Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal

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"The Building of the Suez Canal was considered the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, but, as Zachary Karabell shows, it was much more than a marvel of construction. It was a moment when the dreams and hopes of two cultures, several states, and thousands of ordinary people converged to change the face of the earth." "Parting the Desert describes an extraordinary meeting between East and West. The Egyptians hoped the canal would lead to a national renaissance and renewed power in the eastern Mediterranean. The French expected the ...
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Overview

"The Building of the Suez Canal was considered the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, but, as Zachary Karabell shows, it was much more than a marvel of construction. It was a moment when the dreams and hopes of two cultures, several states, and thousands of ordinary people converged to change the face of the earth." "Parting the Desert describes an extraordinary meeting between East and West. The Egyptians hoped the canal would lead to a national renaissance and renewed power in the eastern Mediterranean. The French expected the canal to enhance world trade and advance Western civilization. Napoleon Bonaparte first raised the possibility of building a waterway during his occupation of Egypt in the late eighteenth century. The idea was kept alive by the utopian followers of Saint-Simon and was then taken up by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the energetic, ambitious French diplomat who masterminded the project." "As Karabell points out, Lesseps was often in the right place at the right time, and he had the good luck of forging a friendship with the young Egyptian prince Muhammad Said. In 1854, Said became the ruler of Egypt and granted Lesseps the concession to cut a hundred-mile-long canal across the isthmus of Suez. It would take fifteen years of ceaseless effort before that dream became reality." "A brilliant entrepreneur, Lesseps traveled throughout Europe and the Near East to raise support and money. He convinced thousands of ordinary French citizens to invest in the canal company, and though he never won over the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, he did convince British merchants and businessmen that the canal would benefit them. During years of careful diplomacy, Lesseps neutralized the Ottoman sultan, and with the help of his cousin the Empress Eugenie, he won the backing of the emperor of France, Napoleon III." "By the time the canal was completed, it had become a symbol of progress and a sign that East and West could coexist and cooperat
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Karabell writes with the authority and power of a gifted and fascinated Arabist. He tells the story of de Lesseps's vision and integrity, as well as the daring and brio that enabled him to create, in a scant 10 years, a canal that -- whatever its commercial or political realities -- magnificently enabled great seagoing vessels to pass between the dunes, and to pass with a casualness that utterly belied the hard work involved in allowing them to do so. — Simon Winchester
The Los Angeles Times
Karabell deftly weaves much social and economic history of the 19th century into his lively narrative. When work on the canal began in 1859, for instance, it was with pick and shovel, done by the peasantry called Fellahin who were forced into labor by the ancient corvee system. By the time of the canal's grand opening in 1869, much of the work had been done by giant steam shovels. In Parting the Desert, Karabell tells the story of a crucial development in the history of the modern world with economy and a lively grace. — Anthony Day
Publishers Weekly
In an ably researched and well-told account, Karabell (The Last Campaign) chronicles the origins and legacy of one of the greatest undertakings of the 19th century. While the construction of the Suez Canal across a 100-mile stretch of arid Egypt to link the Mediterranean and Red seas was largely (and rightly) seen as a marvel of engineering and planning, Karabell demonstrates that the political machinations behind the project were just as intricate and daunting. European involvement in the canal stretched back to Napoleon, but the two main players in its execution were the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Said. The book skillfully outlines the intrigue among their supporters and detractors without getting bogged down in meticulous detail, and it does the same for the exacting creation of the canal itself. But Karabell does an especially fine job of balancing the ballyhoo and symbolic grandeur of what the canal was meant to be and the more or less forgotten entity it has become. He quotes de Lesseps as saying to Said, "'The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.'" Ultimately, he was wrong, and the canal became a mixed blessing for Egypt at best. But Karabell's book is more sensitive than damning, and it provides a fascinating look at an early attempt to bridge East and West at a time when such history is particularly relevant. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Karabell (The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election) has written a thorough and entertaining work on the history of possibly the single most important transportation route completed by humans-the Suez Canal. Finished in 1869, the canal shortened the trip from England to India from 135 days (around Africa) to 45 days. It was not wholeheartedly agreed upon, however, when first proposed by its builder, Ferdinand de Lesseps. But when he rode out to a desert meeting with Egypt's leader Muhammad Said and gave logical (and politically strengthening) reasons for creating the canal, it was all finished but for the building. It would take 15 more years of hard work, salesmanship, inventing new technology, and providing housing, water, and food for the thousands of corvee (forced laborers) before the canal would have its grand opening. As Karabell points out, the canal is no longer as strategic now; many larger modern ships are unable to squeeze through the narrow, shallow waterway. The author is quite comfortable discussing any issue, period, or personality in the canal's history, and many of the references in his 150-title bibliography are from primary sources. This is simply an excellent book that should be purchased by most public and academic libraries. (Photographs not seen.)-James Thorsen, Weaverville, NC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The life of French diplomat and engineering mastermind Ferdinand de Lesseps, driving force behind one of the world’s most celebrated canals. Historian Karabell (A Visionary Nation, 2001, etc.) gives Lesseps (1805-94) his due and more in this homage. Karabell characterizes his widely traveled subject as "more a citizen of 19th-century Europe than he was of any one country," though the great canal that he cut through the silt of the Sinai was of course made for the benefit of France and fulfilled one of Napoleon’s grand dreams. Karabell takes the Suez, completed in 1869, as one of the world’s grand constructions and more, a work with psychodramatic implications: "Lesseps himself would never have devoted himself so single-mindedly to implementing the project had he not suffered loss. . . . Disgrace and the death of his wife propelled him. His pain became the source of his inspiration, and his ambition, a way to heal himself." That may well be, but the tens of thousands of Africans press-ganged by corvée into making Lesseps’s dream a reality were surely troubled by other pains. Granted, Karabell does a reasonably good job of describing the role of forced labor in the work of European empire-building in Africa. He shows, too, the effects of the Suez Canal on regional politics once it was built, extending the story into the 20th century, though giving only cursory treatment of events such as the Suez Crisis of 1956. His treatment of Lesseps himself tends toward the florid, while too often the surrounding narrative plods along datum by datum, point by point. The account suffers overall by comparison with David McCullough’s far better work on canal-building, The Path Between the Seas (1977),which considers Lesseps’s later efforts to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. A middling effort, but likely of some interest to students of European imperial history and contemporary geopolitics.
From the Publisher
“Karabell writes with the authority and power of a gifted arabist…an entirely splendid book.” --Simon Winchester, The New York Times Book Review

“Karabell tells the story of a crucial development in the history of the modern world with economy and lively grace.” --Los Angeles Times

“Zachary Karabell reminds us in this concise and pleasantly digressive history [that] the waterway’s creation stirred great passions in the 19th century.”–The Economist

“Read Karabell’s wonderfully written book to remember the dreams people had about the Middle East–and what became of them.”– Newsweek

"A fascinating saga: of diplomacy involving primarily the French and the Egyptians, of raising gigantic sums of money, of overcoming massive geographical and technological obstacles long before the invention of mechanized earth-moving equipment. . . . The business aspects sometimes seem as if they are ripped from last month's headlines." —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“A rich and engaging narrative of one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century [with] resonance beyond its time.” —Alexander Stille, author of The Future of the Past

“An absorbing, well-written narrative. . . . [Karabell gives] dimension to the personalities, eccentricities and strengths of key figures. . . . [A] fascinating account.” —San Antonio Express-News

“Karabell tells his story elegantly . . . distilling a large cast spread across several countries into a manageable one. . . . A gifted crafter of sentences, Karabell seldom wastes a sentence as he offers one well-chosen anecdote after another that sheds light on the greater drama of this important and historic construction project.” —Charleston Gazette

“A fascinating, epic, elegiac story. Zachary Karabell’s account of the political intrigue, quixotic dreamers, and engineering genius that led to the construction of the Suez Canal vividly brings to life one of the underappreciated marvels of the modern world. The book is a triumph of history and art.” —Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

“A tale shot through with . . . unexpected twists. . . . Karabell tells his story concisely and with narrative skill, peppering the account with many wry anecdotes.” —The Jerusalem Post

“Engrossing. . . . As accessible and vividly written as a novel. . . . It maintains a page-turning pace. Superbly researched, it is a volume to keep.” —The Sunday Times

“Zachary Karabell has written an absorbing narrative. . . . [He] traces with skill the complex diplomatic and engineering feat. . . . [and] prompts reflections . . . about the futility of human effort and the evanescence of glory.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Excellent and well-written. . . . A riveting story, and Karabell tells it handsomely. . . . An exceptional book, one of the best of its kind I have read. . . . A splendid account of a great project.” —Sunday Herald

“Well-researched and very well-written . . . The tens of thousands of the Egyptian fellahin peasantry who dug the canal . . . did indeed part the desert, and their story cannot have been better told than by this fine book.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Fascinating. . . . Elegiac. . . . Parting the Desert is an excellent story, skillfully told. Even those who are bored to tears by canals, whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of engineering, will find themselves, as this reader did, racing through it.” —Justin Marozzi, Literary Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375408830
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/20/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Zachary Karabell
Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia; Oxford, where he received a degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies; and Havard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1996. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in various publications, such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

The building of the Suez Canal was considered the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, but, as Zachary Karabell shows, it was much more than a marvel of construction. It was a moment when the dreams and hopes of two cultures, several states, and thousands of ordinary people converged to change the face of the earth.
Parting the Desert describes an extraordinary meeting between East and West. The Egyptians hoped the canal would lead to a national renaissance and renewed power in the eastern Mediterranean. The French expected the canal to enhance world trade and advance Western civilization. Napoleon Bonaparte first raised the possibility of building a waterway during his occupation of Egypt in the late eighteenth century. The idea was kept alive by the utopian followers of Saint-Simon and was then taken up by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the energetic, ambitious French diplomat who masterminded the project.
As Karabell points out, Lesseps was often in the right place at the right time, and he had the good luck of forging a friendship with the young Egyptian prince Muhammad Said. In 1854, Said became the ruler of Egypt and granted Lesseps the concession to cut a hundred-mile-long canal across the isthmus of Suez. It would take fifteen years of ceaseless effort before that dream became reality.
A brilliant entrepreneur, Lesseps traveled throughout Europe and the Near East to raise support and money. He convinced thousands of ordinary French citizens to invest in the canal company, and though he never won over the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, he did convince British merchants and businessmen that the canal would benefit them. During years of careful diplomacy,Lesseps neutralized the Ottoman sultan, and with the help of his cousin the Empress Eugénie, he won the backing of the emperor of France, Napoleon III.
By the time the canal was completed, it had become a symbol of progress and a sign that East and West could coexist and cooperate, and Lesseps was lionized throughout Europe as a hero of the industrial age. But it was not smooth sailing all the way: the company relied heavily on forced labor, diplomatic intrigues continued to the very end, and technical and financial obstacles constantly threatened the project’s completion.
The creation of the Suez Canal captured the imagination of the world. It was heralded as a symbol of progress that would unite nations, but its legacy is mixed. It was supposed to strengthen the Middle East and bridge cultures; instead the gap widened, and the region remains a flash point for conflict. Parting the Desert is both a transporting narrative and a meditation on the origins of the modern Middle East.

Author Biography: Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia, Oxford, where he received a degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, and Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1996. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in various publications, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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  • Posted June 27, 2010

    Very good read

    Mr. Karabell has most effectively reached across the years and recreated the atmosphere of the mid 19th century when engineers (and their sponsors) thought (and in many cases did) improve the world through engineering projects. It is also illustrates how the Canal contributed to the disillusionment with the West felt in today's Middle East. It is primarily a historical book and I had hoped he would address engineering aspects a bit more. One thing I must add, however, he is a master in introducing biographical sketches without departing too far from the subject and becoming tedious. I never once found myself looking ahead in his book with the thought of "When is this going to get more interesting," which rare for me. I did find a couple of errors, but he still gets 5 stars. An outstanding book!

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