Was there an Ancient Suez Canal

Satelite Photo of the Suez Canal – the Bitter Lakes are the bodies of water on the lower third of the photo

Since the end of the Neolithic Period in the Near East more than 5,000 years ago, different societies have desired to connect the various kingdoms and empires of East Asia with those in Europe and the Near East. One of the first notable attempts to bridge the two worlds was the creation of the Silk Roads, which operated from late antiquity through the Middle Ages. The Silk Roads effectively moved goods, ideas, and people between the East and the West, but the trek through central Asia was extremely long, difficult, and often dangerous. By the fifteenth century, Europeans discovered new technologies that made long distance sea travel more practical, which culminated in Portuguese Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa in 1497-98.

In the centuries subsequent to da Gama’s voyage, both traversing the Silk Roads and circumnavigating Africa were seen as obsolete methods by which to move people and goods from east to west. The onset of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century brought forth a new scientific understanding of the world and before too long many Europeans began to see that there was a better, quicker way to travel from Europe to Asia: traveling through the Suez Isthmus in Egypt would save an immense amount of time and money. Under a joint British and French effort, construction of the modern Suez Canal began in the mid-1800s and was completed in 1869. Today, the 120 mile long canal is traversed by nearly 100 ships a day and is an extremely vital connection between the East and the West.

The Suez Canal is so important that in 1956 Egypt fought against the combined forces of Israel, Great Britain, and France for its control and any future war near the canal could disrupt world trade. But the dream to connect the East and the West through a canal did not begin in 1869. Millennia before the Enlightenment, Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks all saw the possibility of connecting Asia to Europe through the construction of a canal. An examination of the ancient sources reveals that the ancient attempts to build a Red Sea canal followed a different path, but by most accounts they were successful.

The First Attempts

Seated Statue of King Senusret III from the Louvre Museum, Paris

A survey of the Egyptian, Persian, and Greek sources shows that several attempts were made to connect the Mediterranean and Red seas. The first century BC Greek geographer, Strabo, summarized a number of the attempts in a passage from his work. The geographer wrote:

“There is another canal which empties into the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf near the city Arsinoê, a city which some call Cleopatris. It flows also through the Bitter Lakes, as they are called, which were indeed bitter in earlier times, but when the above-mentioned canal was cut they underwent a change because of the mixing with the river, and now are well supplied with fish and full also of aquatic birds. The canal was first cut by Sesostris before the Trojan War – though some say by the son of Psammitichus, who only began the work and then died – and later by Dareius the First, who succeeded to the next work done upon it. But he, too, having been persuaded by a false notion, abandoned the work when it was already near completion; for he was persuaded that the Red Sea was higher than Aegypt, and that if the intervening isthmus were cut all the way through, Aegypt would be inundated by the sea. The Ptolemaïc kings, however, cut through it and made the strait a closed passage, so that when they wished they could sail out without hindrance into the outer sea and sail in again. [1]

Water was an important part of Egyptian civilization and from the beginning the Egyptians built canals for irrigation and transportation to settlements and holy sites a bit further from the Nile River. There are numerous extant Egyptian inscriptions that concern canals, which at least partially corroborate Strabo’s passage.

The Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050-1800 BC) was a period in ancient Egyptian history when the country was united once more under a single king. Egypt prospered culturally, economically, and geo-politically during this period under a series of able kings, with the most effective being Senusret III (reigned ca. 1870-1831 BC). Senusret III was known for leading several military campaigns south into Nubia and at least one north into the Levant. [2] Senusret III’s martial prowess impressed not only his countrymen, but also the later Greek and Roman writers. The Greeks referred to Senusret III as “Sesostris,” which modern scholars believe was actually a composite of all kings named Senusret, along with other New Kingdom warrior pharaohs, especially Ramesses II. [3] But Senusret III gained immortality not just through his martial prowess, the king was also an ambitious monument builder who embarked on several public works programs.

Although there is no extant Egyptian text that can corroborate Strabo’s passage claiming that he, or one of the other two pharaohs named Senusret, built the first Suez Canal, there is certainly circumstantial evidence in support of the thesis. There are a number of texts from the reign of Senusret III that mention canals the king either had built or refurbished, with the most significant being a canal that bypassed the first cataract of the Nile River just south of the modern city of Aswan. [4]

After the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt entered into another “intermediate” period, which it emerged from around 1550 BC and then embarked on its greatest era, known today as the “New Kingdom” (ca. 1550-1075 BC). During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians were able to reclaim much of the knowledge they lost during the Second Intermediate Period and added to that with new innovations they acquired from outside of Egypt. One of the technologies that they improved upon during the New Kingdom was canal building. The network of canals built by Senusret III and other earlier kings was expanded and more heavily regulated during the New Kingdom. In inscriptions from the reign of Nineteenth Dynasty King Merenptah (reigned ca. 1213-1203 BC) relating to the Sea Peoples invasions of Egypt, the king mentions a canal named “Eit.” [5] The Eit Canal terminated, or began, near the Delta city of Heliopolis and apparently went on an east-west trajectory to the Bitter Lakes, which then connected it to the Red Sea. Use of the Eit Canal was mentioned again in an Egyptian text from the reign of the Twentieth Dynasty King Ramesses III (ruled 1186-1155 BC) along with a “canal-administration.” [6]

Canal Projects During the Late Period (664 BC – the Christian Era)

Relief of Persian King Darius I from Persepolis

After the New Kingdom collapsed, Egypt was once more thrust into another intermediate period. When it finally emerged from the political disunity in the middle of the seventy century, the once great Egypt would see itself under the yoke of a succession of various foreign rulers – the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and finally the Romans all ruled over the Nile Valley. Despite losing her independence, pharaonic culture continued well into the Christian era and in fact many of the foreign rulers initiated ambitious building programs in Egypt. The construction of a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red seas was apparently important to many of these rulers despite their disparate backgrounds. According to Herodotus, Strabo, and the first century BC Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, Twenty Sixth Dynasty King Nekau II (reigned 610-595 BC), the son of Psamtek I (ruled 664-610 BC) (“Psammitichus” in Greek) , was the first monarch of the Late Period to revamp the idea of a canal linking the East to the West. According to Diodorus, Nekau II’s canal followed a more diagonal path, beginning near Bubastis on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River in the north and then zigzagging south until it emptied into the Red Sea.

“The water is supplied from the Nile, and the canal leaves the river at a point a little south of Bubastis and runs past the Arabian town of Patumus, and then on to the Arabian gulf. The first part of its course is along the Arabian side of the Egyptian plain, a little to the northward of the chain of hills by Memphis, where the stone-quarries are; it skirts the base of these hills from west to east, and then enters a narrow gorge, after which it trends in a southerly direction until it enters the Arabian gulf. The shortest distance from the Mediterranean, or Northern Sea, to the Southern Sea - or Indian Ocean- namely, from Mt Casius between Egypt and Syria to the Arabian Gulf, is just a thousand stades. This is the most direct route - by the canal, which does not keep at all a straight course, the journey is much longer.” [7]

All of the classical sources state that after Nekau II worked on the ancient Suez Canal, the Persian King Darius I (ruled 522-486 BC) re-dug the canal sometime after he came to power in Persia. The Persian king was actually active in Egypt with building programs as he added to some existing temples such as the one near the modern town of Hibis in the el-Kharga oasis. Darius I’s work on the canal is quite different than that done by his predecessors, though, because he left behind a written record that corroborates the classical accounts. Three badly damaged stelae – which is simply a stone monument with an inscription commemorating a battlefield victory or the completion of a public works project – were discovered in the region between the Bitter Lakes and Pelusiac branch of the Nile in 1889 by Wladimir Golénscheff. The best preserved of the stelae was found near the modern village of Tell el-Maskoutah where it was first examined and then brought to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo where it was studied more in-depth. The stelae had inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian cuneiform and have in subsequent years become known as the “Red Sea Stelae” or “Suez Stelae.” [8] The badly damaged stela found near the village of Shaluf relates just enough to let the reader know partially why the Persian king had the canal built.

“I am a Persian; from Persia I seized Egypt; I ordered this canal to be dug, from the river by name Nile, which flows in Egypt, to the sea which goes from Persia. Afterwards this canal was dug thus as I commanded, and ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia thus as was my desire.” [9]

Unfortunately, due to damage caused by the sands of time, the stelae cannot by definitively dated. Modern scholars, though, have narrowed the date down due to the artistic details on the stelae, particularly the depiction of the subject peoples, and the spelling of Darius’ name. George Cameron believed that since the same subject peoples were depicted on the Suez Stelae as an inscribed block from Persepolis dated to 513 BC, then the canal must have been built sometime around that year. [10] The discovery of the only colossal statue of an Achaemenid Persian king – Darius I – in 1972 led another scholar, Walther Hinz, to date the canal’s completion a bit later to 498 BC. Hinz believed that due to a similar spelling of the king’s name on the Suez Stelae and the colossal statue, the statue was commemorated at a grand opening ceremony for the canal in that year. [11] Darius I had once more realized the dream of connecting the East and the West via a Suez Canal, but sometime after his reign the canal fell into disuse and had to dug again.

After the relatively stable rule of Darius I, Egypt once more entered into a period of chaos where native Egyptians expelled their Persian overlords, who then returned once more rule Egypt for a very brief time. Persian rule was replaced by the Greeks when Alexander the Great expelled the Persians in 332 BC. The Greeks who ruled Egypt from that time until 30 BC are known as the Ptolemy Dynasty and according to Diodorus it was Ptolemy II (ruled 284-246 BC) who “completed it and in the most suitable spot constructed an ingenious kind of lock.” [12] Although it has been shown already through corroborating primary sources that Darius I completed the canal during his reign, Ptolemy II’s “completion” of the canal was probably a combination of re-digging portions that fell into disuse in the more than 200 year interim and the addition of a lock. Ptolemy II, like his illustrious predecessor Senusret III, was a very active builder in Egypt. He is the king who commissioned the building of the legendary Library of Alexandria and one off the wonders of the ancient world – the Lighthouse of Alexandria. [13] Construction of a new Suez Canal then would certainly fit the ambitious nature of Ptolemy II. Merchants from the East would have traveled along the ancient Suez Canal until they arrived at the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which would then take them to the Mediterranean coastline. They would then follow the coastline until they spotted the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which would have then brought them to the Alexandria harbor where they could unload their goods. Ptolemy II’s illustrious reign was both the high water mark and terminal point for ancient attempts to build a Suez Canal; no more serious attempts to bridge East and West via the Isthmus of Suez were made again until the modern era.


Bust of Ptolemy II in the Louvre Museum, Paris

The desire to create a bridge – both tangibly and metaphorically – between the East and the West has existed since the dawn of human civilization. People have always wanted to trade goods and ideas with others on the furthest ends of the earth, but the prospect always presented logistical problems. The problem was rectified at various points in human history by creating overland routes known as the Silk Roads, then developing sea routes around Africa, until finally building the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century. Long before the modern Suez Canal was built, though, several successful attempts were made to connect the West with the East via a canal. The first Suez Canal was probably built by Senusret III, with his New Kingdom successors following suit, but it was during the Late Period when activity became more pronounced. In an approximately 350 year period, three different kings – Nekau I, Darius I, and Ptolemy II – from three different cultures and dynasties, dug, re-dug, and improved on the existing Suez Canal. The ancient attempts to build the first Suez Canals prove that the ability to connect the East with the West is as old as the dream itself.


  1. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII, 1, 25
  2. Callender, Gae. “The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c. 2055-1650 BC). In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 166
  3. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 260
  4. Breasted, James Henry, trans. and ed. Ancient Records of Egypt. Volume 1. (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press), p. 291
  5. Breasted, Volume 3. p. 242
  6. Breasted, Volume 4. P. 147
  7. Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Book I, 33
  8. Posener, Georges. La première domination Perse en Égypte: Recueil d’inscriptions hieroglyps. (Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1936), p. 50
  9. Kent, Roland. “Old Persian Texts.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1 (1942) p. 419
  10. Cameron, George C. “Darius, Egypt, and the ‘Lands Beyond the Sea.’” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (1943) p. 313
  11. Hinz, Walther. “Darius und der Suezkanal.” Archäologischen Mitteilungen aus Iran 8 (1975) pgs. 115-17
  12. Diodorus, Book I, 33
  13. Chauveau, Michael. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies. Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 172

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