Among the most controversial civil engineering projects of the 19th century was the Suez Canal. Built in the teeth of British opposition, the project was the brainchild of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, perhaps the first international superstar of civil engineering.
The former French diplomat was renowned in Egypt for his charm and his horsemanship. He was not a civil engineer by training, but de Lesseps harboured a dream of a ship canal through the narrow isthmus linking Africa to the Middle East.
French interest in a Suez canal dates back to the time Napoleon inspected the remains of a link between the Nile north of Cairo and the Red Sea.
Napoleon subsequently ordered a survey of the Suez isthmus to determine the practicality of a direct route from sea to sea.
But the British viewed French interest in the canal project with suspicion. Egypt was still nominally part of the moribund Ottoman Empire, and Britain saw French activity there as a threat to its influence in Constantinople.
Moreover, by 1850 no less an authority than railway pioneer Robert Stephenson had declared a direct canal impractical. The British were planning an Alexandria to Suez railway, and were scornful of proposals which might threaten the commercial success of the rail link.
The railway was completed in 1858, although the seeds of the canal project had begun to germinate three years before.
The seminal event was the accession of de Lesseps' friend Mohamed Said as Viceroy. De Lesseps persuaded Said to grant him an Act of Concession, giving him the right to form an international company to build the canal.
Britain was furious. De Lesseps protested that it was not an exclusively French project and that Britain, by far the biggest trader with the East, would benefit most from the Canal. But Britain's politicians were universally hostile and when de Lesseps floated the Suez Canal Company in 1858, no shares were taken up in Britain.
De Lesseps was well aware of the challenges. The obvious direct route, from Suez to the Bay of Pelusium in the Mediterranean, utilised several existing lakes and depressions, with only the Gisr and Shallafu Ridges presenting major barriers. But the route lacked fresh water supplies, and the shallow Bay of Pelusium offered no harbour.
Nile water flowing hundreds of kilometres from Zagazig to the east eventually solved the water supply problem. The sweet water canal was a major engineering feat in itself, much of it built along the route of ancient waterways. Building a new northern harbour, Port Said, was the other key step.
A fleet of French-built steam dredgers pushed the project on at such a rate that initial predictions of failure were soon confounded. In 1869 the French Imperial yacht L'Aigle carried the Empress Eugenie through the canal at the head of a multi-national flotilla, and de Lesseps' star was at its zenith. The canal had been built in 10 years for £17M, and even if this was nearly twice the original estimates it was still an outstanding achievement.