The Suez Canal sped the pace of shipping by providing a shortcut between Europe and Asia, eliminating the need to for vessels to sail around the southern tip of Africa.
In 1956, nearly a century after the canal's creation, Egypt's nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser hit western nations where he knew it would hurt, announcing to cheering crowds that Egypt would control the waterway.
That led to the Suez Crisis, a military invasion of Egypt, and an eventual ceasefire, all in the space of a few months.
Michele Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the canal still plays a pivotal role today.
"It's a critical choke point for commercial traffic, for oil, and for military vessels," said Dunne. "So it's very useful to the United States, or indeed to any outside power that wants to be able to operate freely, militarily or commercially in the Middle East. It's very very useful."
Experts estimate that more than 1.7 million barrels of oil pass through the canal, and the pipeline along side it, each day, so any hint of trouble is enough to drive up oil prices.
Fatih Bindol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, has tried to play down those fears in the wake of the recent unrest in North Africa.
"Neither Egypt nor Tunisia is a major oil producer, but of course, everybody thinks of the Suez Canal as a major route for oil transportation," Bindol said. "As far as we know, there is not a major significant threat to the oil supplies in the Suez channel."
Still, the unrest has prompted two shipping companies to suspend their canal operations.
Ships that are passing through the canal are having difficulty refuelling, getting new supplies or getting funds, because banks are closed. The Egyptian government has reportedly deployed soldiers to guard the canal.
Mahmoud Yousseff, an Egyptian businessman, called that an overreaction.
"The youth that you see in the streets of Egypt have no intention whatsoever of destroying the infrastructure or the economy of the country," Yousseff said. "The Suez Canal is run by pilots and it can easily be taken over by the Navy. If you ask me can it happen, I say yes. Is it likely to happen? No"
Yousseff worries about something else, though, something that could drive the price of oil much higher.
"What can happen, and would be much more significant, would be the spillover from Egypt to other countries in the Gulf area," Yousseff said. "Don't tell me that other countries don't have the same problems. They do. And that could send the prices of oil up to $200 a barrel."
Whatever happens to oil, there is something else to consider.
The ongoing problems mean Egyptian businesses cannot export other goods. Even if the ports were operating normally, companies consider it unsafe to use roads or railways, so food and other goods are piling up, along with the damage to Egypt's economy.