The Greek Pioneers Who Constructed the Suez Canal

In the mid 1800s, almost three quarters of the residents of Kasos Island in Greece picked up and moved to Egypt to work on one of the most ambitious construction projects in the world: The Suez Canal, which would connect the Red Sea, The Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

In 1854, French engineer Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps undertook the gigantic engineering task of opening a passageway from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to enable vessels to avoid having to circumnavigate the African continent.

He then made a special public appeal to foreigners who were willing to come to Egypt to work on the enormous construction site.

Lesseps had a shortage of working hands since he considered the native Egyptians to be lethargic and utterly unskilled, while Western Europeans were either not able to withstand the unbearable heat of the region and were quitting — or being fired — at a rapid pace.

This desperate international appeal for workers to labor in the world’s most famous construction project even reached an impoverished island called Kasos on the edge of the Greek archipelago.

The island had been completely destroyed by the Turks in 1824, but some former residents had returned to live there after several years. However, trying to make a living on the island proved to be quite difficult.

By 1843 Kasos Island had as many as 75 sailing ships profitably engaged in the transport of fish and other goods, but the subsequent appearance of large, steel-hulled steamships on the scene plunged the island into poverty.

So the call of the French engineer just a few years later held a definite appeal to the struggling residents of Kasos, and they found themselves emigrating en masse to Suez to engage in the back-breaking labor of digging the Canal.

Those who owned sailboats used them to sail to Suez, but most of the emigrants went with basically nothing at all, taking their families with them.

Those who owned boats were able to not only lease them to the company but transport stones for piers, iron for steel structures or food and water for the workers as well. The rest of the emigrants worked as laborers or foremen.

By the end of the decade it took to complete the Canal, three-quarters of Kasos’ residents had moved to Suez.

The total number of former Kasos residents in the area at that time reached 5,000, including women and children.

Living and working conditions were truly unbearable in the Sinai desert, with pummeling heat during the day and freezing cold at night, and the hardy islanders had also to deal with insects, chronic lack of water, and epidemics; yet the hard-nosed seamen from the arid island of Kasos did not flinch.

That is why de Lesseps himself recognized the Kasos Islanders’ invaluable contributions toward the completion of the great work which inscribed his name in history.

When the gargantuan project was finally finished, de Lesseps invited the islanders to a public gathering and, through their interpreter Markos Malliarakis, a lawyer from Kasos, he promised them that he would fulfill their wishes.

But these humble people, after all their backbreaking labor, instead of asking for money or other kinds of remuneration, merely asked that the new city that was created for building the canal be named “New Kasos.”

However, the French engineer told them he was sorry, but he had already promised to honor Egyptian Governor Said Pasha, who had given him the right to open the canal, in the naming of the town. Pasha, the brother of Ibrahim Pasha, who had destroyed the Peloponnese during the Greek War of Independence then asked for the city to be named “Port Said.”

Work on the project began on September 25, 1859 and the enormous canal opened for operation a mere decade later, on November 17, 1869.

The Suez Canal is still the world’s largest such waterway, with a total length of 168 km (104 miles). It has a maximum width of 160-200 meters (656 feet) and a depth of 11.60 meters (38 feet).

In February of 2016 the canal was modernized to become a two-way waterway. Starting from Port Said on the Mediterranean, and ending at Port Suez on the Red Sea, the canal now boasts a second, auxiliary channel where ships traveling in opposite directions may now finally pass one another.

The people of Kasos and their incredible labors during the building of the canal had become widely known across the world.

So naturally, when the Panama Canal, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, was completed, the builders unanimously agreed that the first captain to cross the canal should be from the island of Kasos. And that captain was Nikitas Mavrakis, who had been born on Kasos in 1859.

However, the company which built the Panama Canal knew the rules of public relations of the time very well. They wanted the name of the captain to sound more American, or at least be more easily pronounced, so they changed Mavrakis’ name to “John Konstantine.”

However, visitors to the Panama Canal Museum today are able to gaze on the portrait and bust of the proud Kasos seaman with his real Greek name below it. His name represents not only himself but all the Greeks who helped make modern canal building possible through their backbreaking labors and sacrifices.

Watch our original documentary on the Greeks of Panama below to learn more about the contributions Greeks made to both of these crucially-important waterways.