongst the nations of the world. And instead, within a decade, it reduces the Egyptian state to vassalage to European powers for decades.

SHAPIRO: Seeing how little it took for the Ever Given to run aground, I was kind of surprised that we don't hear about these kinds of accidents or bottlenecks more often. Have there been other major crises in the canal's history?

KARABELL: There have been a lot of crises in the Suez Canal history. The canal is, like, the epicenter of great power conflict between the British and the French, each of the world wars. You know, the British fight with the Germans to try to prevent some foreign power hostile to the British Empire getting control of it. And then during the repeated Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973, it's, like, the place to be, or maybe not.

SHAPIRO: Right - not to be.

KARABELL: And what's happened in the past 20 years is the rise of China has led to this explosion of shipping. And with each passing year, the ships get bigger and bigger and bigger. And it's easier to build bigger ships, but it's a lot harder to widen canals. So what you basically have is a mismatch between the volume of trade, the size of the ships and the capacity of the canal.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're saying this might not be the last time we see a ship like that running aground in the Suez Canal.

KARABELL: Right, although I imagine for the next few years, shippers and shipping companies will be mindful of the risks of building a ship too big, given that the cost of this is immense. I mean, I'm sure there's insurance up the wazoo for these kinds of things. But then the insurance companies themselves will go, hey; we're not going to insure your 4,800-foot long ship if your 13-foot-hundred-long ship just threw a massive monkey wrench into global trade.

SHAPIRO: Zachary Karabell is author of the book "Parting The Desert: The Creation Of The Suez Canal."

Thanks a lot.

KARABELL: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.