“East is East, and West is West,” but, argues David Abulafia in The Great Sea, they were closest together in the early 19th century. The Ottoman sultans and the Egyptian leaders wore European clothes and sought out European ideas and technology. Europeans, especially the French, were obsessed with Ancient Egypt, and the French saw themselves as successors to the pharaohs. The now mocked Orientalists were anxious to learn from the East. This mutual passion took solid form in the Suez Canal.
“Around 1830 Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin became the self-appointed prophet of a new sect dedicated to the creation of a link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This was not simply a question of trade and engineering. Enfantin saw in the physical meeting of East and West the creation of a new world order in which the male principle, embodied in the rationally minded West, would enter into union with the female principle, embodied in the mysterious life forces of the East: ‘to make the Mediterranean the nuptial bed for a marriage between the East and West and to consummate the marriage by the piercing of a canal through the isthmus of Suez’. Out of this intercourse a world of peace would emerge…
The ceremonies for the opening of the canal in November 1869 neatly expressed the desire of the khedive to be accepted among the rulers of Europe. Among the guests were Empress Eugénie of France in the paddle-steamer L’Aigle, Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, and princes from Prussia and the Netherlands. Religious ceremonies were held to mark the event, according to both Muslim and Christian rites. The empress’s father-confessor proclaimed that ‘today two worlds are made one’; ‘today is a great festival for all of humanity’…
De Lesseps [the builder of the canal] had ‘converted Africa into an island’, as The Times reported.
The British were little involved at the beginning, but later Disraeli saw great possibilities for the Empire and bought the shares of the bankrupt Egyptians, so making Britain the biggest shareholder. At the end of the 19th century the vast majority of shipping passing through the canal was British.
Later, of course, it was Suez that marked the defining moment in the decline of Britain.