Mapping a Fantasy: The Suez Canal Project in 1855

Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds

Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, Vue panoramique de l’Isthme de Suez et tracé direct du canal des deux mers; d’après l’avant-projet de Mrs. Linaut-Bey et Mougel-Bey
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 40.16.b C (02), Bl. 5 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Part map and part perspective view, the “Vue panoramatique” depicts a geopolitical fantasy in the year 1855: the construction of the Suez Canal was to start only four years later, and it would take another decade until the first ships were seen crossing the desert.

In 1855, the project of the Suez Canal was still the subject of fierce quarrels. One side claimed that the Red Sea lies at a level thirty feet higher than the Mediterranean so that the enormous Indian Ocean would flood the European coasts if a canal cut through the isthmus. Nonsense, countered the other, there are only minor differences, depending on the tides. The „Vue panoramique“ supports the latter view. It accompanied the final report of an international commission that was dispatched to survey and measure the terrain and thus settle the argument once and for all.

The work of this commission has become the subject of a German novel, Wilhelm Raabe’s Abu Telfan, published in 1867 (two years before the canal opened). The book showcased the extent to which the case of the Suez Canal captured the minds of a German audience. In the novel, Raabe’s protagonist successfully applies to take part in the survey. The entrepreneurs, however, are less interested in his mathematical skills, as he had expected, but for his talent as a journalist. They know very well that not only the water, but public opinion would have to be channeled in the right direction. In the novel, this becomes the task of Raabe’s hero. In reality, the „Vue panoramique“ had been assigned with this duty.

According to a note in the upper-left corner of the copy of the „Vue panoramique“ kept in the archive of the Perthes publishing house, it was the project’s chief engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who personally forwarded this copy to the German geographer August Petermann. As editor of the Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt über wichtige neue Erforschungen auf dem Gesammtgebiete der Geographie, Petermann was well-positioned to channel public opinion, and he indeed tried his best:

“Without a doubt the most important question in the field of geography”, he wrote in 1855, “is to cut through the isthmus of Suez to build a ship canal. […] For worldwide traffic, commerce, and communication, the seas and their straits are our bridges. They connect the continents and enable the communicative exchange between far-off peoples”.

„Unzweifelhaft die wichtigste geographische Frage, die in dem eben scheidenden Jahre (1855) näher zur Erörtung gekommen ist, als zuvor, und die lebhafte Aufmerksamkeit und Theilnahme Vieler beansprucht hat, ist die Durchstechung des Isthmus von Suez behufs Anlage eines Schiffskanals. […] Denn für den grossen Welt-Verkehr sind die Meere und Meerengen unsere Brücken, sie bringen die Kontinente näher zusammen und stellen die rasche Inter-Kommunikation fernwohnender Völker her.“

(Petermann 1855, 364)

The hybrid of map and picture, however, did not please the German geographer:

“The bird’s eye view of the isthmus that accompanies the account would rather suit a children’s sheet of pictures as we find them at fairs – like all similar panoramic ‘maps’ that have recently become fashionable in an overwhelming manner on the other side of the channel or Rhine [in Great Britain or France, W.S.]. Found in a serious report, such a view makes a mockery of the state of geographical science in our enlightened century”.

„Die dem Bericht beigegebene Vogel-Ansicht des Isthmus, ‚Vue Panoramique‘, würde sich besser in den Bilderbogen des Jahrmarktes für die ‚lieben Kleinen‘ passen, als in einen solchen Bericht, – wie überhaupt alle ähnlichen Panorama-Karten, die neuerdings jenseits des Kanals und des Rheins in überschwemmender Weise Mode geworden sind.“

(Petermann 1855, 366)


Raabe, Wilhelm, Abu Telfan oder Die Heimkehr vom Mondgebirge. In: Hoppe, Karl/ Röpke, Werner (eds.), Wilhelm Raabe: Werke, 2nd ed., Vol. 7, Göttingen 1969, p. 25.

Petermann, August, Die projektierte Kanalisierung des Isthmus von Sues, nebst Andeutungen über die Höhen-Verhältnisse der angrenzenden Regionen, besonders Palästina. In: Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt über wichtige neue Erforschungen auf dem Gesammtgebiete der Geographie, Vol. 1 (1855), pp. 364–375.

Lesseps, Ferdinand de, Percement de l’Isthme de Suez. Exposé et documents officiels, Paris 1855.


Cite this blog post
Wolfgang Struck (2022, July 4). Mapping a Fantasy: The Suez Canal Project in 1855. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

Wolfgang Struck

Wolfgang Struck is professor of literary studies at the University of Erfurt

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2 Responses

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