There is no historical evidence for the existence of the ancient Sesostris Canal that was once said to link the Nile to the Red Sea, writes Al-Sayed Mahfouz
During media discussions of the new Suez Canal project that is to be built in parallel to the existing canal in the east of the country, many references were made to an ancient canal that the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris is said to have dug to link the Nile with the Red Sea. Many take the existence of this canal as a historical fact, when its existence has never been proved, however.
According to legend, Sesostris III, the fifth pharoah of the twelfth dynasty, connected the now extinct Pelusiac Branch of the Nile with the Red Sea by a canal. This story is mentioned in many books on the period, and a section of the new Suez Museum has even been set aside to this alleged canal. But the story is false.
The tendency to offer legend as fact in some Egyptian museums is deplorable and even laughable. Another example of this tendency is the so-called mummy of Hatshepsut, currently in display in the Egyptian Museum, which has not been irrefutably linked to the ancient queen. Those who wish to learn more about the Sesostris Canal can refer to an excellent Arabic-language essay written by the late professor Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Halim, “The Nile-Red Sea Canal called the Sesostris Canal,” in which he examines, and refutes, the story.
The legend started with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who attributed the digging of the canal to the pharaoh Nkhaw in 610 BCE, saying that it was left incomplete. But archaeological work conducted near Suez and the Bitter Lakes have produced no traces of habitation connected with the Middle Kingdom, during which Sesostris reportedly dug the said canal.
Moreover, there is no mention of such an event in the records of the Egyptian priest-historian Manetho, which have been preserved in part by Greek authors. One has to take Greek accounts of Egyptian history with a healthy dose of scepticism. Herodotus once said that the ancient Egyptians were unclean because they had toilets inside their houses, for example. This is an obviously unfair remark, since the existence of in-house toilets can be a sign of technical sophistication, not a lack of hygiene.
Herodotus also noted that Egyptian men tended to carry heavy objects on their heads, whereas women used their shoulders for the same purpose. But if anything, it was women who carried heavy objects on their heads, a habit which is still true today.
Only three Egyptian pharaohs went by the name of Senusret, the original form of the Hellenised name Sesostris, and all belonged to the twelfth dynasty (1991-1806 BCE). Nothing in their history suggests that they had an interest in linking the Nile and the Red Sea, and during the period when they were on the throne the ancient Egyptians relied mainly on a port near today’s Qoseir in Wadi Gawasis. Travel between this port and the Nile was made by road, according to the available evidence.
In fact, a stela dated from around that time and found in the same port cites a minister of Senusret I explaining that ships intended for trips to the land of Punt were manufactured in Qeft near today’s Qena and transported by land through Wadi Al-Hammamat before being reassembled in Wadi Gawasis.
If there had been a canal linking the Nile with the Red Sea, it would have made more sense to sail the ships down the Nile and into the canal instead of transporting them by road. Moreover, archaeological evidence recently uncovered near the port indicates that it was in use for the entire duration of the twelfth dynasty, which further undermines the theory that any of the pharaohs of this dynasty created a waterway linking the Nile to the Red Sea.
A papyrus from the time of Ramses III (died 1183 BCE) describes a trading mission to the land of Punt. When the ships returned from this trip, they docked in the port. After that, a land journey started across the eastern desert to Qeft, near today’s Qena, where the goods were loaded into another set of ships to take them north to the capital in the eastern Delta. Again, the course of this trip suggests that no water passage existed between the Nile and the Red Sea during this prosperous period of the New Kingdom.
The legend of the Sesostris Canal was popularised by the Greek historian Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE), who was evidently impressed by local legends of an Egyptian king who had established an empire larger than the contemporary Persian empire.
However, in fact the Middle Kingdom pharaohs had little interests in colonising or controlling lands that weren’t in close proximity to their Nile-based empire. It was only during the New Kingdom that the Egyptian pharaohs, including Ramses II, showed any interest in expanding their empire into distant regions.
Advocates of the canal theory also refer to the engravings in the Karnak Temple at Thebes, which depict the wars of Seti I (died 1279 BCE) in Palestine and Syria. In the Temple’s Hypostyle Hall, there is an engraved image showing this pharaoh crossing a waterway lined with fortresses. Claims have been made that this waterway is the so-called ancient canal, but recent archaeological evidence has suggested that the image is of the now extinct Pelusiac Branch of the Nile which ran into Sinai.
Ancient Egyptian civilisation is so rich in authentic accomplishments that fantastical embellishments cannot possibly enhance it. Such embellishments, whether emanating from credulity or pride, should have no place in the textbooks, museums, or media.
If people are really looking for interesting bits to add to the long list of achievements of the verified and glorious past, it would perhaps be better to focus on site management projects that could bring more pleasure to visitors and increase the income from tourism in the process. One site that has been relatively neglected is that of Tell Al-Habwa, for example, also known as Tjaru, a major fortress situated on the ancient Road of Horus near Kantara and dating to the Middle Kingdom.
In addition, Tell Al-Borg, or the Lion Fortress, dates back to the time of Seti I during the New Kingdom. Tell Al-Hir, also known as Magdal, dates back to Persian times. The site of Farma, or ancient Pelusium, includes a city, castle, and bathhouses. Tell Al-Makhzan has a fourth-century church, confirming Egypt’s role in early Christianity.
These sites are all of crucial importance to Egyptian history and to that of the region, but they have so far been underrepresented on heritage maps. They have recently been placed in the charge of a committee, appointed by the antiquities minister, which plans to rehabilitate them as tourist attractions. Efforts of this sort are worthy of support by the media and the public. As for the Sesostris Canal story, this does not belong to history, but instead is the stuff of legend.