Bonaparte and a Suez Canal - 1798-1834
General Bonaparte, who was charged by the Directory with the task of cutting through the Isthmus, and whose ardent genius at once comprehended the importance of such an enterprise, no sooner landed in Egypt than he hastened to Suez, to ascertain from personal inspection the nature of the localities, and to recommence, if possible, the work which had been undertaken by the Pharaohs, aided by all the helps which modern science and industry presented. Lepere, Bonaparte's chief road engineer, surveyed the ground, but owing to a serious miscalculation he threw great doubt on the feasibility of the undertaking. While in reality the level of the two seas is nearly the same, Lepere estimated that of the Red Sea to be nearly 33 ft. higher than that of the Mediterranean.
He started from Cairo, December 24th, 1798, accompanied by Pierthier, Caffarelli, Gantheaume, Monge, Berthollet, Costaz, and other members of the Institute, and some merchants who had obtained permission to join his escort. On the 30th he had the gratification of being the first to discover, north of Suez, vestiges of the ancient canal, which he followed for five leagues. After visiting the Wells of Moses, he returned to Cairo by the Wady Toumilat, and saw near Belbeis, January 3rd, 1799, the other extremity of the canal of the Pharaohs.
The result of this expedition was, that the General directed an able engineer, M. Lepere, to draw up a Report on the communication between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This was a very difficult task, amidst all the accidents and occurrences of a disastrous war; and the Report was not transmitted to the First Consul until December 6th, 1800. It formed the basis of almost all the subsequent operations, which were guided by the valuable information it contained, although its author was occasionally led into error by unavoidable causes.
In this Report the assertion was advanced and sustained, after long study,-an echo of a very ancient tradition, dating as far back as Aristotle,-that the level of the Red Sea is higher than the level of the Mediterranean. According to the engineers, whose operations M. Lepere reported, without being responsible for them, the Red Sea was thirty-two feet above the level of the Mediterranean, although only thirty leagues distant. This very extraordinary result was not admitted by all the scientific men of the period. The illustrious Laplace, according to M. Paulin Talabot, uniformly protested against this opinion, which, militating with his theories of the system of the globe and the equilibrium of its seas, he could not admit, however clearly it might appear to be demonstrated. Fourier, the great mathematician, and the profound author of the 'Theorie de la Chaleur,' shared the opinion of Laplace, and repeatedly expressed it to many of his friends.
It was since proved, by many incontestable facts, that the results at which the sagacity and genius of Laplace and Fourier arrived, were correct, in opposition to those of the engineers of the Commission; and that the two seas, allowing for tidal differences, are perfectly on a level. This was verified by hydrographical experiments, and placed beyond dispute.
M. Lepere simply proposed to re-construct the ancient canal; and he calculated that the cost of the work would not exceed from twenty-five to thirty million francs. The supply of water was to be from the Nile at Bubastis, with a branch from Cairo up the river. From Bubastis its course ran by the Wady Toumilat, in the direction of Lake Timsah, and then turned south toward Suez and the Red Sea. The idea was always that of constructing a purely Egyptian canal, intended to connect Cairo with Suez, and the Nile with the Arabian Gulf. The section was small, and only large barques were to pass through it. General Bonaparte would have executed it of these restricted dimensions, had he remained in Egypt, and would have been contented with a navigation, between Suez and Alexandria, analogous to that on our celebrated Canal du Midi, likewise called the Canal des Deux Mers. There is at least no indication that he entertained any larger project; the Report of M. Lepere, drawn up by his order, scarcely suggests a suspicion of any other design.
In this Report, however, beside the principal intention, another thought, which was the true one, although it led to no result, is visible. This able engineer, whilst examining the localities with other designs, was struck by the natural facilities which existed for the establishment of a direct communication by a canal between Suez and Pelusium. This was indeed the canal which would cut through the Isthmus; the other would have served only to supply the wants of Egypt, without opening any new passage.
M. Lepere appears to have admitted that this direct canal, if it could be formed, would be navigable for such ships of war as corvettes and frigates, which the other could not admit. Two considerations however prevented his carrying into execution this grand scheme; in the first place he regarded the difficulties of the roadstead at Suez almost insurmountable; and, secondly, he inferred from some inconclusive observations by General Andreossy, that it was absolutely impossible to establish a port at Pelusium.
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