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.