The Suez Canal forms a 101 mile (163 km) water link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This allows water transport from Europe to Asia without circumnavigating Africa. Previous to the construction of the canal, some transport was conducted by offloading ships and carrying the goods overland to the Red Sea. The canal was built from 1859-1869 by a French company led by Ferdinand deLesseps and the canal was owned by the Egyptian government and France. It is estimated that 1.5 million Egyptians worked on the canal and 125,000 died, many due to cholera. External debts forced Egypt to sell its share in the canal to Great Britain and British troops moved in to protect it in 1882. Egypt seized the canal in 1956 which caused Britain, France and Israel to invade in the week-long Suez War. The United Nations declared the canal Egyptian property. After the Six Day War in 1967 the canal remained closed until 1975. A UN peacekeeping force has been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since 1974.
The canal has no locks because there is no sea level difference. The canal allows ships 50 feet (15 m) deep to pass although improvements are planned to increase this to 72 feet (22 m) by 2010 to allow supertanker passage. Presently supertankers can offload part of their load onto a canal-owned boat and reload at the other end of the canal. There is one shipping lane with several passing areas.
Some 15000 ships pass the canal each year bearing about 14% of world shipping. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours.