The original canal was a single-lane waterway with passing locations in the Ballah Bypass and the Great Bitter Lake. It contains no locks system, with seawater flowing freely through it. In general, the canal north of the Bitter Lakes flows north in winter and south in summer. South of the lakes, the current changes with the tide at Suez.
In August 2014, construction was launched to expand and widen the Ballah Bypass for 35 km (22 mi) to speed the canal's transit time. The expansion was planned to double the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day. At a cost of $8.4 billion, this project was funded with interest-bearing investment certificates issued exclusively to Egyptian entities and individuals. The "New Suez Canal", as the expansion was dubbed, was opened with great fanfare in a ceremony on 6 August 2015.
On 24 February 2016, the Suez Canal Authority officially opened the new side channel. This side channel, located at the northern side of the east extension of the Suez Canal, serves the East Terminal for berthing and unberthing vessels from the terminal. As the East Container Terminal is located on the Canal itself, before the construction of the new side channel it was not possible to berth or unberth vessels at the terminal while the convoy was running.
One of their kings tried to make a canal to it (for it would have been of no little advantage to them for the whole region to have become navigable; Sesostris is said to have been the first of the ancient kings to try), but he found that the sea was higher than the land. So he first, and Darius afterwards, stopped making the canal, lest the sea should mix with the river water and spoil it.
165. Next comes the Tyro tribe and, the harbour of the Daneoi, from which Sesostris, king of Egypt, intended to carry a ship-canal to where the Nile flows into what is known as the Delta; this is a distance of over 60 miles. Later the Persian king Darius had the same idea, and yet again Ptolemy II, who made a trench 100 feet wide, 30 feet deep and about 35 miles long, as far as the Bitter Lakes.
In the second half of the 19th century, French cartographers discovered the remnants of an ancient north–south canal past the east side of Lake Timsah and ending near the north end of the Great Bitter Lake. This proved to be the celebrated canal made by the Persian king Darius I, as his stele commemorating its construction was found at the site. (This ancient, second canal may have followed a course along the shoreline of the Red Sea when it once extended north to Lake Timsah.) In the 20th century the northward extension of this ancient canal was discovered, extending from Lake Timsah to the
Ballah Lakes. This was dated to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt by extrapolating the dates of ancient sites along its course.
The reliefs of the Punt expedition under Hatshepsut, 1470 BCE, depict seagoing vessels carrying the expeditionary force returning from Punt. This suggests that a navigable link existed between the Red Sea and the Nile. Recent excavations in Wadi Gawasis may indicate that Egypt's maritime trade started from the Red Sea and did not require a canal. Evidence seems to indicate its existence by the 13th century BCE during the time of Ramesses II.
Herodotus was told that 120,000 men perished in this undertaking, but this figure is doubtless exaggerated. According to Pliny the Elder, Necho's extension to the canal was about 57 English miles, equal to the total distance between Bubastis and the Great Bitter Lake, allowing for winding through valleys. The length that Herodotus tells, of over 1000 stadia (i.e., over 114 miles (183 km)), must be understood to include the entire distance between the Nile and the Red Sea at that time.
With Necho's death, work was discontinued. Herodotus tells that the reason the project was abandoned was because of a warning received from an oracle that others would benefit from its successful completion. Necho's war with Nebuchadnezzar II most probably prevented the canal's continuation.
Necho's project was completed by Darius I of Persia, who ruled over Ancient Egypt after it had been conquered by his predecessor Cambyses II. It may be that by Darius's time a natural waterway passage which had existed between the Heroopolite Gulf and the Red Sea in the vicinity of the Egyptian town of Shaluf (alt. Chalouf or Shaloof), located just south of the Great Bitter Lake, had become so blocked with silt that Darius needed to clear it out so as to allow navigation once again. According to Herodotus, Darius's canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and required four days to traverse. Darius commemorated his achievement with a number of granitestelae that he set up on the Nile bank, including one near Kabret, and a further one a few miles north of Suez. The Darius Inscriptions read:
Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.
— Darius Inscription
The canal left the Nile at Bubastis. An inscription on a pillar at Pithom records that in 270 or 269 BCE, it was again reopened, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In Arsinoe, Ptolemy constructed a navigable lock, with sluices, at the Heroopolite Gulf of the Red Sea, which allowed the passage of vessels but prevented salt water from the Red Sea from mingling with the fresh water in the canal.
Receding Red Sea and the dwindling Nile
The Red Sea is believed by some historians to have gradually receded over the centuries, its coastline slowly moving southward away from Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake. Coupled with persistent accumulations of Nile silt, maintenance and repair of Ptolemy's canal became increasingly cumbersome over each passing century.
Two hundred years after the construction of Ptolemy's canal, Cleopatra seems to have had no west–east waterway passage, because the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which fed Ptolemy's west–east canal, had by that time dwindled, being choked with silt.
Old Cairo to the Red Sea
By the 8th century, a navigable canal existed between Old Cairo and the Red Sea, but accounts vary as to who ordered its construction—either Trajan or 'Amr ibn al-'As, or Omar the Great. This canal was reportedly linked to the River Nile at Old Cairo and ended near modern Suez. A geography treatise by Dicuil reports a conversation with an English monk, Fidelis, who had sailed on the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the first half of the 8th century
Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah is claimed to have repaired the Cairo to Red Sea passageway, but only briefly, circa 1000 AD, as it soon "became choked with sand". However, we are told that parts of this canal still continued to fill in during the Nile's annual inundations.
Conception by Venice
The successful 1488 navigation of southern Africa by Bartolomeu Dias opened a direct maritime trading route to India and the spice islands, and forever changed the balance of Mediterranean trade. One of the most prominent losers in the new order, as former middlemen, was the former spice trading center of Venice.
Venetian leaders, driven to desperation, contemplated digging a waterway between the Red Sea and the Nile—anticipating the Suez Canal by almost 400 years—to bring the luxury trade flooding to their doors again. But this remained a dream.
— Colin Thubron, Seafarers: The Venetians (1980), p. 102
Later, Napoleon, who would become French Emperor in 1804, contemplated the construction of a north–south canal to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. But the plan was abandoned because it wrongly concluded that the waterway would require locks to operate. These would be very expensive and take a long time to construct. This decision was based on an erroneous belief that the Red Sea was 10 m (33 ft) higher than the Mediterranean. The error was the result of using fragmentary survey measurements taken in wartime during Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition. In 1819 the Pacha of Egypt undertook some canal work.
However, as late as 1861, the unnavigable ancient route discovered by Napoleon from Bubastis to the Red Sea still channeled water in spots as far east as Kassassin.