The canal allows water transport from Europe to Asia without circumnavigating Africa. Before the construction of the canal, some transport was conducted by offloading ships and carrying the goods overland between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
It was built between April 25, 1859 and 1869 by a French company led by Ferdinand de Lesseps and the canal was owned by the Egyptian government and France. The first ship to pass through the canal did so on February 17, 1867 and it was inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony on November 17, 1869. 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.
The canal has no locks because there is no sea level difference. The canal allows ships with up to 15 meters (50 feet) of draft to pass, and improvements are planned to increase this to 22 m (72 feet) 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 15,000 ships pass through the canal each year, bearing about 14% of world shipping. The passage takes between 11 and 16 hours.