The Search for the Ancient Suez Canal
(Click on the images to enlarge)
|Jacques-Marie le Pére from Louis Reybaud, Histoire de lexpédition française en Égypte (Paris 1830-36) v. 8.
One project that Napoleon failed to mention at the Institute’s inaugural meeting was an
expedition to locate the ancient canal that used to link the Gulf of Suez with the Nile.
Perhaps that is because Napoleon had his own designs on this endeavor. If the canal could be
reconstructed, the civil and military consequences would be enormous, effectively allowing
France to monopolize trade with India.
So in December 1798, he gathered together a cadre
of engineers and set off across the delta, with himself in the lead and with a considerable military
escort. Napoleon knew that the ancient canal had been filled in long ago, but he reasoned that,
even after a millenium, vestiges would be visible to engineers who knew about building canals
and therefore knew what to look for. Napoleon himself was the first to find evidence of the
ancient canal banks.
He left it to his chief civil engineer, Jacques-Marie Le Pére, to make a
topographical survey of the Isthmus of Suez
and come up with recommendations for the route of
a new canal. Le Pére and his fellow engineers were able to follow and eventually trace the canal
from the Red Sea all the way to the Nile
. Le Père concluded that a new canal along the old route
was entirely possible. Unfortunately, he also concluded, erroneously, that the Red Sea was 8.5
meters or 30 ft higher than the Mediterranean, making a working canal without locks impossible.
(Sea level is the same, however, and when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, its route went through
the isthmus at sea
|Topographic map of Suez Bay, with sectional views at bottom, from the Description de l'Égypte État Moderne.
in scientific activities was to lead an
expedition to the
at Giza in
September of 1798.
200 soldiers to protect them from
and several of the
climbed the Great
Pyramid, and also
visited the Great
Sphinx. The whole
Giza complex was
shrouded in sand at
that time, and the
Sphinx itself was
still buried up to its
neck. The sand
would not be
cleared away until
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