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A dramatic narrative of the late-nineteenth-century conflict between Victorian Britain and Sudanese Moslems documents how Egypt's despotic ruler, Khedive Ismail, set the stage for the uprising by draining his nation's resources and setting in motion a series of events that were mistaken by the Islamic people as an attempt to establish an African-Christian empire. 35,000 first printing.
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Dominic Green studied English Literature at St. John's College, Oxford. After a brief career as a jazz guitarist in London, he returned to academia to pursue graduate study in the history of religion at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Port Said, 1869
On the morning of November 17, 1869, Africa became an island. A modern waterway severed the sandy isthmus between Africa and Asia, mingling the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. From that day, maps would show that the two continents lay 250 feet apart, and shipping schedules would announce that Britain had moved more than four thousand miles closer to India. With fanfares, fireworks, and a great expenditure of borrowed money and Egyptian lives, the Suez Canal was open.
At Port Said on the Mediterranean, sixty ships from over a dozen nations sheltered in the largest artificial harbor yet built, waiting for the signal to enter the Canal. To the triumphal piping of military bands, the guests of honor took their seats in the viewing stands: the host, Khedive Ismail of Egypt, and his guest of honor, Empress Eugenie of France; the bishop of Jerusalem and the sharif of Mecca; the emperor of Austria-Hungary and the prince of Prussia; the empress's Catholic confessor and the sheikh of al-Azhar, the Islamic world's premier university; and all flanked by complementary battalions of European consuls and Egyptian ministers.
A sea of smaller fry washed around the feet of the stands. In the scrum on the quayside, the Turkish fez mingled with the spiked Prussian helmet, the frock coat with the jellaba, the veil with the parasol. French financiers elbowed for room with the international crust of the Ottoman Empire -- Greek, Armenian, and Jewish businessmen from Alexandria, Turkish cotton magnates, Coptic army officers -- and the mute extras of Egyptian society, the Arab peasant farmers and African slaves who in the chaos wandered onto center stage.
The French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps waited amid the robes, plumes, and uniforms in his dark business suit. This was the culmination of his fifteen years' struggle against sand, politicians, and bankers. No obstacle of diplomacy or geology had been too great for de Lesseps's calm mania. He had burrowed around or dynamited through every obstacle. Displacing the opposition of the Turkish sultan and the British prime minister like so much wet sand and bedrock, he raised diplomatic support and funding in France, romancing Emperor Napoleon III with a mirage of empire, and the French public with a share flotation that promised a stake in the global economy to the smallest investor. He had supervised every detail, devising elaborate financing deals that tied both France and the Egyptian government to his Suez Canal Company, designing mechanical diggers when the shovels of his Egyptian laborers proved useless against the water table, even planning the guest lists and firework displays for the opening festivities.
Now he waited fretfully. The bottom of the Canal was only seventy-two feet deep and twenty-six feet wide. Protocol dictated that the first ship to enter should be the Eagle, Empress Eugenie's broad and ungainly yacht, sixty feet in the beam and three hundred feet long. In a trial run the previous day, a sprightlier vessel from the Egyptian navy had run aground. To remove it before the guests arrived, de Lesseps had blown it up. An accident now meant economic and diplomatic catastrophe. The eyes of the world were on the Suez Canal.
At the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Canal was intended as a unifier of civilizations, a conduit for the modern obsessions of trade and transit. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the global economy boomed. In Europe and America, new machines and mass production created an unstoppable, uncontrollable economic revolution that turned rural peasants into urban factory hands. A machine pulse raced across the world, girdling the seas with coal-fired, iron-hulled steamers, crossing continents and borders with smelted rivulets of railway tracks, bounding immensities of land and water with the electric cables of the telegraph. It created a global civilization, based on Western technology and speaking English or French. "We are capable of doing anything," Queen Victoria marveled after visiting the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
This was the spirit of the age: industrial potency and runaway optimism. In France, the Saint-Simonians, a utopian group of technological cultists whose adherents included Ferdinand de Lesseps, prophesied that the convergence of technology, trade, and communication must culminate in the triumph of liberal, mercantile civilization. Free Trade, the British ideologue Richard Cobden had predicted, was "God's diplomacy," its mutual dependencies the best guarantee against war. Between the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the opening of the Suez Canal, this vision leaped into reality. Innovation in transport and communications opened new sources of raw materials, and new markets for finished factory goods. In 1840 the major nations of the world had exchanged annually 20 million tons of seaborne merchandise; by 1869 the figure had more than quadrupled to 88 million tons. The volume of coal shipped rose from 1.4 million to 31 million tons; of iron from 1 million to 6 million tons; of grain from 2 million to 11 million tons; with a further 1.4 million tons shipped of a commodity new to international trade, petroleum.
Britain, the most industrialized economy, saw a manifold increase in its exchanges with the rest of the world. Its earnings from exports to the Ottoman and Persian empires rose from £3.5 million in 1848 to £15 million in 1869. Integrating India into the global economy through the construction of a domestic railway system that allowed the export of cash crops and the distribution of imported goods, Britain's exports to its most profitable possession grew from £5 million in 1848 to over £20 million.
As communication and travel accelerated, the world shrank. In 1869 the telegraphic system between Britain and India generated nearly half a million telegrams. Earlier that year, American engineers had connected the coasts of America with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Now the path to the East was open. Optimism and share prices ran high, and expectation rippled out from Suez. The European economies had to reach abroad to the south and east in order to grow. The Canal would allow the raw materials of the East to flow more quickly and cheaply to the factories of Europe, whose finished goods would wash back east in a great tide of civilization and profit. Just as the flooding of the Nile had fed ancient Egypt, so the transit tolls of the Canal would be the commercial artery of modern Egypt. Progress, the presiding deity of the age, would follow in the wake of the ships taking the Suez shortcut.
On the quayside at Port Said the military bands segued into a three-part harmony of religious platitudes. First a Muslim imam claimed the Canal for a new, modern Egypt. Then the bishop of Jerusalem bestowed the blessings of Greek Orthodoxy on the Canal's commercial aspirations. Lastly Father Marie-Bernard Bauer, Catholic confessor to the Empress Eugenie, closed the service with the hope that Christianity and Islam, two faiths with common roots and a history of violent competition, might be reconciled in the Canal's union of "splendid Orient and marvellous Occident."
"Today, two worlds are made one," he announced. "Today is a great festival for all of humanity. Bless this new highway. Make of this Canal not only a passage to universal prosperity, but make it a royal road of peace and justice; of the light, and the eternal truth."
The international flotilla anchored beyond the breakwater issued a thunderous broadside and lined up behind Empress Eugenie's Eagle and Khedive Ismail's Mahroussah. Edging into the Canal without accident, they began their lurid progress. Narrow and shallow but perfectly executed, the Canal ran south from the new city of Port Said, down through the desert to the Bitter Lakes and another new city, Ismailia, and into the Red Sea at the port of Suez.
Halfway down the Canal, the fleet paused at Ismailia for a wild carnival. Fire-eaters and acrobats vied with the "Whirling Dervish" dances of Sufi ecstatics and the horseback shooting competitions of the thousands of curious Bedouin who had camped outside the city. That night the flicker of Chinese lanterns lit the sandy road to the khedive's new palace. The invited and uninvited elbowed for room at the buffet, admired a midnight firework display, and watched the khedive and empress waltz to Leaving for Syria, a romantic legacy of the Napoleonic age.
The fleet left for Suez the next day, where its triumphal arrival fired off another round of theatricals and pyrotechnics. It took days for the stragglers to return north. Those who could not squeeze onto the express train to Cairo were left stranded by the Red Sea, and missed a final ball at Cairo and horse races at the Pyramids. Khedive Ismail paid for everything. The hawkers handing out Turkish coffee to rally the flagging revellers, the cafè proprietors offering honeyed tobacco and nargila pipes when they had to sit down, and the hoteliers in whose rooms they collapsed, all sent their invoices to Ismail's Coptic accountants at Cairo.
The Canal opened for business. De Lesseps married a woman a third his age and started work on his idea for a canal at Panama. The guests returned to the courts and counting houses of Europe, aware that as geography had changed, politics must follow. The Canal was a new artery for the global economy, but would it bring peace and prosperity? Would the religious harmony and internationalist optimism of its opening ceremonies fade with the fanfares? And what would happen when the new age of nation-states and technological innovation met the old order of faith and autocracy?
From his palace on the Bosphorus, Sultan Abdul Aziz ruled over a million square miles of Africa, Europe, and Asia: from Cairo in the west to Baghdad in the east, from the Balkan foothills in the north to the rocky coasts of the Arabian peninsula in the south. Thirty-third in a lineage of Ottoman...
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